The Williams Commission considered the international evidence that large scale does not lead to improved performance or reduced cost. It did not deny the evidence. However, it said that this evidence was irrelevant because six ‘small’ Welsh authorities were in special measures for their education service. Government ministers repeat the argument – reorganisation must happen quickly because of the special measures. It is therefore necessary to focus on the nature of these special measures.
Anglesey is a good place in start. Like Italy it has often found it difficult to sustain a reliable political leadership – nobody has suggested abolishing Italy. For a period Welsh Government appointed Commissioners to replace the Council’s leadership and during this period Estyn piled in saying the education service was unsatisfactory. And yet, Anglesey has on the evidence of the Welsh Government’s school banding indicators the best performing schools in Wales.
Pembrokeshire has a very different political culture to Anglesey. Far from having weak leadership it has suffered from a lack of internal challenge – Blair’s Government had much the same problem a decade ago. The effect was that when there needed to be a challenge over child protection measures in the county’s schools, they were lacking. External intervention was justified; but it is not justified to conclude that the whole education service is unsatisfactory.
Education performance in the uppermost parts of the South Wales valleys is unacceptable in all the local authority areas – Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Caerphilly, and Merthyr. Whatever the scale of the local authority this problem has not diminished. In the case of Blaenau Gwent there has been a take-over by the Welsh Government for several years and, on the basis of the data, little has changed. Ad-hoc special measures are not a solution, merging local authorities will not be a solution. We need to have a national priority for the social, economic and educational regeneration of the upper valley areas built on a genuine partnership between local communities and the Welsh Government. Absorbing those local communities into larger scale local authorities in which they have a minority interest will achieve nothing.