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Oral - Education in Denbighshire
I advise Members of my decision on intervention in the Denbighshire education service in the light of advice that I have had from Estyn on the authority’s action plan and other developments in the authority.
Estyn’s advice, which it has communicated to the authority, is that there are some positive features in the action plan, that there appears to be a dawning acceptance of the need for change to secure better outcomes for learners, and that there is a commitment to improve the day-to-day working of the education service and communication within the authority and with stakeholders. However, Estyn has also indicated that it considers that the plan has significant shortcomings in terms of timescales for action, which are too long, and a failure to link the action plan to work plans. Estyn judges that targets are not ambitious enough and that the programme of action needs to be more coherent, with the links between related matters better developed. Estyn has asked the authority to amend the plan to address these issues and to provide an amended version by 27 December. I am aware that the authority has agreed to provide Estyn with a revised plan by that date.
On the basis of the advice that Estyn has provided to me on the draft action plan, and of the underlying concerns that led to its report, I consider that there are clear grounds for me to intervene and to direct the authority on the basis that it is failing to perform its functions as an education authority to an adequate standard.
I have also considered whether the authority has the capacity to secure effective delivery of its action plan and to address other shortcomings such as those identified in last year’s Estyn report on its youth support services and in the report that the authority commissioned from Cambridge Education Ltd.
I am pleased that Denbighshire County Council has taken action to appoint an interim director of lifelong learning. This appointment helps, in part, to address my concerns about leadership and capacity weaknesses in the authority at this crucial time. I have also had the opportunity to meet the new leader of the authority, Councillor Hugh Evans, who has undertaken to make education his top priority and has taken personal charge of the education portfolio in the authority. I have impressed upon him my expectation that the authority will deliver on its commitments in a timely fashion so as to improve the delivery of services to learners in Denbighshire.
In broad terms, I believe that the authority is starting to recognise the scale of the problems in its education service. In the light of these I do not propose, at this juncture, to intervene in terms of requiring the authority to hand over its education functions to another public or private body, which would be an option open to me. Instead, I have decided to intervene and use my powers under the Education Act 1996 to direct the authority to take action to make sure that its education functions are performed to an adequate standard. In doing so I am directing Denbighshire County Council to co-operate with an independent education recovery board, which I will establish, and report to it on what is likely to be a monthly basis from January. In turn, the board will report progress to me and make recommendations about any further action that I should take.
The board’s remit will cover scrutiny of all of the authority’s education service functions. The board will report to me. It will consider reports from Estyn on its quarterly monitoring of the implementation of the action plan, as well as other action by the authority to address shortcomings. All of the members will be drawn from outside the authority and, in several cases, from outside Denbighshire itself, but will have relevant experience at a senior level in their respective fields. The board will have no more than seven members and will be chaired by someone with a track record of experience in addressing service failures.
I expect the board to operate at least until Estyn re-inspects the authority in a year to 18 months’ time. I also intend to direct the authority to continue to co-operate with the Welsh Local Government Association. In that context, I pay tribute to the way in which the WLGA has already responded to the difficulties in Denbighshire by enhancing capacity in the authority through the consultancy service it operates to support authorities that are in difficulty. That support has already brought benefits, and I am anxious to ensure that the authority continues to work with the WLGA.
I communicated my decision to intervene to the leader of the authority earlier this afternoon. He understands that my intervention is designed to support the actions the authority itself is taking and to add independent expertise, but that, at the same time, it is designed to scrutinise and to challenge progress. I look to the authority to respond positively. I will have regular meetings with the political leadership of the authority to ensure that the Denbighshire cabinet and the authority as a whole are focused on improving delivery of its education services. I want to ensure that there are linked tracks of accountability in all of this. The recovery board will hold officers of the local authority to account for the operation of the action plan, and I will hold the political leadership of the council to account for the exercise of their responsibilities. These twin tracks will, I hope, give confidence to the parents, teachers and pupils of Denbighshire that they will now get the service that they deserve. I hope to advise Members in December of the composition of the independent board, and I will make available copies of the formal direction to Denbighshire County Council in the next few days.