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This ruptured isle

If England expects to set the agenda for UK schools, it will be sorely disappointed. Increasingly it seems as if the four home nations will end up with four distinct education systems, writes Mike Baker.

Is the "British" education system cracking at the borders? Will Welsh schools become as different from English schools as their French counterparts are? And will Northern Ireland model itself on Scotland rather than taking its cue from Westminster?

All of this would be a logical extension of devolution. Power over schools is arguably the most significant policy area for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies. If they cannot change schools it will be hard to sustain the case for devolution.

Differences are already becoming apparent: Northern Ireland has scrapped league tables and Wales is considering a baccalaureate-style alternative to A-levels.

Scotland, of course, has always been distinctive but is showing signs of becoming even more so: university tuition fees have been abolished and the recent teacher pay deal was the envy of staff elsewhere in the UK.

Will these changes encourage further differentiation? The Welsh Assembly is sympathetic to scrapping league tables and university fees. It is also not keen on the "threshold" performance pay arrangements for teachers but Whitehall has blocked Wales from going its own way on salaries and conditions.

At Westminster, ministers fear different pay and conditions could impede the movement of teachers across borders. The more generous pay deal in Scotland was embarrassment enough for English ministers.

The pay issue underlines the limits of the Welsh Assembly's devolved powers. Unlike its Scottish counterpart, the Assembly cannot pass primary legislation. It can only tailor Westminster law through orders, rules and regulations.

Policy in Wales is decided by the Assembly's education committee. Former First Secretary, Alun Michael, described the committees as the "power-houses" of the Assembly.

But education got off to a spluttering start. Initially there were two committees, one each for pre-and post-16 education, and two education ministers. They have now been merged into a single committee with one minister, Jane Davidson.

Teachers have welcomed the new minister as an improvement on her predecessor, Rosemary Butler, who was described by one union leader as "charming" but who "failed to fight for education".

Unlike England there is no recruitment crisis in Wales. With just 0.3 per cent of teaching posts vacant Ms Davidson is free to focus on other issues. She has shown interest in developing a pilot Welsh baccalaureate and in measures to cut junior class sizes.

For Welsh heads, the key issue is funding. Figures from the Audit Commission and the Institute of Welsh Affairs suggest that whereas the Welsh education system used to spend between 2 and 5 per cent more per pupil than England, it now spends less.

The latest figures are for 19989, just ahead of full devolution, but they reflect the movement to greater autonomy in Wales ahead of the creation of the National Assembly. At post-16 level, spending per student in Wales is pound;3,160 per head compared to pound;3,400 in England .

Gareth Matthewson, head of Whitchurch high school in Cardiff, says there is a strong sense of injustice on funding, especially as much of the money for the host of special initiatives does not find its way across the border.

"English schools are getting the Gordon Brown money (the direct grants to all primaries and secondaries in the last budget) and also money for specialist schools, Excellence In Cities, and education action zones - none of which applies in Wales," he complains.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Seondary Heads Association, also cites the recent money paid directly to schools by the Chancellor. "This was worth some pound;70,000 to a typical secondary in Cheshire but only around pound;16,000 for similar sized schools in north Wales," he says.

Both the association and fellow heads' group the National Association of Head Teachers believe Assembly members (mostly former local councillors) are too keen to channel all funding through local education authorities. John Dunford thinks the Assembly is "completely in the pocket of the LEAs". Head Gareth Matthewson agrees: they have a "blind faith" in the LEAs. "All the money goes to the local councils and the attitude seems to be just to let them get on with it."

Devolution has aroused fewer concerns in Scotland. Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, says this is mainly because the system has been distinctive for so long that the change has not been dramatic.

He thinks the "main difference is that Scottish education is now receiving more political attention than before."

Perhaps heartened by the recent Scottish pay deal, Mr Smith is positive about devolution. "I have never seen it as a totem that we should have a uniform system and see no reason why UK education systems should not go in different directions," he argues.

The pay deal in Scotland, offering 21.5 per cent over three years and shorter teaching hours, has helped teachers warm to the new Scottish administration.

At Lochinvar school, just on the English side of the border, head Andrew Ward fears it will be hard for him to continue to attract teachers from Scotland.

"The Scottish Parliament has said it values teachers and is going to put in money to back that," says Mr Ward. The English government hasn't done likewise."

The priority Scotland attaches to education is signalled by the appointment of Jack McConnell as minister. He is seen as "the coming man" by insiders and, once the fiasco of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's problems are behind him, he is expected to start looking to innovate.

But the education minister causing most excitement is the new man in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. This former butcher's apprentice and one-time IRA chief of staff showed by scrapping school league tables that he is quite prepared to move in a different direction from Westminster.

He could usher in real change for Ulster, described by one union leader as usually following "one step behind England". However, there is concern that uncertainty over the peace process will discourage long-term reforms.

The thorniest issue in Ulster is selection and the 11-plus. A review body on post-primary education has finished its consultations on the 11-plus and the focus will now turn to the minister who failed the exam as a child.

It is hard to imagine decisions of this magnitude ever being taken by Westminster-based ministers; only a devolved government could consider something as sensitive as scrapping Northern Ireland's 11-plus system. But that is what devolution is all about.

If Labour is re-elected it has promised to "transform" secondary education but its latest Green Paper relates to England only. Within five years almost half of schools in England could be specialist colleges while there could be none in Wales or Scotland.

The signs are that devolved education powers will mean greater experimentation and diversity in the UK's various school systems.

The risk is the education debate will become parochial and that there will be even more reliance on local education authorities.

But the upside could be that fresh and inspiring solutions will be found to old problems.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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