If 2008 was the year of the foundation phase, then 2009 will be the year of the so-called transformation agenda. The first introduces youngsters to the world of education through play; the second to the world of work. The way for the first was paved by advances in teaching practice; the second by harsh economic reality. Almost 10 per cent of our young people are not in education, employment or training. Today's global economy means Wales's future economic and social wellbeing can no longer depend on low-skilled work.
The Assembly government in Cardiff has nailed its colours to the mast. The document Skills that Work for Wales is its strategic blueprint for the future.
The transformation agenda, found in what has become known not altogether affectionately as the "terracotta document", is what is ruffling feathers most. Its underlying premise is that provision and collaboration are not enough to deliver the skills and knowledge that Wales needs. Radical overhaul of the structure of provision is necessary, it says.
The Assembly government hopes that such an overhaul will improve basic skills, raise qualification levels and stop young people dropping out. This will be achieved by guaranteeing broader student choice and more vocational courses. Schools, colleges and universities will be required to co-operate more, and unnecessary duplications will be cut, saving money.
The workforce analysis is incontrovertible. The need for more student choice is undeniable. The inadequacy of present co-operation is not seriously disputed. So what is the problem? As ever, the devil is in the detail. For instance, school sixth forms come under considerable scrutiny: those with fewer than 150 pupils are suspected of inefficiency. And while the terracotta document does not prescribe a tertiary system for Wales, it leans heavily towards one.
In some situations, parents, pupils and staff may be glad of a new start, but in others they will feel their choices are being curtailed. It will be interesting to see if parent power skews the agenda. Some small, underperforming sixth forms, especially in more deprived areas, may disappear with little protest. But what if proposals encompass academically successful schools with sixth forms in the leafy suburbs? The howls of the middle classes may halt progress there. It would be inequitable if the choice between sixth form and college was limited by postcode. Staff, too, may feel that, once their sixth form responsibilities come to an end, their careers are curtailed.
Even those institutions that survive will face the vexed question of transport. In its early days, the learning and skills agenda signalled a bonanza for bus and taxi firms as pupils were to commute between schools and colleges. More recently, it has been implied that staff will travel instead. This is just the tip of the terms-and-conditions iceberg. The continued absence of national terms and conditions in further education makes this much worse. Schoolteachers' terms are largely determined by their pay and conditions document. No such document exits yet for FE in Wales, and so teachers could face the possibility of any one of 23 regimes as they co-operate with their local college. It is also an issue in any merger between colleges. The Tory policy of incorporation has, in this area at least, proved to be an inefficient and ineffective use of resources.
More worrying for staff is the spectre of job losses. No one, it seems, will remain unscathed. The document is blunt: there are too many secondaries and unnecessary duplications of provision between schools and colleges. In some areas, a full-scale reconfiguration of provision is envisaged.
But does all this mean that nothing should be done? Realistically, the answer has to be No. Skill levels are woefully inadequate, and students are being sold short by the limited options available to them. The new budget round will make it even more imperative that money is spent well in education. The status quo is simply not an option.
The Assembly government's real challenge will be to convince parents, pupils and staff that its vision of the future is better. If it is serious about transformation, then three assurances would be most welcome. First, that it will work with all relevant parties to ensure there will be no compulsory redundancies in either schools or FE. Second, that it will facilitate the development of all-Wales terms and conditions for FE staff, and negotiate how school staff will fit into these new arrangements. Third, and most contentiously, it must guarantee it has learnt the lessons of the foundation phase and ensure that full and adequate funding is available for changes. Given the budget settlements just announced for FE and sixth forms, that seems increasingly unlikely and the path ahead looks rockier than ever.
The slashing of 7.43 per cent from the post-16 budget has caused fury in schools and colleges alike. Some accuse the Assembly government of bad faith, and it's ironic to say the least that the funding of an agenda which urges co-operation should be the cause of some of the greatest dissension with key stakeholders ever known in post-devolution Wales.
Dr Philip Dixon, Director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru.