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Boosted by Welsh accent on education

In Wales voters will decide on a minister's education vision, while Blair faces a popularity test in England

MOVING towards an education system distinct from England's has been one of the most popular policies of the Welsh Assembly.

Since Jane Davidson's appointment in 2000 as minister for education and lifelong learning, education - more than any other policy area - has made great strides to distance itself from Whitehall.

She has abolished league tables and key stage 1 tests, introduced a new Welsh baccalaureate, and drawn up plans for a play-based foundation stage.

She has no truck with specialist schools and does not believe in tuition fees.

And her policies appear to have found favour with all the four main political parties fighting the Assembly elections on May 1.

David Reynolds, professor of education at Exeter University, believes that the similarity between parties' policies is proof of Ms Davidson's achievements as minister. He is confident that another Labour-led coalition is likely in the Assembly's second term, and that Jane Davidson's success will probably ensure her reinstatement as education minister.

"Jane Davidson has created a consensus among educationists, putting people in the same spot," he said. "She has been an extraordinarily effective minister. Most teachers are now very happy they're in Wales and not in England."

The election campaign has, to date, failed to ignite passions. Of the 60-member Assembly, 40 seats are first-past-the-post and 20 allocated on a transferable vote system. Most commentators predict a low turn-out and little change.

The Assembly was born largely in apathy. It was set up by a referendum in which the vote was 51 per cent in favour, on a 50 per cent turn- out. Many argue that it would be more popular if it had greater powers, for example being able to raise taxes. However, the sting has been taken out of the move for greater devolution by the setting up of a commission, led by Lord Richards, to assess its role and powers. He is due to report next year.

The main bone of contention in education is funding. Spending in Wales is not allocated directly to schools by the Assembly. Each local authority is awarded a sum, which it divides up according to its own priorities. Heads would prefer more transparency and a greater proportion of the money going directly to schools.

Gethin Lewis, Welsh secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says more money is needed to cut workloads. He described the pound;3m granted for this purpose by the Assembly as "peanuts".

Mick Bates, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, acknowledges that his party would make few radical changes. But he insists that this is testimony to the Liberal Democrats' strong involvement in the coalition government.

He said: "There were limited ambitions for the Labour party at the beginning. We fought for the parity of esteem issue that the Welsh baccalaureate is bringing to the forefront.

"We fought tooth and nail for means-tested grants to help students in further and higher education. And I personally worked very hard for free school milk."

Jane Davidson profile, 32

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