Sector report: Local government education services 2021-2022
Local government education services include those provided or commissioned by a single local authority as well as those provided in partnership with other local authorities. School improvement services are provided largely in conjunction with regional consortia on behalf of local authorities, though the model for how this works varies around Wales.
Our local authority link inspectors carried out their regular work with local authorities and regional consortia and we worked with Audit Wales to provide local authorities with our views on what is working well in their local government education services and what needs to improve.
Between September 2021 and July 2022, we carried out five inspections of local government education services. One local authority, Torfaen, was judged to be causing significant concern. Many local authorities were asked to produce case studies outlining effective practice in aspects of their work.
At the start of the academic year, there were three local authorities causing significant concern. Powys was judged to have made good progress during a monitoring visit in the autumn term and was removed from further follow-up activity. We held improvement conferences in Pembrokeshire and Wrexham authorities to determine the progress made against the recommendations from their core inspection. We identified that both authorities needed to continue working on their monitoring and evaluation processes. We will continue to evaluate the progress of education services.
During our inspections last year, we were unable to provide a full evaluation of outcomes. This was due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the suspension of inspections of schools and most other education providers since March 2020. A secondary issue was the lack of data about outcomes that can be compared over time as the pandemic caused changes to the way that qualifications were awarded and affected most other data that we consider when making evaluations, such as school attendance, school exclusions and post-16 learner destinations. Therefore, for the academic year 2021-2022, we reported only on outcomes before the pandemic or those that related to more recent outcomes where the evidence base is valid and reliable.
Our inspections in primary and secondary schools in the five local authorities inspected show that the judgements made on the standards that pupils achieve in primary and secondary schools were strongest in schools in Swansea and weakest in schools in Torfaen.
Of the local authorities inspected this year, for the three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, standards at Key Stage 4 were high in schools in Swansea and Cardiff. They were more variable in schools in Anglesey and were low in Torfaen and Merthyr Tydfil. The standards of pupils eligible for free school meals were above or in line with national averages in all of the local authorities inspected.
Pupils’ wellbeing and attitudes to learning were good or better in three local authorities, were in line with national averages in Cardiff and lower than national averages in Torfaen. Attendance levels for the three years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were at or above national averages in four local authorities but were lower in Merthyr Tydfil. Across Wales, pupil attendance levels are lower in 2021-2022 than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For primary aged pupils in maintained schools, attendance in 2021-2022 was 89%, compared to 94.6% in 2018-2019. For secondary age pupils in maintained schools, attendance in 2021-2022 was 83.7%, compared to 93.8% in 2018-2019.
In many local authorities, pupils have good opportunities to influence the work of education services and to give their views on decisions that affect their communities. For example, in Anglesey, pupils have contributed to a ‘have your say’ survey, discussing their experience of living in Anglesey, and referring to aspects such as their employment hopes for the future. In Merthyr Tydfil, young people led on the development of a young person’s version of the local authority’s ‘Raising Aspirations, Raising Standards’ strategy, and in Swansea pupils were involved in the recruitment of the Director of Education.
In all inspections we evaluate how well local authorities supported schools to improve. In many of the local authorities inspected last year, we found that officers had created positive working relationships with their regional consortium. This contributed to ensuring that processes to support school improvement were effective. These include procedures for sharing information about schools who need additional support and ‘Team around the School’ arrangements. In these cases, officers from the school improvement services worked with local authority service leads, such as for education welfare and inclusion, to ensure that they had a shared and secure understanding of each school’s strengths and shortcomings. This close working relationship also helped officers to intervene and provide support as soon as a risk was identified. In education services where school improvement processes are weaker, the pace of improvement in schools causing concern was too slow. This was partly because local authority officers did not challenge officers from the school improvement service well enough about the support their schools receive.
In Swansea, we found that officers worked proactively with schools to identify and support future school leaders, including for schools where recruitment is sometimes more difficult, such as Roman Catholic schools. This approach helped to ensure that leadership in schools in Swansea was strong. In the three-year period prior to the pandemic, most schools inspected in Swansea were judged to have good or excellent leadership and management, a better profile than in any other local authority in Wales. You can read about this work in the case study here.
