Distinctive is the word for Wales

9th June 1995 at 01:00
A powerful call for Welsh schools to be run via a Welsh assembly has been made by Professor David Reynolds, a former Cardiff academic now at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Professor Reynolds, a leading school improvement specialist, shies away from the term separatism. Instead, "distinctive" is the key word in his latest article in the Welsh Journal of Education. He advocates "distinctively Welsh policies to meet Welsh needs I distinctive policies which reflect the communality of the Welsh experience", and refers to "the distinctive experience of being Welsh which only a Welsh person can know".

Professor Reynolds starts by looking at the consistent under-achievement of Welsh schools, and anticipates funding and administration problems that will arise from local government reorganisation. These latter problems he recasts as opportunities.

The general belief, and certainly one propagated by those who (like me) reached university via the old Welsh grammar schools, is that Welsh education has always been extra special. But this has never been true.

In 1947, Professor Evan John Jones condemned the "travesty of saying Wales has an unequalled secondary system". Professor Reynolds himself took up the counter-mythologist cudgels in 1981, when he wrote in The TES that "Welsh children (have) the lowest levels of scientific performance at age 15 of any region or nation within the UK."

The national disparities persisted. By the late 1980s, 17 per cent of Welsh school-leavers had no qualification, compared with under 10 per cent in England. The 1993 GCSE results showed that 37 per cent of Welsh pupils gained five or more A-C grades compared with 42.1 per cent of English pupils. Professor Reynolds now says that the inferiority has been compounded by under-achievement of lower ability pupils spreading to Wales's more able pupils.

Why? The professor produces other comparative statistics indicating that poverty is not to blame and, in a memorable phrase, says that Welsh children are not born to fail but are schooled to fail. So why are the schools failing them? Here he moves into nationalistic and later party-political territory. He blames "the continued yoking of Wales to England in its educational arrangements", and adds: "Whatever culture or country was in the minds of Tory government policy-makers when their educational reforms were framed, it certainly cannot have been Wales."

Professor Reynolds outlines a distinctly Welsh system. There is the national approach to language teaching plus the Welsh component of several other subjects. There is the new Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales and the more or less unanimous allegiance to the Welsh Joint Education Committee examining board. There is the virtual absence of a Welsh private sector and the lack of a city technology college. Further evidence of contentment with the existing system, whatever its flaws, is that under 20 of the principality's 1,947 schools have opted out.

Wales is indeed different. Whether its children are born or schooled to fail, it is a poorer country than England and one which has never had faith in free markets. A suspicion of market dogma is at the core of Professor Reynolds's thinking. His central contention is that English market-based policies to encourage competition among schools are irrelevant when "perhaps 40 per cent of (Welsh) parents have no realistic choice of school because of the greater geographical distances from schools".

His logic is that therefore Welsh schools may as well dump the publication of exam and attendance league tables. His implied question is who, apart from the Swansea and Cardiff middle classes, needs them?

Professor Reynolds then moves to his most distinctive argument. "Since market-based solutions aimed at closing down the low-quality provision are unlikely to work in a Welsh context," he writes, "Wales may therefore need to involve a more substantial role for non-market systems based upon local authorities and other supra-school bodies."

Welsh local government reorganisation, where 21 shrunken LEAs are replacing eight county-level LEAs, means that local authorities will concentrate on administration rather than reform. It is the "other supra-school bodies" that Professor Reynolds then turns to, and he identifies the Welsh Office Education Department, the Welsh branch of OFSTED, plus the funding and examination councils. "A distinctive organisational infrastructure," he calls them, and then effectively moves on to separatism.

"The various quangos need to be democratically overseen within Wales by representatives of the Welsh people to ensure specifically Welsh strategies. " What inevitably flows from his demand for democratising quangos is his call for a "Welsh legislature to generate momentum and accountability".

The Welsh Journal of Education is published by University of Wales Press ISSN 0957-297X.

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