Byline: GARETH EVANS
PRIME Minister David Cameron yesterday entered into Wales' education debate by accusing the Welsh Government of letting school standards slip.
Mr Cameron said the Welsh Labour-led administration has to address falling standards and pointed to measures being taken across the border.
He said: "I would argue that the steps we're taking in England, where we are having more schools with greater independence, more choice for parents, more focus on results, more academies, these are good things for educational standards.
"But it's a choice for the Welsh people. I hope the Welsh Government won't continue to let educational standards in Wales slip."
Mr Cameron's comments, in response to a question from the Western Mail, came as Wales' Education Minister Leighton Andrews was preparing to deliver his second major speech on school standards.
A damning report by education inspectorate Estyn and disastrous Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results prompted a call to propel Welsh schools into the top 20 by 2015.
A cornerstone of the minister's review was the importance of local authorities engaging in consortia arrangements and driving out bureaucracy. Mr Andrews has called on Wales' 22 councils to deliver a "radical set of shared services" to improve performance in the nation's schools. He said working together was crucial and has given authorities until September 2012 to conform to the regional structure.
"As far as I'm concerned, there is no opting out of the regional working agenda. We can achieve improvement when we commit ourselves to working together," he said.
Steve Thomas, chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association, last night said the nation's councils were committed to change.
"We've been discussing this issue since well before Leighton's February speech," said Mr Thomas. "There have been projects in the past which have not come off, but if we say we are going to deliver, we have got to deliver."
Mr Thomas said collaborative working and regional consortia was a "small part of the jigsaw" and local authorities were already dealing with delegating more money to the frontline and administering the minister's new categorisation of schools.
"We are also looking to see that the minister deals with a range of issues we've got - like promoting the best teachers and dealing with those who are not performing," he said.
"We want rigorous scrutiny of school governing bodies and school data to be used properly. While the school improvement consortia will drive that, it's one part of a wider system including schools, local government and the Welsh Government.
"We keep on about Wales having 22 local authorities each doing their own little thing, but there are other ways of doing it.
We are already working in regional consortia but if they want the reorganisation debate, we'll have that debate."
Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas warned against the introduction of a national school banding system - which Mr Andrews last night revealed would be in place by the autumn - and said school categorisation, used to identify strengths and weaknesses, would trigger a return to "league tables" and the mistakes of old.
"There are elements of the statement that can be welcomed and that we will be looking to work with the minister to develop and implement," he said.
"However, we can't accept any step backwards in terms of a return to discredited practices. The minister does appear to be moving towards a form of league table grading of schools as well as the reintroduction of a SATs-style approach to monitoring performance.
"We know that these systems have a lot of opposition, not only from teachers but also from parents. We must be careful that this isn't a case of falling to learn from past mistakes.
I support the publication of informative data for parents, teachers and governors, but a move to the kind of league tables that seek to blame failing schools and drive them out of existence would leave many pupils abandoned. …