Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills and Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities
On Monday two reports were published in respect of Pembrokeshire County Council. Estyn has published its inspection report on education services and the WAO has published its special inspection report on the way the Council implements safeguarding arrangements. We are making this statement to inform Members that we propose to formulate a co-ordinated response across our portfolios to address the issues raised in these reports.
Both reports are consistent in their findings on a number of issues and contain serious criticism of the performance of the local authority. The oversight and management of safeguarding remains a cause for concern for both inspectorates.
The WAO judges the Council’s failure to address weakness in safeguarding to be a reflection of wider weaknesses in its systems and culture, in particular around challenge to, and accountability for, decision-making and responding to the need for change.
The WAO report concludes that whilst the Council has become more aware of safeguarding issues and has made some positive changes, it has not responded with sufficient speed and vigour to the failures identified in previous reports. It has not addressed known weaknesses in its systems and this may reflect wider weaknesses in systems and culture, in particular around challenge to and accountability for decision-making.
The WAO found that in some critical areas little progress had been made since its last report in January 2011. The Auditor General has therefore concluded that the Council is in breach of its duty in the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009 to make arrangements to secure improvement.
In its overall judgements the Estyn inspection team found that the current performance of education services is unsatisfactory and that prospects for improvement are also unsatisfactory. In light of these very serious shortcomings, Estyn believes that special measures are required in relation to this authority.
Despite having substantial support in the form of the Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board, Estyn finds that the authority has still not made enough progress in the management and governance of safeguarding. Although new policies and procedures are in place that have improved awareness and practice, Pembrokeshire County Council has failed to address the cultural issues previously identified. The authority has failed to make sufficient progress in the management and governance of safeguarding to provide adequate assurance that the improvements necessary are being delivered.
In terms of educational performance, Estyn found that performance in primary schools does not compare well with that of similar schools in other authorities across Wales. Although there have been improvements in attendance, too many primary schools are in the lower half in comparison with similar schools on the free-school-meals benchmarks. The authority’s arrangements for supporting and challenging schools are not robust enough and have not had enough impact on improving outcomes. The authority is also responding too slowly to the increasing level of surplus places in the secondary sector.
Estyn judged the prospects for improvement as unsatisfactory. It found that corporate leaders and senior elected members have been too slow to recognise key issues in safeguarding and to change the culture in, and improve, education services. Leadership at directorate and service level is weak and elected members have found it difficult to scrutinise decisions adequately and hold services to account.
Estyn found that the operational and partnership plans do not consistently identify relevant outcome measures and milestones to enable officers to track progress, accountability and performance effectively, and performance management arrangements in the education directorate are not robust enough to sustain and drive improvement.
In short, not only do both these reports give clear continued cause for concern in relation to the management, governance and oversight of safeguarding arrangements, but they indicate a lax corporate culture which not only fails to provide sufficient scrutiny or leadership, but also fails to support front line staff. Most significantly it is clear that this lack of corporate governance extends beyond the realms of safeguarding and educational standards.
The WAO report does not make any further recommendations to Pembrokeshire County Council. It does, however, recommend that the Welsh Ministers make a formal offer of support to address these wider weaknesses. We are legally required to offer such support before we formally intervene in these areas, but we are not ruling out intervention if necessary in the future, or if the Council does not respond positively to our offer of support.
The Estyn and WAO reports are both consistent and damning. Pembrokeshire, despite significant support from Government, has not done nearly enough to establish robust delivery procedures, or to assure itself about standards of practice. The authority does not always ensure that people who make decisions are accountable for them, or that those decisions are subject to open and effective scrutiny. Furthermore, it responds badly to criticism, even when that criticism is well-intentioned and well-evidenced. These are basic failures for a democratic organisation and merit a firm, prompt and coherent response from us. The Council’s deficiencies are putting services in Pembrokeshire at unacceptable risk. If the Council cannot address these issues, then we will.
Given the unacceptable nature of the situation our priority must be to put in place adequate support and challenge to realise improvements as quickly as possible.
The failings identified are not limited to a single area of service delivery. While they reflect both corporate weaknesses and serious failings in the education service, the failures in safeguarding are a very visible symptom of deeper cultural and governance problems in the authority.
The response of the Welsh Ministers, therefore, needs to address the wider issues and improve the corporate position of the authority. It will also need to ensure that improvements and changes being introduced in relation to safeguarding and educational outcomes for children and young people are implemented quickly and have a real impact on the ground.
We must now see long term sustainable improvement which is embedded within the culture and practice of the authority at every level.
We will be working closely together over the coming weeks to consider our response to these reports and we will have further discussions with the Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services. We will of course finalise our proposed arrangements as quickly as possible, and ensure that necessary action is taken urgently.
The Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board will remain in place for the next few months to ensure continued support in relation to improving safeguarding in the authority and also to help in any transition to new support arrangements when these are agreed.
We will provide the Assembly with full details of our response to these reports in the new year.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.