Comment - Battle of the budget - but do we do the best for our children?

21st November 2008 at 00:00
Assembly is making good use of our money in developing an education system that will meet the needs of Wales's children

Debates about education funding are as old as the education system itself. Two themes emerge over and over again. One is that we will always want to spend more than our budget will allow, and the other is that comparisons with other countries on how we spend our money will always be misleading. David Egan, professor of education at Cardiff's UWIC, this week explains how pointless and misleading that is. (page 41).

Let me give some simple examples. In Wales, we have decided to invest heavily in the foundation phase, to allow schools to have a ratio of 1 adult to every 8 children aged 3 to 4, and 1 to every 15 aged 5 to 6. That is extra money, specifically intended to give children a better start. Teachers in the foundation phase are already reporting that an exciting curriculum, together with the high adult to child ratios, have resulted in significant improvements in the confidence and motivation of our youngest learners. This will help children achieve their potential later on.

Our investment in the foundation phase for every child in Wales is also well placed to tackle the link between poverty and underachievement, building on our targeted Flying Start programme, which is aimed at 0 to 3-year-olds living in some of Wales's most disadvantaged areas.

In Wales we scrapped the key stage tests early on, and saved both the direct costs involved and the indirect costs that schools incurred in preparing their pupils for the tests. The educational benefit of scrapping the tests has now been recognised in England, which has done the same at key stage 3.

Our aim is to have sound educational policies that also represent good value for money. We are building on our traditional strengths as a small, close-knit country with clear social values. We are making good use of our money in developing an education system that will meet the needs of Wales's children.

Of course there are challenges, at government, local authority and school level. We in the Assembly government have a responsibility to allocate our budget wisely, and build for the future. We have to balance competing priorities from different areas of public service and the economy, and there are always lively discussions about how we should divide the cake.

I have always argued strongly in favour of maintaining our investment in education, and I am pleased to say that, in the case of the foundation phase, the government as a whole has been convinced that this is the right thing to do, despite pressures on the budget from other directions.

We have increased the funding for education year on year, and next year we have allocated nearly Pounds 2.3 billion to local authorities to spend on education. Although we don't require local authorities to "passport" this money as is the case in England, in reality most authorities actually spend more than they are allocated, by prioritising their own spend across the services they cover.

The fact is that local authority education budgets in Wales have increased by an average of more than 6 per cent per year since 2000 - almost twice the rate of inflation during that period. The expenditure per head of population, at Pounds 780, is now exactly the same as England. It is nonsense to say that "young lives are being blighted" by this, as was reported last week in TES Cymru. England may have caught up in terms of overall spend, but our spending on education would be seen as a cause for congratulation in most other European countries.

The issue is not how much you spend, but how you spend what you have. We aim to spend our money wisely, and our decisions over the years since devolution have consistently been guided by what is in the best long-term interests of our children and young people. There are challenges at every level, such as the need to remove surplus school places in order to avoid wasting money on children who aren't there. Local authorities have the difficult task of making decisions about school reorganisations in order to do this. Schools also need to play their part in ensuring that they spend their budgets wisely.

As the TES Cymru poll shows, many heads are supportive of our policies in education since devolution, and of course we have developed all these policies in close collaboration with them.

I am proud of what our schools achieve, and I am also proud of the support which we in the Assembly government, and also local government, give to them. Yes, of course we can always do better, but to misrepresent what is being achieved in Wales, in order to pursue another agenda altogether, is simply to deny the reality of much of what we have achieved and to devalue the hard work and commitment of our young people and those who teach them.

Jane Hutt, Minister for children, education, lifelong learning and skills.

We need money and leadership from politicians. At the moment we are not receiving either in the necessary quantities

- David Reynolds, Llantrisant

I have spent the last decade and a half of my life attempting to put research about effective education into practice in England. In those years, I have advised their Education Department, been on the boards of their public agencies and chaired their taskforces. But in all these years, I have never seen anything so self justifying, malign and intellectually shoddy as the Welsh Assembly government's responses to the figures I published last week on educational spending in Wales.

Initially, they played the person (me) rather than the ball (my figures). Their press release said David Reynolds "as usual" was running Wales down and he should look at our good practice. I have never seen an English press release treat an academic like this.

Then there is Jane Hutt's contribution this week. Much of this is a self-justificatory irrelevance. She notes that WAG is investing heavily in the foundation phase - happily true. She notes that WAG is spending record sums on education, which is also happily true, but not surprising given inflation.

But this is not the point. In all the key areas I raised last week, she says nothing of value. She doesn't comment on the increased local authority holdback of money, or our inadequate levels of capital expenditure on new buildings. She doesn't comment on the fact that increases in educational expenditure in Wales are behind those in the UK as a whole.

She states that public expenditure per head of population on education is the same in England and Wales - that is utterly irrelevant, since I didn't think 60-year-olds go to school.

On the more valid indicator of per pupil expenditure, we trail England increasingly badly, on which she has nothing to say.

She argues that comparisons with other countries on how we spend our money will always be misleading. But she does not seem able to understand that if we are tied to England's pay and conditions for the teaching profession, comparisons between our two countries are very relevant. If staffing costs represent 90-95 per cent of school expenditure, then any gap in expenditure on education between us has major implications for non pay expenditure.

My thesis was that our educational standards were being put at risk by this pressure on schools' capacities in non pay areas such as books, IT equipment, staff development and other key aspects that motivate pupils. That she seems unable to see this is profoundly worrying.

Every teacher, headteacher and union representative quoted by the media last week supported my figures and analysis. They at least understand, as the minister apparently doesn't, that WAG spent money which in the rest of the UK went to education on other things that might be called "nation building". But the most effective nation building is to build the competencies of your children, not your State.

Wales has outstanding teachers, heads and children, and interesting and innovative educational policies.

What we need is money and leadership from its politicians. At the moment we are receiving neither in the necessary quantities.

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