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Council Chiefs blame decline in performance on financial crisis

PRIMARY school attendance in Carmarthenshire is now the lowest in Wales, but pupils in the county are performing above average in other ways.

New figures have shown that attendance in 2018-19 dropped slightly to 93.9%, taking the county to the bottom of the table of 22 Welsh councils.

Attendance at secondary schools also reduced slightly to 93.8%, but this was midtable across Wales.

And GSCE results of grades A* to C were well above the Welsh average, as was the proportion of pupils who gained the Welsh Baccalaureate.

Carmarthenshire Council chiefs have blamed a decline in key performance areas on the tough financial climate and rising public expectations.

The authority has 15 well-being objectives, covering education, health, jobs and the environment, among others.

An annual corporate strategy report for 2018-19 revealed a decrease in 20 success measures relating to these objectives, while 12 have improved and one was unchanged.

It is the first time in six years there has been an overall decline.

A report before a council scrutiny committee said: “It has been increasingly difficult to sustain improvement as measured by these performance indicators due to sustained budget reductions and increased demand and expectations.”

Some members of the community scrutiny committee were bemused by the use of smiley and unhappy faces in the report.

Carmarthenshire’s report

“It says 26.6% of children are overweight or obese – why is this a happy face?” asked councillor Betsan Jones.

Councillor Sue Allen cited another smiley face denoting that 16.6% of older people felt lonely.

“We seem to be celebrating people being lonely,” she said.

A council officer said she took Cllr Allen’s point, but said the idea of the faces was to provide a clear symbol of progress.

The report said that the 26.6% figure for overweight and obese four and five-year-olds in Carmarthenshire was from 2017-18, and had been decreasing since 2014-15.

Councillor Aled Vaughan Owen welcomed the honesty of the report, and said he felt was “very difficult” to maintain progress year on year with less money.

He added: “What is the next step to turn this decline around?”

The officer replied: “I think that will be the challenge for us moving forward.

“I think we do have to recognise that things are getting difficult with less funding and staff capacity.”

She also said the report had some gaps.

Head of lesiure Ian Jones said he felt some of the targets were “too ambitious”, and that the reality was sometimes more positive than the measurements might suggest.

Positive findings included the creation of 419 jobs in 2018-19 through town centre regeneration and business development schemes, and an increase in affordable homes.

But the recycling rate dropped from 63.6% to 58.9%, and more roads were deemed to be in a poor condition than the previous year.

Councillor Handel Davies said he was surprised by fact that only 47.7% of people in the county felt a sense of community, according to a 2016-17 survey.

The officer said: “Maybe we do take these statistics with a pinch of salt.”

Drilling down into different areas of the county would, she said, give a fuller picture.

But she added: “It is something that we need to look at. There is work being done on how we connect people in communities.”

The committee only focused on a few of the objectives, and suggested that the council looked into increasing fishing opportunities for young people.

Councillor Rob Evans said the council used to provide such opportunities, and added: “It keeps the youngsters off the streets.”

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