Future needs more secure foundations

10th October 2008 at 01:00
The Conservative opposition wants better school buildings, improved pupil discipline and more generous funding

As a father of four young children and a governor at a small rural school, I have a passion for Wales's educational future. Like any parent, the most vital thing to me is the assurance that my children will be learning in a safe environment with a teacher who is equally passionate about realising children's ambitions.

Now in its third term, the National Assembly has acquired greater powers in education than ever before, so there is much scope to tackle issues specific to Wales.

In my new role as shadow education minister for Wales, I will be working closely with the sector to ensure its views are heard in the Assembly. And I will be working with the government on matters where we share a common purpose, and highlighting issues that need to be addressed. My other role as opposition spokesman, which will develop as we approach the fourth Assembly elections in May 2011, will be to put forward alternative proposals to improve education in Wales. Some of the principles that will guide my approach are as follows.

The most vital task of any education system is to give young people the tools they need for life. This broad view of the role of education can place a heavy burden on teachers, who not only guide their pupils through to their qualifications but also help to shape responsible citizens. Balancing these tasks is a considerable feat, and I commend the profession for its efforts in seeking to achieve this equilibrium.

I want to look at ways in which schools can respond to the needs of the Welsh economy. There is concern among certain sectors of business and industry that some key skills are lacking among Welsh graduates and school-leavers. Vocational skills, entrepreneurship and aptitude in modern foreign languages are highly sought after, and there is a need for education to find ways to meet the demands of business - in Wales, the rest of the UK and globally.

I have the utmost respect for teachers, who often have to work in difficult conditions. Many school buildings are in desperate need of upgrading. There is a wealth of evidence to prove that a state-of-the-art learning environment is more conducive to education and delivers better exam results. I will look closely at various models of funding to see what Wales can learn from other parts of the UK and abroad to improve buildings. England in particular has an ambitious programme of upgrading buildings between now and 2020.

Too often teachers have to contend with pupil aggression and a lack of discipline in the classroom. No teacher should ever have to put up with disruptive pupils who hold back others who are willing to learn, and in the most extreme cases threaten violence. The number of verbal and physical assaults on teachers has risen at an alarming rate in Wales in the past five years and needs to be urgently addressed. I am also keen to reduce red tape and ensure teachers are not overburdened with bureaucracy. That is why I am supportive of the new workload agreement.

The professionalism of Welsh teachers is respected across the UK and must be maintained and supported by ensuring that they have the chance to take up teaching jobs in Wales. We are a net exporter of qualified teachers, and from the point of view of the Welsh education system, this is a loss of talent.

It can be all too easy to confine the role of opposition to criticising the government of the day without offering a viable alternative. One area in which we have been very supportive of the Assembly government has been in the preparation and introduction of learning through play and the foundation phase. There is plenty of evidence to show that smaller class sizes deliver results, especially in the early years. But I am worried about the way the foundation phase has been funded. While the pilots were well funded, and therefore extremely successful, I have expressed concerns that a lack of money puts at risk the entire programme for early years learning. Support and training have been further key weaknesses in the introduction of the scheme. This is a programme which, in principle, won cross-party support, but risked losing out because of a funding shortfall. It is all very well to introduce new schemes, but unless they are well funded, they will not achieve their intended aims. I have already said that this is the case with the proposed Learning and Skills Measure on 14- 19 learning pathways, now progressing through the Welsh Assembly.

From early years learning through to universities and adult education, there is great potential for Wales to compete with the best in the UK. With the introduction of the foundation phase in particular, Wales has shown that it can lead the way in setting best practice across the whole country.

As a Welsh Conservative Party, I hope we can make proposals to empower teachers. I will be meeting many staff, parents and education stakeholders during the coming months as I prepare a set of considered proposals to improve the education system in Wales. This is a challenge I relish, and I look forward to working closely with the sector in seeking out that most noble of qualities in young people: ambition.

Andrew RT Davies, Shadow minister for children, education, lifelong learning and skills.

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