Infants to get windfall

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Welsh Assembly puts its confidence in the foundation stage with pound;141m budget grant. Felicity Waters reports

Huge investment in early-years education makes young children the clear winners from the Welsh Assembly's three-year budget.

An extra pound;141 million is to be invested in early learning by 2007, drawn from education, health and social services coffers.

This funding will help pay for free part-time nursery places for all three-year-olds in Wales, and for integrated centres offering wrap-around childcare and education through play for infants.

The money will also fund the free breakfast scheme and the new foundation phase curriculum for three-to-seven-year-olds. Both are currently being piloted across Wales.

Announcing the budget this week, Assembly education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson said: "Countries that out-perform Wales educationally put a huge emphasis on the early years. If we invest here, we will give our children the best possible start in life."

The entire education and lifelong-learning budget will increase from pound;1.2 billion this year to pound;1.5bn by 2007. At present, pound;25m of the budget is spent on early-years education, but an extra pound;67m is to be ploughed in to meet the cost of the Assembly government's vision for under-sevens.

Gethin Lewis, secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, welcomed the funding but said there was too little cash further up the ladder to develop teacher-training and reduce workload.

"There's no sign that the cuts already made to teachers' professional development will be reinstated," he said. "New initiatives must always go hand-in-hand with professional development."

The Assembly has set aside pound;100m over the next three years to help schools restructure their workforce and give teachers the promised 10 per cent non-contact time. But Terry Williams, vice-president of the National Association of Headteachers Cymru, believes that the pound;25m allocated for next year is totally insufficient to reduce teacher workload.

"By September 2005 schools will need to recruit extra staff to give teachers time away from the classroom," he said. "But it's not going to work with the funding that's on the table. Funding should not be at the expense of basic teaching services."

Local government has seen a 5 per cent increase in funding, but Mr Williams said: "This money is not ringfenced for education, so it will depend on each council's priorities as to how they spend it."

Other areas of added investment include:

* pound;38m to develop learning pathways for 14 to 19-year-olds, who will be given the chance to mix work-based and school learning;

* pound;126m for post-16 learning, with pound;30m to improve college buildings;

* pound;9m for basic skills over three years. The budget also provides an extra pound;7m over the next two years to train 450 more early-years practitioners, as well as pound;1m a year from 20056 for teacher sabbaticals, and an extra pound;1m a year for FE practitioners.

Opposition members have welcomed the investment. But Peter Black, Liberal Democrat chair of the education committee, is concerned that Welsh universities will need more investment to keep up with those in England, which will bring in top-up fees in 20067.

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