Editorial - Turnaround on cuts has come too late

24th April 2009 at 01:00
The government's consistent failure to invest means gloomy prospects for schools

The biggest U-turn in British political history can probably be attributed to former Tory prime minister Edward Heath. His blatant reversal of the laissez-faire economic policies on which he was elected led his successor Margaret Thatcher to produce the widely quoted riposte: "You turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning." In the United States, George W Bush also did a famous flip-flop, as it is known there, by going back on his pledge to cut taxes. Now it seems the Assembly government is trying for its place in the history books (page 1).

Since last September, John Griffiths, the deputy minister for skills, has made two about-turns in 14-19 education that beggar belief. First, there was the embarrassing climbdown over the 14-19 learning and skills measure, which was supposed to be in statute this September without fail, but has now been considerably watered down and delayed for a year. Second, there was last week's announcement that the government would give back to sixth forms and colleges the millions it said in January it would cut.

For all the gushing press releases from teachers' unions this week thanking the government for its change of heart, no one has answered the question of why the hell they did it to begin with. This was a ludicrous decision, and everyone knew it. It made absolutely no sense given that the government is relying on the success of the 14-19 learning pathways to raise academic standards and jet-propel Wales out of the economic gutter. In addition, the cuts went against the grain of what the government has been striving to do for years: offering more vocational options to teenagers to stop them dropping out and becoming a drain on the state.

Sadly, the damage has already been done. Giving some money back to schools and colleges will not prevent job losses: consultation responses for redundancies have started and will finish regardless.

The government says it has found the money from reserves, but clearly this is not the case. Closer examination by TES Cymru reveals local authorities are almost Pounds 6 million down on the sixth form funding they expected, although colleges have done better out of the new Pounds 8.9m deal.

The long-term prognosis is also not good. The Chancellor's plans for Wales's income were not known at the time of going to press, but experts were predicting a Pounds 1.1 billion cut. Ouch. Tough choices will have to be made over the next couple of years, and education will be one of the first in the firing line.

If the government had invested more in schools after devolution and not made such bad funding decisions on promising policies, the consequences of this economic downturn would not be so severe. Now it only has itself to blame, especially after its ill-considered 7.43 per cent slash in school sixth form and college funding at the beginning of the year. The cuts were, quite frankly, beyond belief, and - despite this latest turnaround and its accompanying spin - the outlook remains gloomy for sixth forms.

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

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