Comparing us with England is pointless

21st November 2008 at 00:00

The toxic issue of education funding must be put in a much wider context. This may be unpalatable and controversial to my friends in schools and the teaching associations, but if we are to raise the level of this debate in Wales, we must face up to a number of things.

An education service in Wales - like all public services - deserves more funding. That is a no-brainer. It is also undoubtedly true that school buildings in Wales need significant updating and improvement.

Everyone accepts this, including the Assembly government, which has put in place a capital funding stream designed to support progress in this area. Whether that is large or effective enough is a separate issue.

However, comparing funding allocated to schools in Wales with that received in England is a facile and increasingly pointless exercise.

Our education systems are now so distinct that the comparison might just as well be made with Canada or Cambodia - and these would be just as random.

In Wales, you get the whole package - funding, policies such as the foundation phase and support for community schooling; the absence of high-stakes testing and of league tables. Comparisons with England are old and tired and simply don't work. If we are to have an intelligent argument about school funding in Wales, then we need to move on.

The point of devolution was for our national Assembly to have the opportunity to allocate the total funding available to it in relation to Wales's needs, not to act as a postbox for the UK Treasury.

In a bilingual nation that is post-industrial in some areas, and which experiences chronic health problems as well as many challenges in education, this inevitably means priorities must compete.

Politicians must make decisions based on the advice they receive and available evidence. They stand or fall by those decisions in their accountability.

There is also a myth that somehow local authorities try to deny schools the funding to which they are entitled. The inquiry carried out by a National Assembly Committee in 2006 found that this was not the case. In many years, local authorities spend more on education than the specific allocation they receive from the Assembly government. It is true that the funding allocated to schools does vary considerably between the 22 Welsh local authorities.

In each case, they have taken an informed decision on how best to allocate. In areas where funding levels are comparatively low, it may be difficult for those in education to accept the outcomes, but this is democracy at work.

There is also a basic issue of what education needs additional and above-inflation funding for. The relationship between funding and attainment is complex. Countries that do best in international comparisons, such as the programme for international student assessment (Pisa), are not necessarily the ones where educational funding is high.

There are countless examples across the world - including Wales and the UK - whereby significant extra funding has not led to any discernible improvement. What we know is that well-targeted funding, efficiently used, based on evidence of what works, is most likely to have the desired outcomes.

The two areas where evidence suggests this can best be achieved are in early years education and in re-engaging those students - generally from disadvantaged backgrounds - who have dropped out of education from the age of 14 onwards.

The significant success that education ministers in Wales have experienced in persuading their colleagues to support the foundation phase for under-7s - and allocate sufficient funding for it to be introduced in a high-quality way - shows that when the evidence of potential success is present, scarce resources can be won.

Much of the debate we have had in Wales has been about the overall funding quantum. Are there some schools and areas that have a much more deserving case for additional funding than others - particularly because of the low socio-economic status of their students and the communities they serve? Yes, absolutely. If Wales is truly to become the "learning country", then we have to break the pernicious and enduring association between poverty and low educational attainment that blights our nation. To do this, we must improve the quality of teaching, leadership and student experience in our most disadvantaged areas and schools.

To achieve this by re-allocating existing resources would be justifiable, but inevitably controversial and ultimately unacceptable. In the straitened times in which we now live, we can only hope that additional real-term increases in funding for education will arrive in due course. How that funding is then used, for what and for whom, will then be the real issue that must be faced.

We are long overdue an informed national debate on these matters. Of course we need additional funding for education in Wales. But when we get it, we must make sure we put it to work to good purpose, and that we stop using a slide-rule mentality that seeks to compare Upper Cwmtwrch with Upminster.

David Egan, Professor of education at the Cardiff School of Education, UWIC.

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