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Made in Wales

Jane Davidson is celebrating five years as Welsh education minister, a record all the more remarkable for her almost total rejection of the Blairite agenda for schools. But can Wales hold on to its star player? David Budge meets the Labour party's Ryan Giggs

Jane Davidson flicks through the speech she is about to deliver and hurriedly applies some lipstick as her driver slows for a traffic light.

The Welsh minister for education and lifelong learning is 10 minutes late for her first engagement of the day - the launch of a national pupil database - and she is keen to make up the lost time.

Within seconds of her car sweeping through the gates of Burry Port junior school in Carmarthenshire, she's striding across the playground with an education official. "The school is delighted you've come today, minister,"

says the young woman, smiling. "Please notice the newly laid Tarmac in the playground."

Ms Davidson is happy to be there too, new Tarmac or not. Although she has visited two-thirds of Wales's 2,000 schools - that's six a week in term time - she has never been to Burry Port junior before. Another school can be ticked off her list.

Inside, a dozen local dignitaries, education officials and school staff are waiting for her in the computer room. Fresh cream cakes have been bought and the usual staffroom mugs replaced by china cups and saucers. Even so, it's all rather low-key. Anne Williams, the chief developer of the database, is relaxed enough to admit that the system is not infallible as schools sometimes enter misleading information. "Wales apparently has 15 boys called Megan," she tells the minister. After watching a demonstration of the database, Ms Davidson sets off on a tour of the classrooms, photographers in tow. It's a familiar routine which she clearly enjoys; there are encouraging words for the children and lots of friendly banter with the teachers - in both English and Welsh.

In the final classroom she says she hopes her visit isn't delaying playtime and one boy says that, actually, it is. "We should have gone out a minute ago," he says innocently. It's her cue to leave; a few more handshakes, then back to the car.

The head, David Davies, has been frank about his main problem: falling rolls, largely the result of a declining birth rate. His school, which occupies a cluster of half-empty Victorian buildings, has apparently never lost a child for educational reasons but its roll has still slumped from 250 to 150. Although the E.coli outbreak in South Wales schools, during which more than 150 people have fallen ill and a five-year-old boy has died, has quite rightly been top of the political agenda in recent weeks, it is surplus places that are likely to bedevil Welsh education administrators in the long term. When Jane Davidson became education minister in 2000 there were 56,000 spare places in Welsh schools. Today there are 72,000, and by 2013 there could be as many as 100,000.

How she manages the contraction of pupil numbers will be a huge test of her political acumen. Many schools will have to be closed or amalgamated, but which ones? Which villages should lose what is often the heart of their community?

Ms Davidson is as well placed as anyone to adjudicate on such difficult issues. Earlier this month she celebrated her fifth anniversary in office - a record that no other UK education minister has equalled - and her public approval ratings remain high. She is regularly criticised for allowing local authorities to retain too much of the schools budget (the one subject that seems to rattle her), but she is otherwise almost untouchable. People admire her stamina. She begins answering emails on her new Blackberry palmtop as early as 6.30am, works six days a week and still fits in a 25-mile cycle ride every weekend. She also makes time for her daughter and two sons, aged 14 to 21. "Luckily, we are all interested in politics," she says. "But we also manage because my husband, Guy, practises childcare as well as lectures on the subject. He now works four days a week because of my job." Ms Davidson is also the Assembly's great enthusiast. As she tours a National Health Service careers exhibition in Carmarthen, her second engagement of the day, her conversation is peppered with superlatives such as "fantastic" and "wonderful". An hour later she's back in the ministerial Volvo, still upbeat, enthusing about the scenery as she heads back to Cardiff for meetings with officials and a teatime debate on the Welsh baccalaureate.

"I do 'talk up' the nation, but you also have to be honest about our needs, such as improved adult literacy and numeracy," she says. The high rates of truancy, teenage pregnancy and unemployment are also worrying. But it is educational and social problems of this kind that Ms Davidson is evidently in politics to counter. She first became aware of inequality and injustice as a child in what was then Rhodesia, where her doctor father ran a multiracial medical school. "At that time there were 250,000 whites and four million blacks in Zimbabwe, but it was the whites who had all the professional jobs."

