Wales politics

Welsh education: WLGA warns shake-up 'undemocratic'

School classroom
Image caption An education review could strip local authorities of their responsibilities for schools

Local democracy and accountability would be "fundamentally damaged" if education services are taken away from councils, it has been warned.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) says it would fiercely resist any moves by the Welsh government to strip councils of their current powers.

It follows the review announced by Education Minister Leighton Andrews.

He said he was not 'ruling anything out' including scrapping education authorities.

In his statement to the National Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Andrews said: "I have given local authorities time and money to get their house in order, but the evidence is overwhelming that this has not occurred."

He said the "fragmentation" of education services with the creation of 22 councils in the mid-1990s was a factor behind a downturn in performance by pupils a decade later.

The Welsh government launched a programme of reform in education following disappointing results from an international comparison of school standards in 2009.

LEAs have been grouped into four regional consortia that have been charged with a responsibility to improve schools.

They have been up and running since September, but Mr Andrews told the Senedd chamber that "overall progress is, to put it mildly, patchy".

Options for the review, which will report by the end of March next year, include:

  • local authorities losing responsibility for school improvement;
  • introducing a regional delivery system for improvements;
  • merging council education departments under the joint management of a number of local authorities;
  • direct funding of schools by ministers, instead of through LEAs;
  • creating schools owned by local co-operatives.

'Fundamental principle'

But the WLGA said it was "vehemently opposed" to removing education from councils and that recently-introduced changes need time to bed in.

"What we are saying as a family of local government in Wales, democratically elected 22 authorities across Wales, is that we believe that decisions about education in Wales should be made by democratically elected councillors who represent the communities where the schools are," said the WLGA's deputy education spokesperson, Huw David.

Image caption Leighton Andrews says education authorities need to 'step-up to the mark' and show they can improve

"We believe that is a fundamental principle of democracy in Wales."

The WLGA said it accepted that there is a need to improve educational standards, and was already working with the minister on ways to achieve those improvements.

But the group also argued that it was too early to judge whether the new regional consortia were operating well, as they have only been up and running for two months.

"What we don't want to see is a decision about schools in Neath Port Talbot to be made in Cardiff, decisions about catchment areas in Conwy to be made in Cardiff," added Mr David.

"We expect those decisions to be made by democratically elected local authorities."

But speaking to BBC Wales on Wednesday, Mr Andrews stated: "It's clear that the system is failing.

"Whether we have the right configuration of local authority services in Wales, I don't know.

"In the mid-90s we only had eight local education authorities. Overnight we went to 22. Clearly we dissipated expertise and weakened, I think, the support structures that were in place for schools."

He insisted that he not taken a fixed position on which model for education services he preferred.

"I want there to be a proper public debate about this, and I hope that local government will join that debate because I don't think it is enough to insist on local democracy as part of the approach in the future," he said.

"They need to step-up to the mark and demonstrate that they are capable of improving."

Since introducing a new inspection process in 2010, the schools inspectorate Estyn has not given any authority its top "excellent" rating.

Two of them - Anglesey and Blaenau Gwent - have been put in special measures.

An earlier report in March 2011 said a review should be conducted in autumn 2013 to decide whether structural changes were needed, but Mr Andrews told AMs on Tuesday that he was not prepared to wait until then.

Teaching unions in Wales have broadly welcomed the review announcement, with the ATL stating that the minister had "clearly lost patience" with local government.

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