All local authorities provided support for schools to develop their curricula in line with the requirements of the Curriculum for Wales. This work was often provided through regional consortia, although a few local authorities engaged in initiatives in addition to the national programme of curriculum support. For example, in Cardiff, officers developed a ‘computation in the curriculum’ course in partnership with Swansea University. This course supported practitioners to consider curriculum planning for computing, linked to science and technology. In Anglesey, the authority was part of a national task and finish group working on updating the relationships and sexuality education policy to match the new requirements within the Curriculum for Wales. However, in general, curriculum support wasn’t tailored well enough to the needs of individual schools, or to groups of schools such as maintained special schools. We wrote in detail about the quality of support for schools from local authorities and regional consortia in our 2022 report, The Curriculum for Wales: How are regional consortia and local authorities supporting schools?
In all inspections we consider an aspect of how well the local authority supports pupils with additional learning needs or those who are vulnerable. In Merthyr Tydfil, we evaluated the provision for pupils with social, emotional, and behavioural needs. We found that local authority officers have established relationships with schools that are built on mutual trust and respect and that the services provided by the local authority to support the needs of pupils were well regarded by schools. In Torfaen, we found strengths in how the local authority supports its schools and other settings to provide for pupils with ALN. These included providing helpful advice and guidance on preparing for ALN reform and well-understood arrangements for referrals. In Cardiff, we evaluated the provision that the local authority made for children who are looked after and those that have English or Welsh as an additional language. We found strengths in the council’s support for asylum seekers and refugees and officers produced a case study about this work.
Cardiff Council’s support for refugee and asylum seekers
Inspectors found that Cardiff Council provides a high level of support for asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in the area. This includes providing highly effective support for the educational needs of newly arrived children by swiftly arranging learning opportunities for them. For example, within two weeks of their arrival in the city in the autumn term 2021, officers co-ordinated teaching for large groups of children from Afghanistan. This included refugees who were accommodated in Cardiff before their dispersal to other parts of Wales. The local authority worked with local primary and secondary schools to release teachers who speak relevant languages to support these pupils. You can read more about this work here.
We made recommendations for three local authorities to improve aspects of their services for pupils with additional learning or well-being needs. In Cardiff, the focus was on improving their counselling services for young people. In Merthyr Tydfil, officers needed to focus on the impact of parttime education provision for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. In Torfaen council, improvements were needed both in the leadership of the services for pupils with additional learning needs and the council’s strategy for this work. Powys County Council made good progress in addressing the recommendation to improve its provision for learners with special educational needs and other pupils who require extra support. You can read about the Council’s work to improve the evaluation, planning and co-ordination of their provision for these learners here.
Last year, we reviewed the work of youth services in three local authorities as part of pilot inspection arrangements. We found that, through their involvement with youth workers and engagement in personal and social education sessions, many young people improved their social skills and awareness of health issues. Many also improved their practical skills, for example through English and Welsh-medium sessions on how to build motorised go-karts. Most young people who received targeted educational support from youth workers made valuable progress and attained useful qualifications.
Cameo: Torfaen local authority youth services
An Educational Psychologist (EP) provides support to Torfaen Youth Service on three levels: individual, group and systemic. At an individual level, the EP offers one-to-one consultation to upskill and empower youth workers, which includes assisting them to deliver tailored support for young people. On a group level, the EP provides weekly reflection sessions, theme-based workshops inspired by current issues and drop-in sessions to discuss specific young people or groups. On a systemic level, the EP delivers relevant training on topics such as traumainformed approaches or the use of specific psychological activities to elicit young people’s views. Where appropriate, the EP liaises with other agencies to deliver relevant bespoke training.
The youth work sector was often innovative in the ways it sought to grow provision and positively impact young people’s educational outcomes. For example, Cardiff youth service developed an innovative digital offer led by young people. Details of this work are here. In Merthyr Tydfil, youth workers delivered programmes that enabled targeted pupils to attain relevant qualifications and supported most of them to progress successfully to the next stage of education or employment, which is captured in this case study produced by the local authority. Torfaen youth service funded an educational psychologist to support youth workers and inform their practice, including training on how to use cognitive behavioural therapeutic approaches to provide interventions for young people.