When civil unrest began to break out, young Jane was shipped back to England to take her O-levels at Malvern girls' college in Worcestershire.

"I was always a debater at school, always focusing on disadvantage, although I was doing it from a position of considerable privilege," she recalls.

After gaining an English degree at Birmingham University and a PGCE at University College Wales, Aberystwyth, she taught English, drama and PE in Cardigan and Pontypridd for three years. However, she grew frustrated by the curriculum constraints and left to become a youth worker in Cardiff.

"That's when I started to get concerned about unfairness over housing. But it was Margaret Thatcher who caused me to join the Labour party in 1983 when she took benefits away from 16 and 17-year-olds. That was the catalyst."

In 1986 her Labour branch urged her to contest a city council election, and her political career was under way. Listing her achievements as a councillor - a nursery for council staff, a housing advice centre and an arts development committee - she hesitates: "Oh dear, that makes me sound too worthy, doesn't it?" It was only when she went to work as a researcher for Rhodri Morgan MP, now Wales's first minister, that she began to get close to the centre of power.

She later became head of social affairs for the Welsh Local Government Association, and it was a logical move when she stood for the Pontypridd seat in the Assembly in 1999. She is confident, quickly masters a brief and has a commanding voice (she flirted with acting in the 1980s as a member of a community theatre group).

She is clearly a conscientious constituency representative too, though she momentarily forgets the size of her majority when questioned about the last election. "Err... about 6,000. I should know that. I allocate Fridays to the constituency, but as it is only 12 miles from Cardiff I can sometimes attend evening events there. In fact, I often find myself talking about potholes in the evening. The constituency job has to come first; you can't be a minister unless you retain your constituents' support."

She has clearly managed to do that, but her real achievement has been the creation of a "made in Wales" education system that rejects almost all the policies of the Blair government in London. No wonder many English educationists see her as the political equivalent of Ryan Giggs: a talented left-winger whom they would like to see playing for England rather than Wales. "To me, the key policies are free breakfasts for children in poorer areas, the Flying Start programme for nought to three-year-olds, the foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds, the replacement of national tests with teacher assessment, and the new 14-to-19 agenda that offers more individual learning pathways for young people. One of my core beliefs is that, if you invest in the early years, you stand the best chance of helping disadvantaged children."

The foundation phase - the new play-based curriculum for infants - is therefore of paramount importance. "If we get it right it will be world-best practice because it is built on world-class practice in other countries such as New Zealand and Italy."

Ms Davidson has also toured Canada, Cuba and the Basque country in search of educational innovation that Wales could mimic or adapt. The one country she does not seem keen to borrow policies from, of course, is England, even though she and Ruth Kelly are ostensibly members of the same party. She is in regular contact with Westminster education ministers and David Miliband took her on a tour of a specialist ICT school when he was minister of state for education. Nevertheless, she remains convinced that the English way is not suitable for Wales and proudly points out that only one Welsh school is in special measures, compared with 238 inEngland.

She explains that Welsh and English ministers operate on a basis of "no surprises" (they brief one another before they launch a new policy), but otherwise they go their own ways. Specialist colleges, for example, wouldn't work in Wales because of the distances. "A student might find that a school with one specialism was 20 miles away while the nearest other specialist school was 40 miles distant," she explains. "In any case, Westminster's command and control model isn't right for Wales. I can have a direct dialogue with heads that is not possible in a bigger country."

In other words, there seems to be little chance of Ms Davidson quitting Cardiff for the bigger Westminster stage. If she moves anywhere, it is likely to be to Brussels, but she is also being tipped to succeed Rhodri Morgan when he steps down as first minister in 2009. She is shrewd enough to sidestep such speculation, but it clearly has some substance. The top job at the Welsh Assembly may yet be hers.

How Wales has gone its own way

* The Welsh do not have academies, specialist schools, performance tables, national tests or selective schools

* The Assembly government opposes the privatisation of LEA services

* Welsh universities will not introduce top-up tuition fees until October 2007 - a year after England. After that date Welsh students at Welsh universities will get a grant of pound;1,800 to compensate for the increased fee costs

* It has its own inspectorate,Estyn

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