On 26th February Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Assembly Member for the Rhondda made a statement in the Assembly on the sad state of education in Monmouthshire and Merthyr.
He announced that in the case of Merthyr his preferred option would be to "to create a merged education service with the neighbouring authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf" and that "Discussions have commenced with both authorities to that end."
There seems, however, to be some misunderstanding along the way, a slight miscommunication perhaps, or maybe another example of the Labour Education Minister simply making pronouncements from on high and expecting everyone to jump. That is if the Cabinet Member and the Director of Education in RCT are being open with Members.
In a very brief statement at the Council meeting on 27th February the Cabinet Member stated that no details had been discussed and that they had merely responded to a request from the Minister. She went on to say that Members would be kept informed of any developments and that they would ensure education in RCT continued to improve. This followed a statement on the Council website which said
"Following representations from the Welsh Government Minister for Education, this Council is in dialogue, at the Minister's request, with his officials to facilitate the delivery of the proposals outlined by Leighton Andrews AM in his statement to the Senedd this afternoon (February 26th 2013)."
At the Education Scrutiny Committee on 6th March in response to a question from Welsh Liberal Democrat Councillor Mike Powell the Director of Education said ir was his understanding that a merger with RCT was the Minister's preferred option, but that he hadn't made it clear who would make the decision. The Director pointed out that the Minister had yet to set up an intervention board, and that "we have enough to deal with in RCT."
So what exactly is going on? As the Director pointed out, RCT education has enough issues to deal with itself following an Estyn report that graded it as only "adequate." Maybe Leighton has better go back to the drawing board and put some real thought into this, and carry out some meaningful consultation first.
The Minister's Statement on Merthyr said:
In respect of Merthyr, the local authority's performance is unsatisfactory as, at all key stages, standards for learners are unsatisfactory, exclusion rates are too high, too many young people are not in education, employment or training, and attendance rates in primary schools are unacceptably low. Support for school improvement and for promoting social inclusion and wellbeing is unsatisfactory; and the impact of youth services is not evaluated to check that the provision addresses needs.
Estyn judged Merthyr's prospects for improvement as unsatisfactory. Senior officers and elected members of the council have not challenged underperformance or poor outcomes for learners. Officers have not provided reports to members that analyse performance data well enough to identify progress and key areas for improvement. The inspection team found that the local authority does not have in place a robust and continuous self-evaluation process for its education services. Nor has it responded well enough to the recommendations from past inspections, including those going back to 2004.
The local authority has failed to respond to Estyn recommendations going back eight years. There are systemic weaknesses in the authority and therefore I can have no confidence that Merthyr will resolve these problems itself, even with support. I will be removing Merthyr's responsibility for education. My preferred option is to create a merged education service with the neighbouring authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Discussions have commenced with both authorities to that end. However, other options would be to appoint commissioners, as with Blaenau Gwent, or to hand the running of Merthyr's education services to an outside body such as a not-for-profit trust or a private sector recovery team. I will be establishing a recovery board to oversee recovery in education in Merthyr. I will keep members informed.