Gap is growing between Wales and rest of UK

24th April 2009 at 01:00
Education neglected since devolution, academic argues, while England's results are 8% better

Education standards in Wales have fallen well behind the rest of the UK since devolution, an education expert said this week.

David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, told delegates at a conference organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs for the 10th anniversary of devolution that an obsession with nation-building - the development of Welsh language and culture - had come at the expense of advancing teaching and learning.

Professor Reynolds, a former Assembly government adviser, said England had made the biggest gains on Wales. By investing more money, he said, it had produced better results in education.

He added that there was now an 8 per cent gap - in England's favour - between the number of students gaining five good GCSEs. Wales was also trailing behind Scotland and Northern Ireland, he said.

"I would never have voted for devolution had I known that Wales would disadvantage education more than any other nation," he said.

Last November, the academic was criticised by the Assembly government for "running down Wales" after he conducted research for TES Cymru comparing funding per pupil in Wales and England. He discovered the gap had reached pound;500 per pupil and that it was likely to grow further.

The government attacked his findings and commentary, but did not dispute his figures.

Professor Reynolds' arguments were given a boost this week when the man behind the 1997 Yes campaign for devolution spoke out against the "low calibre" of Assembly members in Wales.

Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University said he had interviewed many talented candidates for jobs in education who had subsequently been rejected in favour of "party insiders".

The remarks came just a week after John McLaren, an architect of Scottish devolution, said that Scotland's education system had slipped further behind England's since fully devolved government was introduced in 1999. Mr McLaren, Scottish Labour's former chief economic adviser, said Scottish administrations had chosen populist policies over serious reform.

Despite his criticisms, Professor Reynolds said that Wales had seen some "very interesting" educational policy innovations, such as the play-led foundation phase, the Welsh baccalaureate and policies aimed at tackling deprivation. But these had been reactive, he said. "The attitude is: `We don't want to do what England is doing.'"

He also told delegates that the rejection of ideas such as trust schools and academies had limited parental choice. And he criticised an "absence of harsh rhetoric" against the education system in Wales - unlike England, where ministers are not afraid to criticise schools. "There is a `Team Wales' approach, where we believe that the way to encourage raising standards is not to criticise, but to support," he said.

Professor Reynolds, who lives in south Wales, said there should be better discussions before any further legislative powers are granted to the National Assembly.

An Assembly government spokesman said education was one of Wales's "true success stories" since devolution, with "groundbreaking policies" putting it on the map as a "progressive learning country".

"Substantial funding is being made available for learning," he said. "Education spending makes up 12.5 per cent of the overall Assembly government budget - nearly pound;1.9 billion. Local authorities have increased their education budgets every year since 1999 and total capital spend in Wales has grown to over pound;1.3bn. Spending on education has never been higher, but it is important to remember that it's not how much you spend, but how effectively you spend it."

He added that one of Wales's major successes has been partnership working and consensus-building in development of policy.

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