Overall, the local authority youth work services we inspected provided valuable support for young people through targeted, outreach, and open access provision. Youth workers provided very beneficial support for young people’s emotional health and well-being. For example, they offered effective and sensitive support for young carers, vulnerable young people and those with additional learning needs to assist them in developing the skills they needed to live successful and satisfying lives within society. They provide good support where needed for young LGBTQ+ people. Targeting prioritised areas based on socio-economic needs was effective in meeting the needs of those young people. However, such targeting limited the opportunities for young people from all backgrounds to benefit from youth work provision or the support youth workers provide.
In all the local authorities inspected, there were good examples of individual Welsh-speaking youth workers who engaged well with Welsh-speaking young people and encouraged them to use their language skills outside of formal school settings. In the best examples, they normalised the use of the language in activities that appeal to young people. However, overall, strategic and purposeful planning to increase the use of the language through a proactive planned offer was either underdeveloped or at an early stage of development.
Youth work leaders worked effectively with other local authority departments and partner organisations, including the voluntary sector, to ensure a wide range of provision that evolves to meet the needs of young people. In the best examples, leaders were innovative in the way they sourced extra funding to sustain and grow their youth work offer to young people. They monitored the quality of youth work provision effectively and consulted well with young people to assess the services they access and ensure that their voice influenced policy decisions.
In Merthyr Tydfil, we evaluated the education service’s work on reducing the impact of poverty and disadvantage on pupils’ learning. We found that officers have forged valuable partnerships through a network of services provided by both the local authority and third sector organisations. The local authority established a corporate Tackling Poverty Strategic Group to provide leadership and governance for this work. The group includes heads of service from across the local authority and considered how resources could be used in a purposeful way to address disadvantage through cross-directorate and partnership working. Across services, local authority officers had a comprehensive overview of the needs of vulnerable learners and their families.
At operational level, service leaders from across directorates worked together well. They have a clear understanding of how their provision is part of a multi-service response to tackle the impact of poverty on education. The Early Help Hub provides a useful central point of contact for families to access support and facilitates effective multi-agency working. This approach avoids unnecessary duplication of services and is helping children and their families to receive the right support for their needs in a timely way. During the last year, referrals from schools to the Early Help Hub doubled. There was also a strong focus on reducing the impact of poverty across all council directorates in Swansea. This priority was reflected in the work of all teams in the education directorate. Through their participation in the authority’s poverty forum, officers in the education team have been able to consider how best to support schools, for example by sharing information about the use of credit unions.
Leadership and management
The support for education communities from local authority leaders and elected members during the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened relationships between education services and schools. This has been beneficial in building trust and confidence among stakeholders in the work of officers in education services as schools and other education providers have returned to more usual ways of working. In Anglesey, these improved relationships supported better engagement to discuss and gather opinions on sensitive issues, for example on the reorganisation of schools in the Llangefni area, with discussions leading to a different proposal from the one put forward initially.
In Cardiff, the chair of the children and young people’s scrutiny committee worked effectively with the four other scrutiny chairs, ensuring that education was at the heart of decision-making related to COVID-19. Cardiff’s assistant director for education and his counterpart with responsibility for health and safety aligned their work effectively throughout the pandemic. Consequently, education services were able to respond swiftly to the needs of schools and other education providers as the COVID-19 situation changed. This support was very well received by school and setting leaders.
Last year, we found that scrutiny of education services was sound in many local authorities. In Swansea, the education scrutiny panel engages well with schools and, where appropriate, includes the views of pupils and school leaders when evaluating agenda items brought before them. In Cardiff, the children and young people’s scrutiny committee provides strong and timely scrutiny on a number of relevant issues facing education in the local authority, including sensitive school organisation proposals. Committee members follow up areas of focus and write to the cabinet member to express their observations with suitably challenging recommendations. However, in Merthyr Tydfil, members of the learning and local government education services scrutiny committee do not provide enough robust challenge to the Cabinet member or officers in order to secure sufficient accountability or promote improvement.
