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Devolution must not mean divorce

Five years ago, the 60 members of the National Assembly for Wales held their first plenary session, marking the formal start of devolution. Since then, Cardiff Bay has instigated a series of distinctive "made in Wales" policies and it is plausible to argue that education and training have seen the biggest policy divergence.

The Assembly has powers over secondary legislation, such as statutory instruments, in the context of primary legislation passed by Westminster.

But the Labour-led Assembly has benefited from natural partnership with a Labour-led Westminster government. This link has yielded the transfer of significant powers such as the ability to decide whether to charge university tuition fees in the Higher Education Act 2004.

Though the Assembly has been cautious about endorsing a full Welsh parliament, it seems inevitable that it will carry on growing in stature, paving the way for a distinctive Welsh education and training experience.

The Assembly's paper The Learning Country sets out a radical vision, in which the role of FE is "pivotal". The targets in The Learning Country are unique to Wales. For example, there is no 50-per-cent target for participation in higher education. Policies will suit the needs of Wales, it says: "We share the strategic goals of our colleagues in England - but we often need to take a different route to achieve them."

The growing divergence between Welsh and English learning is evident in all sectors and stages. A recent example is the decision by Welsh education minister Jane Davidson to abolish tests for 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds.

Those for for seven-year - olds have already been scrapped.

So what of FE in Wales?

Two years ago, the education minister launched the means-tested Assembly Learning Grant for students aged over 17, studying in further and higher education.

Arrangements for determining pay in FE have changed. We are in Year 2 of the Assembly-funded three-year pay deal for FE staff. My association, fforwm (the Association of Welsh Colleges) has just agreed a common pay spine for Welsh FE lecturers with trade unions.

Further negotiations are taking place over wages for part-time hourly-paid lecturers. Year 3 will focus on the pay of managers and business support staff.

The development of the Welsh Baccalaureate, the Credit and Qualifications framework and the 14-19 proposals will transform the curriculum in colleges. The promotion of the Welsh language and bilingualism is also embedded within all levels of education. I could go on to outline many more examples of unique Welsh developments but one seems particularly crucial: the change in the structure of FE.

Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, recently and unexpectedly announced that all the functions of ELWa, our equivalent of the Learning and Skills Council, will transfer to the Assembly on April 1, 2006. The functions of the Welsh Development Agency and Welsh Tourism Board will also transfer.

The decision to abolish ELWa and take power over funding FE into the Assembly contrasts sharply with the policy in England to decentralise to regions. fforwm has always supported accountability and transparency and trusts that the principles embodied in the visionary Education and Training Action Plan (1999) will remain under the new system.

Future reform must widen participation, raise standards, tackle the skills gap and reduce inefficiency. In other words, the needs of the learner, not administrative convenience, must drive reforms.

Devolved government in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland is having a significant impact on post-16 learning.

Regular contact must be maintained between institutions in the four countries to share good practice and ideas and to set performance standards. Colleges in all four countries have much to learn from each other.

It would be a great pity if devolution leads to divorce. fforwm is anxious to work closely with its sister organisations - the Association of Colleges, the Association of Colleges in Northern Ireland and the Association of Scottish Colleges - to ensure these vital links are maintained.

John Graystone is chief executive of fforwm, the Association of Welsh Colleges

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