Of the thousands of pieces of evidence that have passed before my eyes as minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, one that abides in my memory is the county-by-county comparative figures for participation in higher education.
The most recent show that 46 per cent of young people in Monmouthshire went on to higher education. For neighbouring Blaenau Gwent, the figure was as low as 16 per cent. For young people in Blaenau Gwent, for their communities and Wales as a whole, this is a shocking, unacceptable situation.
Research in neuro-science shows us that all young people have the same potential to succeed through education and training. Research commissioned by the Assembly government as part of the Rees review on higher education funding and student support showed that in Blaenau Gwent and similar areas those who had the qualifications to proceed entered higher education. Quite simply, not enough young people are coming forward by the end of their school days to enter higher education or skilled employment.
The Assembly government is deeply committed to ending such social injustice - by breaking the links between deprivation, limited aspirations and low levels of attainment. We know that success in education and training can provide the pathway out of poverty and provide our young people with future fulfilment and well-being. This is why we have increased spending on schools by 41 per cent since 200001. That funding can be and is used by schools to support young people who become disengaged, to help them improve their motivation and performance.
The evidence of two studies we have carried out with the Welsh Local Government Association shows that many schools in the most challenging circumstances use their existing resources to achieve above expectations.
The additional funding we are investing in education and training through Flying Start (early years), the foundation-phase pilot (for three to seven-year-olds) and 14-19 learning pathways is also driven to some extent by the need to target low participation and attainment in our most deprived areas. These represent major systemic changes to our education and training systems which in time will totally transform the landscape of learning in Wales.
But we cannot afford to wait for the medium to long-term effect of these initiatives to change the relationship between deprivation and low attainment. In the past year, we have received reports from Estyn, the Wales Audit Office, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Trust and, most recently, the Fabian Society on this issue. The messages they convey are clear. Overall, we have made good progress in improving attainment and achievement in our school system.
Yet there remains a close correlation between disadvantage and low attainment -with a long tail of underperformance, too many young people leaving school with no qualifications, and too little progress in the number of 16-year-olds gaining five higher grades and five A*-C grades at GCSE.
The Assembly government therefore decided to use the extra funding from the Chancellor's Budget to support the social justice agenda in education which, with pound;3 million of our existing funding, enables us to have a pound;16m programme to tackle disadvantage in Wales. This is the biggest-ever investment to raise standards for our most deprived pupils, and because the emphasis is on raising standards the programme is called Raise (raising attainment and individual standards in education). We know we must invest intensely because international evidence tells us so.
The methodology developed to allocate this funding has used the established proxy for deprivation: eligibility of pupils for free school meals (FSM).
Funding will be targeted at schools with more than 20 per cent of their pupils eligible for FSM, with graduated levels of funding passed to those schools in relation to their concentration of disadvantaged pupils.
We intend to harness all our efforts and resources to drive this programme forward. We will use good practice from around the world. We will monitor closely and evaluate the outcomes. We invite all schools - those which have received funding and those which have not - to get behind this initiative.
I am also looking for support from the teacher associations, further and higher education, parents, governors, employers and the communities in which these schools are located.
We can and will succeed. We owe it to the young people of communities such as Blaenau Gwent and to Wales as a whole. By so doing, we will show that education, training, skills and lifelong learning can make a difference in a learning country.
Jane Davidson is the Assembly government's minister for education, lifelong learning and skills
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