No marks for Welsh Tories on education

I suppose it's not uncommon in politics for someone to take an independent report and read into it what they'd like it to say rather than what it actually says.

Angela Burns, the new Shadow Minster for Education, provided a perfect example of it yesterday in the Tory press briefing which Betsan Powys reported here on her blog:

Their main line of attack was on education. Paul Davies laid out the argument that education in Wales "is not in great shape".

Angela Burns took that argument between her teeth and shook it. The Independent Task and Finish Group's report, "The Structure of Education Services in Wales" confirms what her party has been arguing for years - that if schools were funded directly, they'd be better and do better.

Leighton Andrews ought to accept it, she said, and though the report stops short of recommending 100% direct funding, the Tory group absolutely welcome the fact that the group "plainly support this principle".

It is certainly true that the Tories have been trying to whittle down or abolish much of the role of local education authorities and fund individual schools directly from central government. But trying to claim that the Task and Finish Group support the Tory position on this is very wide of the mark.

The Task and Finish Group was set up in October 2010, and reported in March 2011:

     The Structure of Education Services in Wales

One of the group's main recommendations is to cut out the duplication inherent in having 22 separate local education authorities. Some steps have already been made to do this by forming regional consortia. These are South East Wales (Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff, Monmouth, Newport, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan), South Central Wales (Bridgend, Caerffili, Merthyr and RCT ... otherwise known as ESIS), South West and Mid Wales (Sir Gâr, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Powys, and Swansea) and North Wales (Conwy, Denbigh, Gwynedd, Ffint, Wrecsam and Ynys Môn). However the North Wales Consortium really seems to have no organized structure at present and is probably best described as what's left over, although Gwynedd and Ynys Môn have been working together for some years as Cynnal. This is what the report says:

We recommend that the four current local authority regional consortia be formalised and underpinned by a local government political mandate. This must not be a new tier of government but rather in the context of individual local authority education departments acknowledging that it is essential to cooperate to ensure both economy of scale and the delivery of high quality services.

This very much fits in with the general agenda of co-operation between local authorities rather than a wholescale reform of local government.

In terms of finance, the report says:

We recommend that, in terms of finance, the guiding principle should be that funding goes directly to the level where delivery and performance lies, be that school, clusters of schools, FE colleges, regional consortia or nationally. For example, in respect of the School Effectiveness Framework composite grant, 85 per cent of the funding should go directly to school bank accounts.

So even if Angela Burns was thinking about the SEF composite grant, the recommendation made by the group is completely contrary to what she says. And it's easy to understand why: it's pointless passing on money directly to schools for those services that are better provided on a wider basis. The whole point of the Welsh SEF is that it's designed to work at three levels: the national, the local and that of the individual school or college.

We need to remember that the Tory fixation with "freeing" schools from local authority control in England is a way of bypassing local democratic accountability and making schools accountable only to central government instead. No doubt the Welsh Tories have the exactly the same centralizing agenda in mind for Wales.

Angela Burns may be new to this job, but that's hardly an excuse for spouting off before she's grasped the basics of her shadow portfolio. No doubt she was under the misapprehension that there was no difference between Tory policy and the T&F Group's recommendations when she claimed that Leighton Andrews "ought to accept it". The irony is that, as we can read here, he has already accepted pretty much everything the Group recommended.

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Lionel said...

in some areas, these consortia could be good news for WM education actually, with the authorities known to sometimes drag their feet (deliberately) having to move, if others are influencing them. Also easier from a lobbying perspective - less people to deal with?
The Vale, Cardiff and Torfaen might have a positive influence on Blaenau Gwent and Monmouth. Likewise Caerphilly on RCT and Merthyr? Not sure about the midwales lot though, with Cerdedigion, Carms and Swansea all in together

MH said...

I don't think the consortia are a bad idea at all, Lionel. The T&FG seems to suggest that the current grouping of LEAs into consortia is probably not ideal, but that it is best to "go with the flow" of what's already there in embryonic form rather than for Leighton Andrews to impose a new set of groups.

I agree with you entirely on the idea of good authorities having a positive influence on poorer ones.

The SE and SC consortia seem about right. The other two are a bit harder to see working effectively because of the geographical area they cover. Strangely, the grouping of Swansea and NPT with Powys isn't so bad because they have to co-operate anyway in the upper Swansea Valley. That would leave Sir Gâr, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire as the old Dyfed. North Wales seems the most disparate grouping, and I wonder whether it wouldn't be better to have a north west group of Ynys Môn, Gwynedd and Conwy (Cynnal does seem to include Conwy on its private pages) and a north east group of Denbigh, Fflint and Wrecsam. I'm sure that nobody would have a real problem if the LEAs did come back and say they wanted to work with five or six consortia instead of four.

Cibwr said...

My worry is democratic accountability, local government has been eroded everywhere, functions taken away and joint boards created with nominated and co-opted people. We have 7 health boards, 4 police authorities, 3 fire authorities and now education consortia. It seems to me that consortia are the weakest way of democratic accountability yet devised.

Perhaps its time to bite the bullet and bring back into democratic control the police, fire and health authorities and create a new system of regional authorities taking on these functions - together with that of education (including further but not higher education). I would suggest keeping the existing authorities but creating 5 regional bodies - lets call them commissions, which would take over health & social services, fire, police, education, waste disposal, public transport, major roads and strategic planning. This would heal the democratic divide that has crept into public administration in the last 30 or so years, leaving community councils to be strengthened and the existing county and county borough councils to run more local services, like housing, local planning, leisure services and supporting local community organisations. I will write about this in more detail in another post, maybe on my own blog (which I think I should take out of hibernation)..

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