Editorial - Don't buy your 'stupid nation' T-shirt just yet

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Professor Reynolds is right to warn of the threat to Wales, but there is time to fix it

For nearly a decade, Wales has been proud of its title as "the learning country". It may have been self-awarded; it may have been slightly cheesy; and it may originally have been the title of a governmental white paper (not normally sources for inspiration). But it summed up the nation's desire to make bold changes to education, to break off from its neighbour's path and to seek the best approaches to teaching from around the world.

So Professor David Reynolds' suggestion in TES Cymru today that the nation will be known in future as the stupid country will annoy many. Not only has Wales made dumb mistakes on education, he argues, but these are mistakes that are hurting pupils and will appal historians (p38). The funding advantage that schools in England have over those in Wales is continuing to grow. And the fact teacher salaries here must match those in the neighbouring country is only exacerbating the problem, as school budgets are left with even less to spend on resources and extra support for children. This is, he writes, "a recipe for educational disaster".

Some will try to dismiss Professor Reynolds' claims as the provocations of a wind-up merchant with academic credentials. Others will accuse the former Assembly government adviser of deliberately denigrating the hard work of Wales' teachers and education leaders.

But such complaints have been made before. A year and a half ago, Professor Reynolds carried out research for this newspaper that revealed per-pupil funding in Wales lagged behind that in England by at least #163;500. At the time officials grumbled that he was "running down Wales", and argued that it was a waste of time to compare the two countries as both were taking such different approaches to schools. Yet they could not dispute his data.

Since then a growing number of education figures have acknowledged that the funding gap needs to be addressed. And these have not just been frustrated headteachers. Among these has been David Hawker, director of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills. Having moved from England to Wales himself, he has told heads here that he is well aware of the budgetary disadvantage they face and pledged to reduce it.

Those who find Professor Reynolds' view too apocalyptic will have been heartened by the more optimistic perspective provided in this newspaper last week by Professor Ken Reid. As he noted, both the new first minister and education minister for Wales have been "making the right noises" on school spending.

With the urgent report on pupil funding that Leighton Andrews ordered due to be completed in about a month's time, now is the time for schools to make their concerns clear. Given that we do not know the report's outcome, or how the Assembly will respond, it may be premature to label Wales' education system as stupid. But if ministers do not take any lessons from what headteachers say, we will need to find a more accurate - and less flattering - title for the learning country.

Michael Shaw, TES Opinion Editor; E: michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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