A Yes vote in next month's referendum will only give the Assembly more tools to continue a botched job

18th February 2011 at 00:00
As the 3 March vote nears, we publish two opposing views on increasing Welsh powers. This week: the case for voting No

When the Yes campaign launched its website, its chair, Roger Lewis, surrounded himself with children from Barry Island Primary School, which had recently been awarded the prestigious UK Becta technology award. Here was a digital symbol of the new high-tech, high-skill economy that, we are told, will be created in the second devolution decade. Vote "yes", vote bright educational future.

But numerous dark shadows from devolution's educational past lurk in Mr Lewis's sunlit uplands. They add up to eye-catching vital statistics, more head shakers than head turners.

Funding is fundamental to educational progress. As a result of a then #163;527 gap in spending per pupil between Wales and England, our first minister made a pledge to increase education spending year on year by 1 per cent above our block grant settlement. Promising funding gestures at last!

We now learn that the gap has risen from #163;527 to #163;604 in a single year while those undertakings were being made. We are going backwards faster in funding terms. The first devolution decade did not use steadily rising budgets to invest properly in our young people: if it had, our first minister would not have had to make his 1 per cent pledge.

In 2007, the long-term commitment to make all school buildings "fit for purpose" by 2010 was quietly ditched when it became apparent that it would cost #163;1.5 billion. BBC figures estimate that the present school repair bill will be #163;517 million, and a building programme to make schools fit for purpose #163;3 billion. By a strange irony, #163;3 billion is the loss Wales endured in the first devolution decade.

Estyn has stated that 40 per cent of children entering secondary school have a reading age below their chronological age. At the end of the first devolution decade, a report for the Assembly government showed that the proportion of key stage 3 pupils in Wales achieving the expected level was lower than in England for all subjects.

At GCSE, from rough parity with England in examination achievements at age 16 in 2000, there is now an 8 per cent gap in the number of children achieving five or more GCSEs at the higher grades benchmark. At A-level, performance in Wales and the rest of the UK has widened for the second successive year. We continue to have the highest percentage of young people not in education, employment or training in the UK.

While it is right to acknowledge the educational achievements of devolution, such as the Foundation Phase curriculum, these vital statistics on standards over the first devolution decade are hardly a testament to a Welsh education system capable of building the basis of a highly skilled labour force.

Any modern economy must have a labour force with good mathematical, scientific and reading abilities: you cannot build real bricks out of straw. This is why the competence in these skills shown by 15-year-old Welsh pupils in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Pisa (programme for international assessment) league tables is so devastating. We managed to find ourselves below the international average in all three critical competences, sliding further down the table in all three since the last tests in 2006.

When an Assembly government spokesman commented last April that "education has been one of Wales' true success stories since devolution", we have to draw breath and ask serious questions. Unfortunately, this is impossible in the referendum campaign because the Yes parties in the Assembly have struck a deal: they will not debate the record until after the vote on 3 March. So we witness Yes campaigners asking Welsh voters to give the Cardiff Bay political class "the tools for the job", but refusing to debate the "job" so far. Surely if we give someone new tools, we must have an awareness of their standards of craftsmanship hitherto.

We also need to be wary of the appetite of politicians: they are as likely to resist the prospect of more power over our lives as bankers are to refuse bonuses. Teachers should be wary of the Yes slogans: "tools" can easily be turned into cudgels. Anyone following the present attempt by the Assembly government to aquire the power to force councils to merge should reflect on what can happen in education if there is a Yes vote.

We are witnessing the birth of a Bay Bonapartism, as we see in the new target regime laid down by education minister Leighton Andrews - an emerging culture of diktat which needs to be viewed with real concern. True devolution is not the creation of a mini-Whitehall in Cardiff Bay; we see no signs of any "big conversation" with the teaching profession as the new educational order for Wales is revealed.

It is our view that the devolution record on education does not merit a vote of confidence: we say that Assembly politicians have enough law-making power already. They should go away, develop and carefully implement proper education policies for Wales before we award them any more power. It's high time that they did a proper job with the ample tools they have already got.

Rachel Banner is a spokesperson for True Wales.

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