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Politics

Mapping the future of our councils

Two cabinet heavyweights are busy banging heads together in local government. The Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, is demanding co-operation and collaboration from directors of education for his new school banding scheme, which will identify which schools are doing better than others, with the intention of tackling the ones that are lagging behind.

Meanwhile the Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, has been shaping his plans for our local councils in recent months. His big idea is to insist that they work together and end the system that has given Wales 22 directors of education, social services and so on. He has secured cabinet backing for a plan to group them into the six ‘collaborative organisation groups’ shown in this map.

Mr Sargeant has apparently convinced his fellow ministers that what he calls a ‘pick and mix’ approach is no longer good enough. He argues that a standard model for how local councils should work together will concentrate minds and make council officials accept that the change is permanent. He says that existing collaboration tends to be short-term and easily frustrated.

He admits that existing arrangements should not necessarily be unpicked as that could be disruptive and undermine the delivery of services. But his cabinet paper continues “in relation to the government’s programme of public service reform, the case for strategic coherence is increasingly important. As these reforms gather momentum, and collaborations develop into joint service delivery structure, the need to tackle the current complexity becomes compelling”.

Sorry about the jargon, but by far the biggest example of collaboration developing into a joint service delivery structure is Leighton Andrews’ drive to raise school standards. This December, all secondary schools will be placed into one of five bands. A school’s banding will depend on pupils’ performance, adjusted for their socio-economic mix so that schools in leafy suburbs cannot coast and schools doing well with children from deprived backgrounds have their achievements recognised.

The minister’s schools standards unit will look at how many schools in each band are located in the geographical areas covered by the consortia formed by the directors of education of neighbouring local authorities. Each consortium will be expected to report year on year improvement in the banding of its schools. It will be expected to concentrate extra resources on schools that are lagging behind.

That means that some local councils will be putting more money into the consortium that they’re getting out of it. They will be expected to think of it as an insurance premium against one of its schools getting into trouble and needing help. Although improvement tends to be a slow and steady process, a school can suddenly start slipping back and need rapid intervention.

The consortia were formed in 2004 but there will be a systematic reform. At least some of them are expected to be turned into not-for-profit limited companies, legal entities in their own right. This might sound like Carl Sargeant’s proposed groupings becoming reality, were it not for one crucial detail.

There are four consortia, not six. Only in north Wales do the boundaries match. Most of what the Local Government Minister calls Swansea Bay is joined to mid and west Wales for education purposes but Bridgend is joined to Cwm Tâf, as is Caerphilly and the Vale of Glamorgan. Cardiff is joined with the rest of Gwent.

So it seems as if the map unveiled this summer will not apply to education, which is local government’s biggest single activity. It seems that any change would be too disruptive but that could equally be seen as a failure to tackle the current complexity. Or put another way, when you bang heads together the one thing that is guaranteed is that there will be several headaches.

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