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Top education job goes on market

Brave new world of merged post-16 bodies gears up to attract best candidates. James Graham, Nicola Porter and Karen Thornton report

The top education job in the Welsh civil service is to be advertised next week, with other senior management posts to follow.

The Assembly government has hired an executive recruitment agency to "ensure we scour the world for the best candidates" to head up new policy departments and divisions, which will result from next year's mergers with several quangos.

The Assembly's new department for training and education - renamed education and lifelong learning - will incorporate ACCAC, the Welsh qualifications, curriculum and assessment authority, and ELWa, the post-16 funding agency.

It is not known whether Richard Davies, the current education director, or his senior management colleagues, will be reapplying for the equivalent of their old jobs in the new department.

But ministers this week played down suggestions that the "bonfire of the quangos" will lead to widespread job losses.

Jane Davidson, education and lifelong learning minister, told Assembly members that consultations between the Welsh government, ACCAC and ELWa were going well.

She said: "We are not seeing anything like the wholesale leaving of posts, but what we are seeing are some exciting new initiatives under a new quality framework."

Ms Davidson said she was keen to increase scrutiny with the merger, commenting that it had been a long time since ACCAC had come before the education and lifelong learning committee.

Responses to consultations on the merger plans have raised similar concerns about how well the work of the new education department will be scrutinised and informed by external experts.

The Assembly government has proposed setting up expert advisory panels to carry out some of the supervisory work that is currently undertaken by the ACCAC and ELWa boards.

But these panels could struggle to attract high-calibre people because, unlike the boards, they will not have decision-making powers, say respondents to the consultations.

They also raise concerns about the impact on learners of the mergers.

Some 125 organisations and individuals have written to the government about the changes to education, as well as the amalgamation of the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and the Welsh Language Board.

fforwm, which represents 25 further education institutions in Wales, said the current quango boards were independent bodies, "attracting people of calibre who challenge and monitor the work of their organisations".

Strategic advisory panels, on the other hand, "may not provide the same degree of scrutiny, robustness and rigour".

The Church in Wales had similar concerns, suggesting the panels' lack of decision-making power could affect their quality. Inspection agency Estyn said care would be needed to ensure panels were "not just seen as rubber-stamping the work of officials".

The agency was one of the few respondents to make reference to the needs of learners, asking about the role of independent inspectorates and calling for the new education department to publish its own strategic and financial plans and an annual report. The Department for Education and Skills in London has done so for years.

fforwm took the opportunity to call for more money, saying that learners required excellent facilities, modern equipment, effective teachers and high-quality managers.

Although supportive of the changes, ELWa also conceded the mergers programme presented "a threat to delivery". It said that a string of upheavals in FE since the 1950s had been disruptive and generated "uncertainty, increased staff turnover, and unsettling changes in senior management".

The civil servants who will be running the new department said they were concerned about the additional work involved in servicing advisory panels.

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