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Written Statement - Actions Following Reports by Estyn and the Wales Audit Office on Inspections in Pembrokeshire

Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills and Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Local Government and Government Business

Estyn published its report of its re-inspection of Pembrokeshire’s Education Services on 17 December 2012.  On the same day, the Auditor General for Wales also published a report of his special inspection of implementation of safeguarding arrangements in Pembrokeshire County Council (the Authority).  At that time, we undertook to inform Assembly Members of the actions we would take once we had considered the two reports.  We have also taken advice from the Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board (PMB) and have considered Pembrokeshire’s draft action plan in response to the Estyn inspection.

The PMB concluded progress was beginning to materialise in terms of safeguarding in education. However, much more remained to be done.  There have been significant changes at senior level in the Authority, both at officer level and within the Executive.  

The changes at senior level are positive steps and the PMB was of the view children in Pembrokeshire are safer today than was previously the case.  However, the systemic weaknesses within the Authority’s culture and working practices will not change overnight, or because of some new appointments. Indeed, there is a risk that making such changes in personnel was viewed as sufficient in itself, displacing the need for longer-term reform.

The problems in the Authority, as set out in the two reports, go much wider than the safeguarding issues which the PMB was appointed to address. Estyn found management and leadership in education was unsatisfactory, the pace of change had been too slow and not enough had been done to embed and sustain improvements in safeguarding.  In addition, the Auditor General found scrutiny and accountability in the Council were weak and members did not adequately challenge decisions or provide leadership.

We accept there have been some improvements with regard to safeguarding and will continue to monitor progress and keep the Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services informed.  It appears Authority now recognise it must make changes and we are hopeful at last, we will begin to see a transformation in the culture which resulted in the failings described in the various Inspectorates’ reports over the last eighteen months.  However, it is still very early days and we do not believe the recent changes are sufficient to address the many problems the Authority faces, nor can we have confidence that the Authority will take adequate further action on its own.   Therefore, we have decided to formulate a co-ordinated response across our departments to address these ongoing concerns.

We have consulted with the Authority and key stakeholders regarding offering further and on-going support to consider, and where appropriate, embed and sustain beneficial changes already made to the scrutiny function and to review the Authority’s constitution to ensure the decision-making processes of the Authority are fully supportive of improvements in the delivery of public services.    

In addition, we have considered a range of options for addressing the failings in educational standards, whilst ensuring the Authority embeds the improvements it has made in safeguarding.  We will support the Authority to build capacity by allowing it to retain the exercise of education functions under the steer and scrutiny of the Welsh Government.  Therefore, we propose to set up a Recovery Board to support and challenge the Authority as it addresses the Estyn recommendations.  It will be under the direct operation of the Welsh Government and will report to a Welsh Government official.  Senior managers from the Authority and elected members will attend meetings to update the board and to ensure transparency and accountability.  Furthermore, unlike the PMB which had a very specific remit to focus on safeguarding in education, the Recovery Board will have a far wider ranging ambit, covering the whole of the education service in the County and the wider review of the Constitution and the scrutiny function, as well as ensuring progress continues in relation to safeguarding.

The Authority will be under direction to fully co-operate with the Recovery Board. The Authority has been issued with a draft direction to consider and provide feedback on. Once this due process has been observed, the Direction will be formally put in place.  The Authority will be expected to comply fully with any advice the Board deems necessary to ensure the Authority meets its statutory duties in discharging its educational functions, including safeguarding and improving democratic accountability. The Authority will be under a direction to comply with any reasonable instructions given by the chair of the Board which the chair deems necessary in order to ensure the Authority adequately performs its education functions.

We are firmly of the opinion the Authority must retain ultimate responsibility for the necessary changes and develop its own capabilities.  The Board will support this development, however, it will also challenge inadequate progress and there will be recourse to formal intervention if necessary. An announcement on the recovery board’s membership will be made once the arrangements have been finalised.  

The PMB facilitated significant changes in Pembrokeshire, often working in very challenging circumstances.  They raised the profile of safeguarding throughout the Authority, worked directly with schools and set up a Headteachers working group. They also engaged with elected members and encouraged them to adopt a more rigorous approach to holding officers to account, whilst exposing bad practice wherever found with a view to preventing repetition and achieving sustainable remedies.  

We are extremely grateful to the members of the PMB for their hard work and dedication.  The PMB concluded its work with the Authority with our sincere appreciation.

We wish to reiterate our commitment to build capacity here in Wales using targeted investment and robust scrutiny to ensure that every child in Wales is safe and they receive a first-class education, whilst reassuring Members that under-performance will not be tolerated.  The course we have chosen to take with the Authority supports this commitment.