A tiff in Cardiff as miffed heads speak out
It likes to claim that it is creating a "proud capital", but Cardiff Council has a less than proud recent history when it comes to its schools. And during the past fortnight it became more embarrassing still, when primary school headteachers from across the city banded together to attack the performance of its education department.
Forty members of heads' union NAHT Cymru have penned an angry missive to the Welsh government and schools inspectorate Estyn complaining of "systemic" and "top-down failure" at the local authority. The letter accuses the council's education department of not knowing its schools well enough and of damaging its own ability to improve standards.
This row is set against the background of other, ongoing problems. For example, the NAHT has been involved in two long-running and bitter disputes with Cardiff Council in two of its primary schools.
Staff at Danescourt Primary have taken part in several strikes and protests over the suspension of four teachers who allegedly criticised the headteacher, while parents at St Alban's RC Primary have protested against the suspension of three members of staff by the head over allegations that they were trying to "undermine" her authority.
All parties involved in the two disputes have attacked the council's handling of matters.
Last month, the council also came under fire from a number of politicians in the National Assembly, who accused it of "dithering" over its plans to work with neighbouring authorities to improve its schools.
Last year, Cardiff became the only council in Wales not to sign up to one of the four "regional school improvement services", which the Welsh government is introducing in time for September in a bid to improve the work of its 22 education departments. It withdrew from talks with Newport, Monmouthshire, Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent councils, but has since announced plans to join Bridgend, Merthyr, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan councils.
And last January, Estyn judged Cardiff's education services to be only "adequate" after an inspection, which education minister Leighton Andrews later said was "barely good enough".
A board of key stakeholders and partners, including the Welsh government and the Welsh Local Government Association, was set up to implement the report's recommendations.
Cardiff has since been monitored closely by the inspectorate and will face a follow-up visit from inspectors before the end of this month. But it seems that progress has been, at best, troubled.
"NAHT members in Cardiff are concerned about the support school leaders receive from the local authority," a spokeswoman for NAHT Cymru said. "We have communicated those concerns to the local authority and to Estyn and the Department for Education and Skills. What we hope to secure on behalf of our members is the support they need to allow them to concentrate on leading learning and raising standards in our schools."
The Welsh government seems irritated by the row but confirmed it had received the letter and would respond in full shortly.
"It is obviously important local authorities provide appropriate support to headteachers," a spokesman said. "We will be bringing these concerns to the implementation board's attention and will also be seeking assurances from the local authority that it intends to respond robustly to the complaints from NAHT members.
"The Welsh government will continue to liaise closely with the local authority, the implementation board and Estyn in order to secure rapid improvement within Cardiff education services."
And Cardiff Council said it was "disappointed" to receive the letter, which was not endorsed by all NAHT members in Cardiff, after it had been sent to Estyn and the government. It said some heads had written to the council to disassociate themselves from the views expressed in the letter.
Nevertheless, it said its officers intended to discuss the content with all headteachers in Cardiff early in the new term. With both groups so clearly at loggerheads, this meeting will surely be interesting, to say the least.
CARDIFF IN NUMBERS
98 - The number of primary schools in the city. It also has 20 secondaries, with almost 50,000 pupils on roll on total.
#163;5,457 - The council's per-pupil education spend in 2009-10, the sixth lowest in Wales out of 22 local authorities.
20% - The proportion of Cardiff's secondaries in the lowest band (band 5) of the government's school banding system; 10% were in the top band (band 1).