Better the devil you know

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Is Wales simply suffering from trying to compete with the better-funded education system of England, or experiencing the consequences of taking an idealistic stance on how to run schools?

Eery January, educationalists - and many in the wider public - in Wales are sent into paroxysms of anger by the publication of a particular set of figures.

Once dismissed by policymakers in the devolved government, these statistics have become an acute source of embarrassment for the nation that supposedly models itself as the "learning country".

More than any other publication, the anonymous-sounding Local Authority Education Expenditure statistics reveal just how far the country's education system has distanced itself from that of its closest neighbour, England. And it's not in a good way.

In 1999-2000, the spending gap between the two nations was just pound;58 per pupil, a more-or-less negligible 2 per cent difference. The last set of figures revealed that in 2009-10, after a decade of devolution, the gap stood at pound;604 per pupil, a 10.8 per cent difference. No longer negligible, then. The latest figures will be published next Thursday, and educationalists wait with bated breath.

Results have also suffered correspondingly, and education is no longer a source of pride in the principality. In fact, it is the cause of deep-seated national soul-searching.

Since 1999, when the fledgling National Assembly was first given powers over education, Wales has sought to forge its own path.

From the abolition of secondary league tables and the scrapping of Sats tests to the revamping of curricula and the promise that free schools and academies would have no place in Wales, the country has been slowly but surely divorcing its school system from that of England.

But some of the early, well-intentioned decisions made by the Welsh government are now coming back to haunt it. Indeed, one senior Tory in the Westminster government has suggested - only slightly tongue in cheek - that Wales should be treated as a case study of what would happen if the NUT ran education policy. In other words, how not to run schools.

How has this happened? Why has it happened? And what lessons can be learned?

Theories are diverse, but David Reynolds, professor of educational effectiveness at the University of Southampton and a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government, calls it the "big brother" syndrome.

"It's the psychological situation of having your big brother living next door and trying to compete, which I think did Wales huge damage in the short term," he says.

Photo credit: Paul Box

You can read the full article in the January 20 issue of TES.

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