In recent years, schools in Wales have become used to harsh criticism from politicians and inspectors for perceived failings in teaching quality and test results. But now Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, has turned its fire on the councils that are supposed to support schools, judging a third local authority education department "unsatisfactory" in less than a year.
Last week was the turn of Torfaen, a small authority in southeast Wales, to be given Estyn's lowest rating. GCSE performance was among the worst in Wales and more than half of its schools were rated "unsatisfactory" in the core subjects.
Half of Wales's 22 local authorities have now been visited by inspectors since Estyn's new framework was launched in September 2010. Of the 10 whose reports have been published so far, three have been rated "good", four "adequate" and three "unsatisfactory". None has been rated "excellent", prompting fears that wider problems are affecting Welsh educational performance.
Torfaen joins Pembrokeshire council in being in need of significant improvement. For Blaenau Gwent, the judgement was harsher still, with the authority's education department being placed in special measures last summer.
The three judgements have raised serious concerns about what is going wrong in Wales's local authorities. Estyn's annual report, released last month, summed up some of the problems.
"In many local authorities, a few schools have been allowed to underperform over a long period of time, mainly because authorities do not use the full range of their powers to improve schools quickly enough," it said. Officers in most councils do not evaluate the impact of new initiatives on pupil attainment or give their schools enough practical support, the report added.
Estyn said the briefings its inspectors receive from councils before they visit schools do not always provide a "robust analysis" of the schools' work or identify any shortcomings. "This suggests several local authorities do not know how well their schools are performing," the inspectorate said.
Torfaen council seems to have accepted Estyn's findings and has promised improvement by the summer. However, Flintshire council is less than satisfied with the "adequate" rating it received last month.
In a statement, officers said they found the report's judgement "doubtful" and planned to make representations to Estyn, believing Flintshire to be "one of the top-performing education services in Wales".
Estyn has already been accused of "moving the goalposts" and toughening its approach to suit education minister Leighton Andrews' agenda, but the inspectorate insists its work is now more focused and its judgements more realistic.
Chris Llewelyn, director of lifelong learning at the Welsh Local Government Association, admitted that the Estyn grades so far were a "mixed bag". "We have got to aspire to have every authority performing as well as the best," he said. "It is a reasonable expectation and I think it can be achieved.
"Where authorities do well, they do very well, and there are examples of sector-leading practice. The challenge for local authorities is to look at these examples and learn from (them) and share (them) more widely than at the moment."
It is difficult to know where excellent education services may be found. Two councils generally judged to be the best in Wales, Neath Port Talbot and Newport, have already been inspected and were rated only "good", although Estyn found some excellent practice in both.
Educational consultant Terry Mackie has worked in both Torfaen and Newport local authorities, serving as head of school improvement in the latter.
"I don't believe Wales doesn't have an excellent local authority. I believe it has two: Newport and Neath Port Talbot," he said. "Both deserved better marks than they had from Estyn."
But he said that, overall, councils don't have a right to complain. "There are elements of rough justice, but Estyn has pretty much got it right, and it's long overdue," he said.
David Reynolds, professor of educational effectiveness at the University of Southampton and a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government, agreed. "It is a fair representation of the state of local authorities in Wales," he said. "It is telling us things we have all suspected for a long time, which is (that) we don't have the drivers to make school improvement services better, and it's an argument for services to be provided on a regional basis."
The verdicts are in
Neath Port Talbot