Innovation is only way to beat poverty
A range of challenges will need to be faced and overcome if Wales is to fulfil its educational ambitions since devolution, as laid down in The Learning Country policy document. Equity and innovation will prove the biggest hurdles as we enter the second decade of devolved government.
Difficulties in achieving greater equity of outcome between children from poorer and richer backgrounds have dogged Welsh education for the past 30 years or so. Although individual pupils and schools buck the trend, the association between disadvantage and low educational performance remains impenetrable.
More worryingly, that relationship appears to be stronger here than in any other part of the UK, including regions in England. What is also apparent is that low attainment is concentrated in certain disadvantaged areas, notably the upper parts of the south Wales valleys and the urban areas of the south and north east.
This was, of course, precisely why, in 2005, the Assembly government directed funding at the Raise (Raising attainment and individual standards in education) initiative. Estyn suggested in a recent report that the impact of this scheme has been mixed, but we will have to wait on the independent evaluation to reach final judgments. It is essential that where Raise interventions have been successful, these are hot-wired throughout our system.
The school effectiveness framework will also have an important part to play in raising attainment. The framework is, of course, intended to be for all schools but, from the vast research base we have, we know that disadvantaged pupils desperately need more effective schools. However, schools in the most disadvantaged areas are not able alone to achieve the greater equity we seek. We know, from more than 30 years of experience from all around the world, that they need support from government, at central and local level, from other agencies and from their communities.
We don't lack funding and initiatives within our most disadvantaged communities. Flying Start, Cymorth, the children and youth support fund, the primary school free breakfast initiative and the work of the Communities First partnerships are some of the most notable examples. Within the ambit of the single children's services plans, these initiatives should now be more joined up.
However, being more networked at planning level is not nearly enough. If we are truly to transform the lives of the 29 per cent of children and their families in Wales who live in poverty, we have to do more at service delivery level. This, in turn, will require new forms of governance.
We need primary schools, their linked secondary schools and other aspects of children's services to be brought together as single entities and under unified leadership. In short, we need systemic change that will turn the vision of the 2006 Beecham Review, Beyond Boundaries: Citizen-Centred Local Services for Wales, of a unified and integrated public service into a reality.
For too long now we have heard the Assembly government and local government talk about how important all of this is. But there has been too little action, particularly in relation to greater integration between policy-making and synchronised policy delivery at Assembly government level. What is now needed is a common national purpose designed to make the target of eradicating child poverty in Wales an achievable goal.
While squeezing out the association between disadvantage and low educational achievement will not be the only requirement needed to realise that ambition, it is absolutely fundamental. If we are to succeed, as other countries have, it will need a fundamental change in the way that education is provided and governed in our most disadvantaged communities.
The part to be played in all of this by the foundation phase, being implemented for under-fives from this month, is critical. It will not be until 2023, however, that we shall see the first cohort emerging from the new education system. We surely cannot wait another 15 years to see if it has fully succeeded in transforming the education of our least privileged young people.
There is, as always, the issue of money. For much of the first decade of devolution funding has proved to be a toxic part of the education debate in Wales. Education - like all other public services - needs to be well funded. Equally important, but often ignored in Wales, is what any real- term additional funding should be used to achieve.
Evidence from around the world tells us that simply throwing funding at education does not work. If we are to tackle the issue of equity successfully, funding will need to be directed to where it is needed most and to do what is required of it.
This will need new forms of governance. It will also necessitate the use, by teachers and other professionals, of cutting-edge pedagogy that has proved itself as a means of enhancing educational performance. This, in turn, will require Wales and its educational community to embrace innovation far more than is the case today.
Professor David Egan, Director of the Institute for Applied Education Research at UWIC. He is a former educational adviser to the Assembly government.