Can Assembly match vision of the pioneers?;The 20th Century;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
From the 1880s to today's devolved Assembly, Gareth Elwyn Jones continues the story of education in Wales

Anyone seeking to trace the evolution of 20th-century Welsh education has to begin in the 1880s rather than 1900.

The penultimate decade of the 19th century saw a resurgence of Welsh political and cultural nationalism, marked by legislation applying only to Wales, the first for centuries.

The Welsh Sunday Closing Act of 1881, a monument to respectability, hardly impeded dedicated drinkers. but the 1889 Welsh Intermediate Education Act was a significant landmark.

For the mass of children, elementary schools had to suffice, but now the Welsh prised money out of the Treasury to institute a state system of intermediate secondary schools years before these were created in England.

With government grant came state supervision and the creation of a quasi-national body in 1896 - the Central Welsh Board - to inspect and examine.

The secondary school system was essential, partly because of the poor quality of students going to the infant university colleges at Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor.

They, too, became another national institution when the University of Wales was created in 1893. The inauguration of the Prince of Wales as Chancellor in Aberystwyth was accompanied by a band of harps and a slap-up meal for 600 guests.

Such was the growing confidence in this economically vibrant society that a National Council to control all education in Wales was mooted. Unfortunately, the familiar Welsh disease of internecine warfare meant that no one could agree who would take ultimate charge, and political will proved inadequate.

Nevertheless, in 1907 the Welsh Department of the Board of Education was created, to studied insult from Sir Robert Morant, who was then permanent secretary of the Board of Education.

In the "locust years" of inter-war depression, the pattern of education in Wales was set by Westminster decisions, entailing a structure of elementary and selective secondary education, despite backing for multilateral schools. The 1944 Act saw enhanced uniformity, with free secondary education gratefully received, but most attempts to establish multilateral schools again rejected, though Anglesey was the first authority to become fully comprehensive in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s Wales became a nation of comprehensive secondary schools, with only a relatively tiny private sector. Distinctiveness lay increasingly in the growing Welsh-medium primary and secondary sectors, increasingly endorsed by English-speaking parents.

With the reassertion of state control in the 1980s, the relationship between Wales and England came into sharp focus. Creating a national curriculum prompted the question: "Which nation?" What emerged were five separate subject orders for Wales, now reinforced by a statutory Curriculum Cymreig.

Complementing differences in curriculum, the National Assembly has acquired powers accumulated since the creation of the office of Secretary of State in 1964 to exert more control of the education system of Wales than ever. Whether its members have the vision and commitment of some of the politicians of a century ago remains to be seen.

Gareth Elwyn Jones is research professor of education at the University of Wales Swansea

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