Education errors show we are a very stupid country

12th February 2010 at 00:00

When historians and others look back on the development of the Welsh nation since devolution, it is the treatment of the educational system that they will highlight as the major mistake that governments made. In fact, one suspects they will see us as making not just mistakes but stupid mistakes.

The final figures for the 200809 financial year, published recently, told the expected story that the gap between England's spending per pupil and ours in Wales had reached #163;527 - more than 10 per cent in percentage terms.

The gap for 200910, when the figures come out, is looking likely to be #163;560 and 10.5 per cent, respectively, because England adds to its spending by more in every financial year than we add in Wales. The gap for 201011 will probably increase to #163;600 and 11 per cent, respectively. This means that the commitment to increase educational spending by 1 per cent more than the block grant received by the Assembly will - if it is implemented - be acting upon a difference between us and England that has risen by #163;100 per pupil more than when that commitment was given.

We know what has happened. It is not that the "education money" has gone on health - that might have been understandable. Instead, it is central and local government employment that has gained most in the Assembly financial share-out, and also culture, media and sport. Whatever "ism" this is, it is not socialism.

The simple stupidity of all this is that the international evidence is overwhelming that successful nation building involves diverting more resources to education, not fewer. The countries of Eastern Europe are doing this, as are the "Asian tiger" economies. The money is used to improve the educational outcomes of their systems, generating a greater supply of skilled labour, particularly in scientific and technological areas.

This supply then brings employers in who are attracted by the high-quality people they can employ. It happened with the Bristol area on our doorstep, and particularly with Ireland off our coasts, where high-quality graduates in large numbers coming out of their renowned higher education system attracted international capitalism.

The effects of our spending less than our neighbour in the UK is magnified, though, by our being tied to them in the salaries we pay our teachers and support staff. These costs comprise 80-90 per cent of our schools' expenditure.

If we are spending 10 per cent less in all of our schools than England, but have roughly the same numbers of teachers per school, the amount of money left over after the staff have been paid will be much less in Wales than in England. Less money for everything that education needs - books, IT equipment, professional training for staff and school visits for pupils. And less money for the pupils that need an extra stimulus to make them achieve, as perhaps with our Welsh gifted and high ability children whose poor performance was the focus of the recent chief inspector's report.

Over time, Assembly spokespersons have pointed out - rightly - that Wales spends more than many other countries on education; that, of course, is true. But other countries - like those in the Pacific Rim, for example - spend less on education largely because they spend less on their teachers. In Wales, we have less money to spend but are tied to spending the same on our teachers as our neighbour. It is a recipe for educational disaster.

When future generations consider our situation, it is not just the lack of money overall that they will be amazed at. The variation in spending is also still surprisingly marked within Wales. The 22 local authorities show an increased variation in spend for 200809 compared with the previous year.

And they will be surprised that in Wales an increasing amount of money is being held back from schools by local authorities, the only country in the world in which this appears to be happening.

And they will also be surprised that in Wales the volume of data about school performance has been systemically reduced over time, after the national publication of the results of all Welsh secondary schools was stopped five years ago. They, too, will ask how you can have the informed citizens desired by the Beecham review of government when you keep the data away from them that would make them informed.

So when historians look back, I suspect that they will be surprised at how docile we were in the face of our multiple financial problems in education in Wales. This is a shameful national disgrace that deserves more action than the usual press releases and angry words. Over to the teaching unions - what are you going to do about it? After all, it's the children who are being hurt.

David Reynolds, Professor of education, Plymouth University, and former adviser to both Westminster and the Welsh Assembly government.

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