Page last updated at 15:58 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Pace of school shake-ups defended

Nicola Smith
By Nicola Smith
BBC Wales education correspondent

Classroom scene (generic)
Pupils learning Welsh do not receive enough teaching time, Estyn says

Councillors who will not take difficult decisions to close schools are to blame for too many unfilled classroom places, says Wales's schools inspection body.

In its report, Estyn said many councils cannot deliver school reorganisation plans because of their elected members.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said choosing to close a school could not be a "rushed decision".

It said councils followed a clear process, extensive consultation with education needs put first.

Estyn, in its annual report, also said the teaching of Welsh as a second language is getting worse but, overall, education is improving.

The assembly government said progress had been made in Welsh as a second language over the last two decades.

The report said primary school standards are better than six years ago, when they were last inspected, with 84% of the lessons seen judged to be good, or very good.

Further education is also still exceeding Welsh Assembly Government performance targets.

But the report said there are too many unfilled school places.

For this, the inspectorate lays the blame with local education authorities.

Chief inspector for schools in Wales Dr Bill Maxwell said: "Many authorities can't deliver school reorganisation plans, because too many elected members aren't prepared to take the difficult decisions to close some schools.

"We do think that it's vital that each local authority has a very comprehensive and well thought-through plan.

"It must stick to its guns once it has come to a corporate decision about the best use of resources in that area.

"The end result of course is that money is effectively wasted or used less efficiently than it should be and that has an impact in terms of less resources for pupils in the area."

Two thirds of primary schools, special schools and pupil referral units make good provision for promoting bilingualism, the report said.

But the teaching of Welsh as a second language is much worse than in other subjects, with many pupils not doing as well at GCSE level because "they do not receive enough teaching time, and the quality of teaching is poor".

The report also highlighted the need to improve the provision of Welsh-medium education for post-16 students.

'Socially disadvantaged learners'

There is a growing commitment to offer more choice for all 14-19-year-olds in Wales.

Estyn recognises that local authorities are making slow progress in offering a wider range of academic and vocational courses, through better relationships with colleges and work-based learning providers.

But, the inspectorate seeks greater collaboration, to improve young peoples' experiences.

Dr Maxwell said: "Partners from different sectors and different geographical areas need to share information and skills more actively than ever before so that the learner can truly benefit."

Estyn also recognises a need to break the link between poverty and low achievement.

Children from unskilled backgrounds are five times less likely to go on to further and higher education than those from affluent backgrounds, and the report says schools and local authorities need to get better at identifying and intervening to support socially disadvantaged learners.

"These challenges are not all unique to Wales, but that doesn't lessen the need to address them vigorously," added Dr Maxwell.

"Bringing about change to achieve excellence for all learners is the collective responsibility of us all - learners, frontline staff, managers of provision, local authorities, national policy makers and indeed Estyn."

Graham Williams, who teaches at Coleg Llandrillo Cymru in Rhos-on-Sea, gives his reaction to the Estyn report

Councilllor Peter Fox, the WLGA's lifelong learning spokesman admitted some difficult decisions were needed around school re-organisation.

"Indeed, there are no quick wins to school reorganisation," he said.

"Choosing to close a school cannot be a rushed decision. Local authorities, in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, follow a clear process for securing the best outcome for children and young people in their local area and which puts their educational needs first.

"This process is set by law and involves extensive consultation with schools and the local communities affected."

Conservative education spokesman Andrew RT Davies said: "We welcome the general improvement in overall standards in schools in Wales but note with concern that the gap between Wales and England is widening in attainment levels.

"We also note the need to bring resources up to an equal footing in schools across Wales.

"The assembly government also needs to get a grip on the problem of surplus school places.

"For ministers to simply to pass the buck to local councillors is a bit rich given that they have failed to bring forward any strategic direction on this issue."

Liberal Democrat shadow education minister, Jenny Randerson called for a radical rethink of schooling for underprivileged children.

"It is clear from this report that the bare bones of our education system are improving, with progress in many areas, but we are again seeing this solid link between poverty and underachievement.

"No Government has ever been able to break this, least of all this one."

An assembly government spokeswoman said the Estyn report highlighted challenges which would be addressed in its Welsh medium education strategy, due to be published in the spring.

The spokesman added that ministers looked to all decision makers in local authorities to move the organisation of schools forward in the interests of pupils.

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