Then there were four: the new 'super authorities'

7th September 2012 at 01:00
Regional alliances take over Welsh councils' standards remit

The start of the new term in Wales is accompanied by one of the biggest changes in the country's educational landscape in 13 years of devolution: the end of individual local authorities' control over school standards.

Instead of 22 councils all running their own educational fiefdoms, they have been brought together to create four "super authorities" with a mission to improve attainment.

The overhaul is the latest in a series of policies implemented by education minister Leighton Andrews in the wake of Wales' poor performance in the 2009 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests.

The regional consortia, which begin their work this month, have each set up joint services to challenge their schools, share best teaching practice and drive improvement. Leading heads and local authority officers will take a key role, working with school leaders to improve pupil attainment.

But many heads and teachers are sceptical, especially given the generally poor performance of local authorities when it comes to education. Schools inspectorate Estyn has yet to find an excellent local authority in Wales, and four have been judged unsatisfactory, with two placed in special measures.

Rebecca Williams (pictured below), policy officer for Welsh teaching union UCAC, said there is "nervousness" because the new set-up is untested. "Although there seems to be a lot of good will and determination, it is their (the consortia's) capacity to support schools that is a concern, and the amount of resources and expertise available," she said. "Teachers are afraid there will be more of an emphasis on the challenge aspect, rather than the support."

Concerns have also been raised because the four consortia were given the freedom to develop their improvement services along different lines. Dr Philip Dixon, director of education union ATL Cymru, said that as a result some are more prepared than others for the task ahead.

"In some areas there is a coherent plan in place, and in others there doesn't seem to be much of a plan at all," he said. "It's very piecemeal across Wales, and I think we will see the results of that on the ground in the new term.

"Obviously they need to be given time to bed in. Ultimately, heads and teachers will judge their value and effectiveness if at the end of the next academic year they can look back and say, 'We are in a better place.'"

Bryan Jeffreys, director of the joint education service of the Central South consortium - which includes Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Vale of Glamorgan local authorities - said there will be a "rigorous pursuit of excellence".

"This is a starting point for developing an entirely new method of school improvement," Mr Jeffreys said. "There will be effective partnership with schools and purposeful collaboration."

Steve Davies, director of the education achievement service (EAS) for South East Wales, said that the new service will have to "hit the ground running" if it is to achieve its aims. Two of the authorities in the area, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen, have already been judged unsatisfactory by Estyn, and Blaenau Gwent is currently in special measures.

"Clearly, better learning outcomes need to be achieved and achieved quickly," Mr Davies said. "The number one priority is to raise standards and improve performance. Bringing together school improvement services across the five local authorities will help us to do that."

The EAS has a number of objectives, including halving the achievement gap for pupils on free school meals, making sure that every primary school leaver is literate and numerate, and keeping secondary schools out of the lowest tier of the Welsh government's banding system.

Councillor Ali Thomas, education spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Association, said the consortia would play a "vital role" in ensuring that education resources are used efficiently.

Last week, Mr Andrews announced the launch of a review into how the new groups will operate. He has already threatened further action to force collaboration on a more formal basis if they fail to deliver.


Wales' 22 unitary authorities have been grouped into four regional education consortia. Each has set up its own school improvement service, with different names and business plans but with the same aim: to improve school standards and pupil achievement.

The consortia are:

North Wales: Anglesey, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd and Wrexham.

South East Wales: Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen.

Central South: Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Vale of Glamorgan.

South West and Mid Wales: Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Swansea.

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