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Written Statement - Estyn Report Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council

Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills

Today Estyn publishes its report outlining the results of its inspection of Blaenau Gwent (which took place between the 21 and 25 January 2013).  I am making this statement to highlight to Members the judgements that Estyn has reached following the latest inspection.
This inspection builds on the previous inspection of the local authority’s education services in May 2011.  Following that inspection both the performance of the local authority’s education services and the authority’s prospects for improvement were found to be unsatisfactory.  In light of these shortcomings the authority was placed in special measures.

This latest report contains continuing criticisms of the performance of the local authority.  The two overall summary judgements found that the current performance of the local authority education services for children and young people continues to be unsatisfactory and that the local authority’s prospects for improvement continue to be unsatisfactory.  Estyn is of the opinion that the authority continues to fall into the follow-up category of requiring Special Measures.  

I am very concerned to note Estyn’s findings.  It is unacceptable that the authority has failed once again to tackle the issues with the required pace and urgency.  These failings continue to reflect serious weaknesses in the authority’s management of education services.  
As Assembly members are aware, a Direction is in place in Blaenau Gwent where I have appointed an Education Commissioner to a full time role entirely dedicated to supporting the authority’s improvement journey.  The Direction provides that the education functions of the authority’s executive are exercised by my Commissioner.  I have also established a Strategic Performance Board to support the Commissioner’s work.  This Board comprises the Commissioner, senior officials from the Welsh Government, WLGA representation and a representative of the regional education consortia.  The role of the Board is to offer challenge and support to the Council’s officers and members in respect of the authority’s education services.  

In respect of the work of the Commissioners, the Board and the regional consortia, the Estyn report highlights progress - for example the judgement in respect of support for school improvement has improved to adequate.  The inspectorate has found that the regional consortium’s school improvement service has made good progress in improving processes to support challenge and intervene in schools.  However they do highlight that these arrangements are relatively recent and have not yet had time to make an impact on standards of attainment in schools.  

While my Commissioner’s role is focussed on driving forward school improvement and preparing the authority for the point at which the intervention ends.  There obviously remains a great deal of work to be done by the senior management and leadership team to bring the authority to a point at which this will be possible.  I have not seen any evidence that they are capable or willing to achieve this.  
The pace of improvement has been slow and the quality of leadership within the authority itself has not been consistent or effective enough. Officers have not prioritised action to bring about improvement.  

As Estyn highlights the more recent progress achieved by the authority has been led primarily by the Commissioner and the directors of recovery, as leaders and managers within the authority itself have still not established a sustainable pathway of change and improvement.  The Estyn report however highlights that elected members have made significant progress and have changed the way they work. Members are now better equipped to direct and challenge officers and scrutiny arrangements are now more robust.

It is also important to note that the Estyn report sits alongside the WAO’s recent Annual Improvement Report for 2011/12 which found "long-standing cultural, performance and leadership problems, coupled with limited corporate capacity, have led to inconsistencies and weaknesses in how the council plans, organises and delivers better services for its citizens".  

There are systemic weaknesses in the authority and therefore I can have no confidence that Blaenau Gwent will resolve these problems itself, even with support from my Commissioner.   I am minded to consider alternative interventions including the option to create a merged education service with another local authority.  

I am meeting with the Commissioner on Monday 20 May to seek her views and will also discuss these matters with the Minister for Local Government and Government Business.  Once I have decided on what changes should take place I will provide a full update to Assembly members.