IMPROVING education in Monmouthshire is like turning a tanker, not a tugboat, councillors heard yesterday as they pored over what was described as a "depressing" report on standards.

Director of education Sarah McGuinness stressed to education scrutiny panel members that she is not taking her eye off the ball, as they read in the report that, last year, outcomes were below target for Monmouthshire's secondary school pupils.

The number of disciplinary and capability hearings for teachers has gone up, she said, and before recent changes, the council's previous Human Resources policy may have hindered the process.

"There is a very strong union feeling around these issues and that can very much hinder the process," Mrs McGuinness told members.

The county's education department is one of three Gwent authorities, along with Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent, currently in special measures following a damning Estyn report and has been for over a year.

Targets for the foundation phase and primary schools closely matched what was achieved last year, said the report, but members asked why officers were only calling for schools to meet the Welsh average standard and not exceed it.

Cllr Debbie Blakeborough, member for Trellech, asked: "What do we need to do to speed up Monmouthshire's results and widen the gap between Monmouthshire and the Welsh average?"

Mrs McGuinness replied: "The lessons learned from Estyn is that we are very clear we are telling an honest and true story, we are turning around a tanker here, not a tugboat. Small steps are key to achieving this. We absolutely want to be the best."

Sharon Randall-Smith, head of service, told panel members that by the end of the summer, they should be able to identify particular schools that have made gains in particular areas, once efforts to track pupils' achievements starts to produce meaningful results.

But not all schools have started using pupil tracking yet, the meeting heard, so the process will take two years to yield its full potential.

Chairman of the panel, Cllr Paul Jordan, member for Cantref, said: "Parts of this report are depressing but it's a baseline for where we are going to go. It can only get better."

The education department is due to give members an update at the end of September based on provisional exam results, as well as an annual report in May.