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It's scary that no one denies a funding gap

Be afraid of an Assembly government ignoring Wales's underspending on education

The furore that erupted in mid-November last year, when TES Cymru published my research highlighting inadequate levels of education expenditure in Wales, was a highly informative event. Of course, the issue of Wales's poor spending levels is of itself important - indeed vital -and needs urgent attention. But this eruption can also tell us a lot about what is going on generally in education - about the personalities involved, about the Assembly government, and indeed about ourselves in Wales as a country. Looking back at what went on, my view is that it's time to be afraid. Very afraid.

First, let's consider who were the good guys and girls? The teachers' unions emerged with considerable credit. Not one union, and not one union representative, was anything other than totally supportive of the case that Wales is spending 8 to 10 per cent less per head on education than England. Sometimes in the past, Welsh union voices have been muted, probably for fear of upsetting the Assembly government and for fear of upsetting that inside-track status that the unions acquired under Jane Davidson, the former education minister, who consulted them informally about everything of importance. But this time, most likely because the sheer scale of the gap between Welsh and English expenditure genuinely angered and shocked them, the unions exploded with justifiable rage.

Another one of the good guys was David Hawker, newly arrived to head the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, who made it clear he thought there was a problem with levels of education expenditure in Wales. This was a brave statement given the views of his political masters.

There are those, however, who come out of this event with their reputations seriously damaged. First, the Assembly government's PR machine, which was unable to think of any better defence of its policies than to rubbish my research as "anti-Welsh". When a government is reduced to this, be afraid. Very afraid. There's no knowing who they might try to pick on next.

And then there is the Assembly government itself. Interestingly, neither Jane Hutt, the education minister, nor her officials questioned our figures. This was not surprising since they were all taken directly from Assembly or English government sources. But note what this means: the Assembly government accepts that there is a Pounds 400 per head spending gap with England. They accept that the Assembly has not prioritised education to the extent that the rest of the UK has. They accept that local authorities in Wales - uniquely in the world - are centralising, not decentralising, financial control. They accept that money has been diverted from education to fancy "nation building". And note, there was no commitment from the Assembly government to do anything about it. Be afraid when a government is this arrogant. Very afraid.

To claim that you can't compare Wales with England because we are different countries with different systems is plain bonkers. Wales and England are tied by identical pay and conditions for teachers, making the two countries directly comparable. Given that salary costs in both Wales and England are probably 90 per cent of school budgets, even the most clueless politician should be able to see that if Wales has about 10 per cent less money per child than England, it can only employ and pay its staff by cutting into its expenditure on other areas of education such as books, equipment, IT and professional development. When people in government are apparently this clueless, be afraid. Very afraid.

So, where do we go from here in 2009?

The figures for local authority expenditure "out turn" for 2007-08 are due soon, so we can see if the gap with England is widening. If it is, education in Wales may be approaching that tipping point where schools are simply unable to function properly because they can't purchase what they need - a point of simple, total systemic failure. I suspect we are approaching this point, and all the while the Assembly, the minister and her cronies are pretending that things are all right.

Be afraid, very afraid for the year ahead and what it may bring.

David Reynolds, Professor of education, University of Plymouth. He lives in South Wales.

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