Good behaviour costs

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Devolution has led to Wales missing out on some of the best improvement initiatives, argues Ken Reid.

The consequences of having a form of asymmetric devolution in Wales are beginning to bite. Teachers in Wales are looking over their shoulders as they begin to notice the different funding regimes between England and Wales.

These differences are not just confined to schools. Further and higher education budgets are also incredibly tight, with rationalisation and collaboration high on the agenda.

The recent Richard Commission recommended increasing the number of Welsh Assembly members by a third and suggested that consideration be given to allowing the Assembly tax-raising powers.

The reality, however, is that Wales is a comparatively small country. Many people are beginning to question whether the policy of having Welsh solutions for Welsh problems is the right one or whether, when opportunities arise, Wales should "piggy-back" on Westminster-led initiatives - to secure appropriate funding if nothing else.

Welsh education is currently fortunate in having in Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning, a highly intelligent politician with considerable ability.

She is also very popular with teachers. But sadly no politician can significantly influence policy outcomes without realistic resources, more especially funding and appropriate back-up within the civil service.

Here is an example. The minister and the chief inspector Susan Lewis recently acknowledged that truancy is probably Wales's current number one educational problem.

There is nothing new in this. Wales has always had disproportionate attendance problems from the rest of the UK, partly because it has a much higher population deriving from working-class backgrounds with related deprivation, housing, educational and health needs. So, in theory, it has always required more state funding.

The Welsh Assembly government established a task force to help combat truancy and school absenteeism, both in the short and long-term. Ms Davidson has given this initiative her personal backing and the task force's recommendations have been accepted by the Assembly.

Its report stimulated activity throughout schools and local education authorities within Wales which, in turn, has led to the first decrease in school absenteeism for many years.

But, despite the endeavours of a large number of competent professionals in Wales, there is a danger of the initiative stalling unless further funding is made available. And for attendance you can read antisocial behaviour, classes for parents, implementing the Crime and Disorder Act and the Children Act and continuing professional development, as no one is really sure where the funding for these developments is coming from or, in the latter case, why it has been cut.

With specific reference to attendance, Welsh schools would benefit from having many more learning mentors, home-school liaison officers and education welfare officers, with a greater degree of parity and consistency between local education authorities. But, of course, Wales is not part of the English-led Excellence in Cities, Education Action Zones and Connexions initiatives, so you will begin to get my point.

The Assembly has rightly acknowledged the need to reform the 14-19 curriculum and has introduced the Welsh Baccalaureate for some post-16 pupils.

Alongside, there is a chronic need to develop alternative and vocational curriculum initiatives, and perhaps second-chance opportunities for disaffected pupils.

There is no shortage of will, so, there must be a way forward. But without the resources little is likely to be achieved.

In England, the extra cash being made available through Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget is beginning to be injected into schools, LEAs and through specific grant initiatives.

Funding of pound;120 million has been given for new initiatives within LEAs to combat truancy and other forms of non-attendance and antisocial behaviour. And this is only one source. There are 35 other main sources of funding to help combat pupils' non-attendance. Similarly, millions of pounds are being given to fund educational research - mainly to evaluate government-led schemes such as Sure Start. But what is being done for Wales?

The state of funding educational research is dire. While we envy our colleagues in England their funding, some of us are trying to help Welsh schools to continue to move forward. And how is this being achieved?

Well, having been told no funding was available from the Welsh Assembly, my latest research project into truancy and school absenteeism is taking place without any external support.

It is being facilitated through a network of caring and committed professionals, professional associations and LEAs.

Undertaking this major project will no doubt generate a considerable amount of material for educational journals and help us to understand truancy a little better.

And my colleague who left Wales for England? She currently receives a grant of pound;8m to evaluate Sure Start and pound;1m more for a different project. Devolved equality?

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education. His latest book, Truancy: Short and Long Term Solutions, is published by Routledge Falmer

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