Last year, local authorities prepared their Welsh in Education Strategic Plans for the 10-year period from 2022-2032. The quality and ambition of these plans vary greatly. The best plans are incisive and clear about their aims, and provide certainty about action. Less successful plans have little ambition and implementation details.
The variation across Wales is due to some extent to the linguistic context and structural pattern of provision for Welsh-medium and English-medium education. For example, in the south and north-east, the norm is to have designated Welsh-medium and English-medium schools and there is very little variation to this arrangement. In the north and south-west, there are complex patterns of designated Welsh-medium schools with a continuum of various arrangements of provision.
In the south-east, references to increasing Welsh-medium provision in mostly English-medium schools are limited. Plans identify aims to either fill the surplus places that already exist in the Welsh-medium education sector or open new schools in areas that are less accessible to Welsh-medium provision currently.
In local authorities in the south and north-west, the picture is more mixed. Five local authorities state clearly their aspiration to increase Welsh provision in schools that are mainly English-medium or that have Welsh streams. For example, Ceredigion identifies in its plan the steps towards ensuring that six of the seven secondary schools significantly increase their Welsh-medium provision during the ten-year period of the WESP. It identifies the actions towards realising these aims, for example by engaging with the governing bodies of those schools as part of the initial consultation.
In the local authorities we inspected, we evaluated the progress that local authorities had made in delivering their previous plans for developing Welsh in education. In Merthyr Tydfil, officers developed an action plan from their Welsh language strategy to promote the benefits of Welsh-medium education and improve standards of Welsh in Welsh-medium and English-medium schools. The strategy aims to create an environment where Welsh is a bigger part of everyday life for people in Merthyr Tydfil – a ‘shwmaeronment’. In Cardiff, officers and elected members have invested in a suitable range of capital projects to increase Welsh-medium education capacity and recognise the need to be proactive in their planning of school places to stimulate demand for Welsh-medium education across the city.
In Torfaen, we found that the local authority has placed an increased focus on developing its Welsh-medium provision in recent years. There is sufficient capacity in Welsh-medium schools to meet the immediate demand and future growth. However, learners wishing to access post-16 provision through the medium of Welsh do not have access to the same range of courses as those studying through the medium of English. In three of the local authorities, we made recommendations about ensuring that future Welsh-medium provision meets the needs of learners in their authorities. We wrote in detail about the effectiveness of local authorities’ use of Welsh immersion education as a tool to increase the number of Welsh speakers in our report, Welsh Immersion Education – Strategies and approaches to support 3 to 11-year-old learners.
Last year, as in previous years, we found weaknesses in local authority self-evaluation processes, in particular at service area level. Officers do not use information available to them to support their evaluation processes well enough or set precise enough success criteria against which they can measure success. This means that evaluation processes are not helpful to local authorities in identifying priority areas for improvement. We made recommendations about improving self-evaluation processes in four of the local authority education services that we inspected last year. This resource provides self-reflection prompts to support officers in local government education services to evaluate their work.
In all local authorities inspected last year we found that councils had prioritised funding for education. For example, in Merthyr Tydfil, the local authority increased and protected its education budget at a time of budget pressures across the authority and, for 2021-2022, increased its education budget above the Wales average. In most local authorities, schools’ reserves overall increased significantly over the 2020-2021 financial year, largely due to additional funding being received from the Welsh Government. Despite this, a few schools in the local authorities we inspected forecast deficit budgets in the next financial year. Local authority finance teams worked effectively to monitor school budgets and support schools in managing surplus or deficit budgets.
During the current cycle of inspections, we have focused more closely on the safeguarding culture in local authority education services. In many local authorities we found that there is a strong corporate understanding that safeguarding is everyone’s concern. In these authorities, senior members of staff take on the role of designated safeguarding officers and provide clear guidance to schools and settings on policies and practices to keep learners safe. However, in Torfaen local authority, we found that elected members did not have a strong enough overview of safeguarding in education.