Councils in Wales have been told to work together to sort out huge regional variations in the performance and funding of education. But the scale of the task ahead is only now becoming clear: documents seen by TES reveal that more than a third of schools will underperform in any year and be in need of specialist help.
The figures have been drawn up by regional groups of the country's 22 local authorities as part of plans due to come into effect next September. They show that each region in Wales is expecting to work extensively with schools to raise standards. All four groups of councils are working on the assumption that between 30 and 35 per cent of schools will need "intensive support and challenge".
In the past, local authorities have been criticised for not using data well enough and for failing to intervene when schools were struggling. But, working together, they are starting to make a detailed analysis of school performance and spell out what action they will take.
The plans also give the first details of what proportion of secondary schools in different parts of the country will be placed on the lowest rungs of a controversial new banding system. A full breakdown of the system is not due to be published until December. In south-west and mid Wales, for instance, the Government's school standards unit placed 15 per cent of schools in the lowest bands - higher than the councils' estimate of 11 per cent.
Councils in the south-east of the country admit they have the highest share of secondary schools in the lower categories of the banding system, although they did not specify the figure.
The councils also reveal that 55 per cent of their schools so far inspected under Estyn's new framework needed some form of follow-up, compared to just 3 per cent over the course of the last inspection cycle.
"Even if these percentages are reduced in the case of each authority by between 15 and 20 per cent to allow for the possibility that the schools inspected so far are not representative ... this still represents a considerable increase in the support and challenge that will need to be provided across the consortium," their plan says.
Gareth Jones, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said the plans drawn up by the consortiums of local authorities showed there had been a "considerable improvement" in the use of data, which Wales had lacked for some years.
"This also shows the scale of the challenge in terms of the resources needed to support schools," he added.
Professor David Reynolds, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh Government, said he expected further discrepancies between the councils' views of their schools and those of the standards unit.
"I think it's possible that the banding system will show up more failure than the (councils') own estimates because they are sometimes too close to the situation to make an objective view," he said.
But the Welsh Local Government Association said the plans produced so far showed that local authorities were committed to improving services and making efficient use of resources.
The Government is keeping a close eye on progress. Education minister Leighton Andrews is fond of telling people that "no one in their right mind would have invented 22 local authorities ... but (former Welsh secretary) John Redwood did".Behind the joke is a serious point: that for a country with a population just shy of three million people to have so many local authorities is inefficient and unworkable.
Mr Andrews says the evidence points to regional partnerships being the answer to improving educational standards in schools. Local authorities know that if they do not have success working together now, serious financial and political penalties could await them in future.
MIND THE GAP
The per-pupil gap between the highest and lowest-spending local authorities has grown to an all-time high.
#163;6,340 - The highest spending (Ceredigion)
#163;5,001 - The lowest spending (the Vale of Glamorgan)
Councils are also delegating varying amounts of money to their schools. The Vale of Glamorgan delegates the most, with 83 per cent of its education budget going directly to schools, while Anglesey delegates the least, with 67 per cent.
After pressure from the Welsh Government, the Welsh Local Government Association and Wales's 22 councils have pledged to increase delegation rates to 80 per cent by 2012 and to 85 per cent by 2014.