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Oral - Education Services in Denbighshire

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Jane Hutt, Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills
 I wish to make a statement about Denbighshire County Council’s education service, about which I am very concerned. It is clear that there are deep-rooted problems and that the authority is failing to manage its education service in the interests of its learners. Two reports were published last week that underline the severity of the problems.

The first report is of the inspection by Estyn in July 2007 of four aspects of Denbighshire’s service: strategic management; school improvement; promoting social inclusion and wellbeing; and additional learning needs. Estyn judged performance on the first three as of the lowest grade, grade 4, that is, with shortcomings in important areas, and the fourth at grade 3, where good features outweigh shortcomings. Estyn evaluated the prospects of improvement for all four aspects of the service at grade 4, which means that there are many important barriers to improvement. Estyn did not inspect access to education services in July since this was inspected in March 2005.

The other report published last week, entitled 'Modernising Education’, was commissioned by Denbighshire from Cambridge Education Limited, a consultancy firm. The report was not shared with the Assembly Government in advance of its publication. It is helpful to draw from it, as the Cambridge Education Limited report draws similar conclusions to the Estyn inspection report. However, it also covers a number of access-to-education issues, including planning and provision of school places, school admissions, levels of school funding and delegation of school funding. The Cambridge report raises a number of fundamental shortcomings additional to those identified in the Estyn report.

Denbighshire’s performance is unacceptable. Learners throughout Wales are entitled to high-quality services, and schools are entitled to support, and, where appropriate, to expect challenge from their local authorities. Effective education services are vital to the wellbeing and future prospects of our children and young people. Far too many young people in Denbighshire are absent from school, underachieving and leaving school without any qualifications. Things have to change in Denbighshire and the Assembly Government has to ensure that that happens.

As Minister, I am responsible for the strategic policy direction of education and training in Wales. My policies are set out in 'The Learning Country—Vision into Action’, and the themes are underscored by 'One Wales’. My objectives are improved outcomes for learners and equality of opportunity for all children and young people across Wales. Equality of opportunity includes equality of access to high-quality education provision. My responsibilities sit within the framework of education legislation, which sets out my powers and the duties and functions of local authorities. Local authorities have responsibility for the provision of school education and must make sure that it is adequately planned and managed and that standards are high. That is their function and duty. It is not for me, as Minister, to micromanage their affairs. However, the education Acts give me power to intervene and to direct an authority if I conclude that it is not performing its functions to a satisfactory standard.

I have considered the Denbighshire situation and I am satisfied that it warrants my intervention if the authority cannot or will not make the necessary improvements quickly. I wrote to Councillor Rhiannon Hughes, the leader of Denbighshire County Council, on 21 September about the Estyn report. I made it plain that Denbighshire must take immediate and effective action to address the problems and make rapid improvements. The authority is under no illusions about my expectations. It also understands that I will use my power to direct it if it fails to grip the situation quickly. My powers of direction can be used in a range of ways, from directing action to be taken to address specific issues through to requiring an authority to hand over the running of its education service to another, external provider.

I have decided not to intervene at this stage in light of the assurances the authority has given to my officials that it has appropriate internal capacity to address the findings of the report and that it will bring in external expertise, through partnering or consultancy and with the assistance of the Welsh Local Government Association. It has also given an assurance that it has robust arrangements for monitoring implementation, which will include external challenge, and that it will submit its action plan for Estyn to consider by 5 November. I am prepared to give the authority a chance to prepare such an action plan.

This is not a soft option; it does not let the authority off the hook. I will review my decision in light of Estyn’s advice on the authority’s action plan, along with the separate follow up by my officials of the issues identified in the Cambridge Education Limited report. I will not hesitate to intervene at that stage if I am not satisfied that Denbighshire is taking appropriate action. I will make a further statement to Members once I have considered the authority’s action plan and its responses to issues in the Cambridge report.