The Structure of Education Services review, published last week, was the most thorough and comprehensive report of its kind produced in Wales since devolution in 1999. It should be compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in improving the performance of Welsh-educated pupils.
The report is the third in a row that will make uncomfortable reading for Welsh educationalists, following the publication of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results and the chief inspector's end-of-cycle annual report, which resulted in the education minister's 20-point plan to improve performance.
Vivian Thomas's review team scores heavily in its analysis of educational performance at a variety of levels. These include the management and leadership of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS), local authorities, schools and FE colleges in a variety of fields including the foundation phase, 14-19, literacy and numeracy and continuing professional development (CPD).
There are a number of key themes. First, a reminder that Welsh education needs to make savings and ensure more money reaches the front line. The report advocates the reduction in school surplus places. Between primary and secondary schools, local authorities are currently holding 94,534 surplus places with variations between authorities. The report suggests surplus places should not exceed 10 per cent and calls upon local authorities to accelerate their planned reorganisation intentions, which will mean more school closures, amalgamations and consortia arrangements. The report also calls for a 50 per cent reduction in the number of existing FE colleges.
Second, the report highlights major performance variations between schools and local authorities. For example, the differences between the achievements of Pisa-aged 15-year-olds in local authorities in Wales produces one of the most worrying tables. Hence, Mr Thomas's review team wishes to see "improvement targets" set for underperforming schools backed by more intervention from Estyn and school governing bodies. The report calls for greater liaison between schools with parents.
Third, and here I wholeheartedly agree, the report condemns the performance of Welsh pupils in literacy and numeracy, thereby echoing the findings reported by Ann Keane and her Estyn colleagues, as well as the National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR) and the 2004 Daugherty report, which led to the abolition of Sats testing in Wales. The authors recommend the introduction of new literacy and numeracy tests for pupils at the beginning of Years 2 and 5, and they want raising literacy and numeracy levels at every phase (including post-16) to become a central plank in future policy.
Fourth, the report recommends firming up the four existing regional local authority consortia by formalising their roles through a new "local government political mandate". Each should have a new senior officer in charge to help facilitate decision-making and financial savings through shared staff and streamline communication between DCELLS and local authorities.
Fifth, the role and leadership of DCELLS over the past 10 years has been called into question in a variety of ways. These include FE staff questioning the calibre and quality of existing FE administrators within DCELLS, the need to establish a national DCELLS-led CPD plan for education staff and a new all-Wales national CPD unit. This will lead to CPD budgets becoming directly devolved to schools through their own bank accounts. It will also see the introduction of compulsory training for school governors and clerks and a standard set of performance data for governors to use, not least with headteachers.
The report correctly identifies the failure to use key performance data properly by DCELLS. Hence, the establishment of the national standards unit, which will create a single-tier IT database. It will also help the school effectiveness framework to be rolled out more easily and establish the new regional school improvement services. Finally, the report was critical of the failure of DCELLS to fully implement the recommendations in the 2007 Webb report on 14-19 education and the Daugherty and NBAR reports.
Mr Thomas and his colleagues have provided a great service for Welsh education. My only reservation is that the move towards increased centralisation is more in keeping with Louis XIV's France. But in the short-term, it may be necessary.
Professor Ken Reid was chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review and is research professor of education at Swansea Metropolitan University.