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Written Statement - Welsh Government Intervention – Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council

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Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills

Members will be aware of our intervention in Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council following the critical Estyn report of May 2011.  I am making this statement to inform Members of further action that I propose.

During its May 2011 inspection, Estyn found the performance of the local authority education services to be unsatisfactory and also found the authority’s prospects for improvement to be unsatisfactory.  In light of these very serious shortcomings, Estyn believe that special measures were required in relation to this authority.  

I said that I would keep Members informed of the progress of the Ministerial Direction issued to the authority in September 2011. Before I do that, I think it is worth reminding Members of what the Direction involved.

The Direction provided that the education functions of the authority’s executive would be exercised by two Education Commissioners instead.   . Two Advisory Education Commissioners were also appointed to provide support and challenge to the Education Commissioners in their role.

Estyn undertook a monitoring visit to the authority during the week commencing 11 June 2012.  This is the usual procedure for Estyn when monitoring a local authority education services in special measures.  The inspectorate reported on the progress made against the recommendations in the 2011 inspection but did not make a final judgement on its current performance.  Estyn will re-inspect the authority early in 2013, and at that, time will give new judgements against each key indicator.

The current Direction provides that it will remain in effect until 31 March 2013 unless I determine to end it earlier.  I have said that I would review it regularly.  In July I updated members that I had undertaken the first of those reviews. I sought the views of all key stakeholders, including the Welsh Local Government Association, Blaenau Gwent Leader, Deputy Leader and Chief Executive, the Education and Advisory Commissioners, Estyn and the Neath Port Talbot Taskforce.

Indications from both the monitoring visit and the views of key stakeholders is that although progress in Blaenau Gwent was initially slow across the range of recommendations, more recently the pace and focus of change have improved.  Although, the direction of travel is broadly right, much important work remains to be done by the local authority, if it is to secure sustainable capacity.

Again more recently I have taken the opportunity to reflect on the direction and on the needs of the local authority and Education Commissioners as the authority prepares for the pending Estyn re-inspection.  As such I now propose to revisit the original Direction issued to Blaenau Gwent Council and to refocus the support and challenge provided.  

The Advisory Education Commissioners were a valuable source of support and challenge to my Education Commissioners during the early stages of recovery.  However as the authority moves towards the Estyn re-inspection, I believe that their input into the process from this point forward will by nature of the process be more limited.  We therefore consider that the Advisory Education Commissioners have fulfilled their role making an important contribution to the progress made.  The role of Advisory Education Commissioners will therefore cease when the new direction comes into effect.  Nerys Evans and Alan Evans leave with our thanks for their contribution to the process thus far.  

The role of the Education Commissioners for this next stage will be vital, therefore I propose to issue a new direction moving from two part time Education Commissioners to one full time role entirely dedicated to supporting this important stage in the improvement journey.  

Each of the current Education Commissioners brings a range of expertise and experience to the role.  I have however considered how best to meet the needs of the Authority in this next stage.  As such I have decided to appoint Bethan Guilfoyle to this full time role.  Isobel Garner leaves with my grateful thanks for the diligent efforts she has made in respect of the authority.

The remaining Commissioner’s role will now focus on driving forward school improvement and preparing the authority for not only the Estyn re-inspection but also for the point at which the intervention ends.  It is intended for example that by having a single full-time Education Commissioner the portfolio holder for education could undertake a period of shadowing that would better facilitate hand over of the portfolio when the intervention ends.

The landscape in terms of school improvement services has been radically altered during the period of my intervention with the establishment of regional consortia.  As such I expect that the Education Achievement Service (EAS) will play a crucial role in this next stage of recovery.  For example, working alongside the Commissioner and Authority to commission the necessary support and challenge to the Authority’s schools.

I also plan to establish a Strategic Performance Board to support the Commissioner’s work.  This Board will be comprised of the Commissioner, senior officials from the Welsh Government, WLGA representation and a representative of the regional education consortia.  I have also asked Nerys Evans to continue her involvement with the authority by taking a position on this board. The role of the Board will be to offer challenge and support to the Council’s officers and members in respect of the authority’s education services.  

I intend for these changes to take place as soon as possible and my officials are drafting a new direction to the Council to enable these changes to take effect.  The intention is that the approach outlined: having a full time Education Commissioner working with the authority; building in the regional dimension; establishing a Strategic Board; and, allowing the portfolio holder for education to shadow the remaining Education Commissioner offers an opportunity to move towards a sustainable future for the authority.