Cash worries spoil the party

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Teachers and unions seem delighted by the independence Wales has shown under its Assembly. But, Nicholas Pyke reports, schools still get a bad deal over budgets

The Welsh Labour Party will feel it has many causes for satisfaction following its convincing performance in the May 1 elections. Its handling of education, under the stewardship of Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning in the Welsh Assembly, must be prominent among them.

The Assembly and Ms Davidson have taken brave decisions which proved popular with teachers and, it would appear, with the voters. Last week she was re-appointed for a second term in charge.

In fact education is one of the few areas where the Assembly has been able to make a distinctive contribution, so much so that its policies have managed to embarrass Whitehall. In 2001 Ms Davidson launched a triple whammy with "The Learning Country", a 10-year plan for education which slaughtered three sacred cows at once. She rejected specialist schools, abolished testing at key stage 1 and proposed a Welsh baccalaureate to replace A-levels, all to a background of huge applause within Wales and beyond.

Then last year the Assembly went a stage further and abolished GCSE and A-level league tables by refusing to distribute the results centrally. So, while every secondary school in Wales is obliged to publish its results, there was no glorification for the winners in September and no national pillory to make the job of struggling schools even harder. Wales has never had league tables for primary schools.

Wales is pursuing similarly independent policies on three areas of curriculum development. The first is in early years, where the Assembly is planning to create a new non-academic foundation stage. Children will learn through play and be taught about their own bodies and health as well as how to go to the toilet themselves and how to blow their own noses. Jane Davidson has said that "children need more opportunities to learn through finding out about things that interest them, rather than focusing solely on what is determined by others".

Wales has stolen a march, too, on the post-14 curriculum, another big area of change. While England waits for former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson to deliver his weighty tome on the topic at some point next year, the Assembly has already published proposals allowing pupils to choose between work-based or academic qualifications, or to mix the two. Work experience and out of school learning both feature heavily. Then in September schools will embark on the first formal pilot of the Welsh Baccalaureate.

All these developments have been welcomed as a popular return to community-based politics, of the sort that have seen a Welsh children's commissioner, responsible for those living away from their families, pupil councils in every schools and youth forums in all local authorities. There may well be more to come. During the recent election campaign Labour promised to cut primary classes to 25 by the end of this new term in office, to invest pound;560 million in school buildings and provide free breakfasts for all primary pupils. The first integrated children's centres, bringing together education, childcare and healthcare under the same roof, will open at the beginning of the year, and intensive Welsh-language courses allowing children to transfer between English-medium primaries and Welsh-medium secondaries are expected soon.

So far, so popular. Jane Davidson and her policies have even won cautious plaudits from the unions. Why, then, are headteachers still complaining? The Assembly's failure to prevent the closure of some small primary schools has aroused anger (although Ms Davidson points out that the decisions were taken by the local education authorities). There is also a feeling among many that, after a promising start, the National Assembly should be more radical still and take the overwhelmingly popular step, for example, of scrapping the key stage 2 tests.

The most significant complaints, though, concern money, perhaps inevitably.

If life under the Assembly has seen a welcome return to good old-fashioned community politics, headteachers believe it has been accompanied by the return of less welcome but equally old fashioned style of political hokey cokey. In particular, schools are demanding an end to the pea souper of a "funding fog", which they say has arisen in Cardiff Bay and enveloped the region.

Welsh schools, says Carl Davies, from the NAHT Cymru, the headteachers'

union, have been hit just as badly by the budget crisis as their English counterparts, with redundancies now threatened "the length and breadth of Wales". The difference, he says, is that west of the border, no one knows how much money they are supposed to have, with the Assembly blaming local government and councillors batting the accusations straight back in a destructive game of political ping pong. So, while Westminster politicians conduct a forensic examination of the shortfall in England, no one in Wales even knows where to start. Here, only 81 per cent of the money is devolved by local education authorities to schools compared with 85 per cent in England.

"It's the same argument that we have in England, but worse in terms of the funding fog and the lack of transparency," says Mr Davies. "In England each headteacher knows how much they should be receiving per pupil. In Wales we have no idea whatsoever."

Worse still, he says, it suits both sides for this ping pong to continue.

The basic fact is that Wales gets a rotten deal from the long-standing Barnett formula (named after former chief secretary to the Treasury Joel Barnett, it determines how much share of the national wealth should be allocated to Scotland and Wales). Any attempt to introduce more clarity of the sort favoured in England, he says, would expose the UK government's meanness and open up some very awkward political arguments. "We have a Labour government in the National Assembly which isn't willing to challenge the deal that Wales gets from the Barnett formula. The truth of the matter is that Wales does worse than the rest of Britain in terms of funding," says Mr Davies.

In the meantime, then, Welsh schools can expect the same problems and the same threats of industrial action as their English counterparts, particularly if no money is available for the Government's prized workload agreement. "It might be possible to muddle through this year but not the next."

If no one can tell how education is handled, he asks, how can schools, teachers or voters stage a meaningful discussion? "Lack of transparency means that the whole democratic argument is undermined. You can't have a proper democratic debate about education in Wales if you don't know where to lay the blame for the situation with the resources."

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