Editorial - Beacons of hope illuminate cash shortfalls

5th June 2009 at 01:00
More money is desperately needed if the gaps between schools are to be narrowed

Last November, TES Cymru exposed the truth about education funding in Wales since devolution. We revealed that pupils were being short-changed to the tune of Pounds 500 compared with their counterparts in England. With research commissioned from David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, we also exposed the fact that Wales spends 7 per cent more on average than the rest of the UK on nation-building activities. Money has been snatched from classrooms and pumped into culture, media and sport, as well as extra bodies to manage the Assembly government's ever-proliferating education initiatives.

On Tuesday night, the BBC's current affairs programme Week in Week Out put our research to the test. It doubled-checked our figures, could find no fault with them, then searched for leading educationists to speak out on camera. A year ago, that might have been difficult, but the strong words coming from heads with no axe to grind during this 30-minute show should be a huge wake-up call for the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills.

There was Dr Mohammed Mehmet, chief executive of Denbighshire council, who said the state of school buildings in Wales was 40 to 50 years behind England's. Then came Brian Lightman, former national president of the ASCL union and headteacher of the highly successful St Cyres School in Penarth, who said that heads in England could not believe he ran a school on so little money.

To be fair, the programme also exposed failings on the part of local government and even schools. There is much to be said for the power of good teaching and money well spent. It would be naive and unfair to suggest that all of Wales's problems can be blamed on a lack of funding or the government.

What Mike Gibbon, head of Sandfields Comprehensive in Port Talbot, arguably the most successful school in Wales, said on camera was a real eye-opener. Because his school has probably the highest value-added GCSE scores in Wales (meaning his pupils perform much better than expected considering their backgrounds), teachers from across the globe visit the school to learn the secrets of its success. But, amazingly, he said only around 20 per cent of his visitors are from Wales. He puts this down to a "cultural peculiarity", a defensiveness among Welsh heads.

So, if the government is relying on the sharing of good practice, yet heads in Wales are not learning from such exemplary schools, then we have a problem, don't we? And Mr Gibbon's lack of Welsh visitors does not bode well for the school effectiveness framework, an initiative aimed at narrowing the gap between Wales's best and worst-performing schools. It is common knowledge that many may not get good results on paper but are actually pulling off "minor miracles" considering their intakes, while many other schools simply do not make the grade.

Schools in Wales desperately need more cash. A lack of money is the biggest impediment to their success. It is about time the government stopped being so defensive and bailed them out - before it's too late.

Nicola Porter, Editor, TES Cymru E nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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