It boils down to money

25th July 2008 at 01:00

I know we are all tired and it hasn't been a year of wonderful educational news, but the figures that were put on the Assembly government website about educational performance, as reported in the TES Cymru earlier this month (July 4), make for some sobering reading.

On the headline indicator of five or more GCSE passes at grades A* to C, Wales is now 6 per cent behind England for the 2007 cohort. On the key stage 3 figures relating to the "expected" levels being attained for maths, the gap is now 9 per cent; Wales is on 70 per cent and England is on 79 per cent.

These figures are even more worrying than they first appear because they show that there was rough parity between the two nations on the GCSE scores before the Assembly assumed responsibility for education. Wales was also only 2 per cent behind in 20001. And in contrast to the English figures, results in Wales were down in 2007 for all subjects compared with 2006.

Let's get rid of the lame excuses first, before the usual gang of suspects trot them out. At GCSE, it is often said that England does better because of some vocational subjects counting for more passes in the English system. But this cannot explain the poor KS3 results in the same, or similar, tests.

The same examination regime that showed us doing relatively well in the early parts of the Assembly's reign now shows us doing so badly eight years on.

In the search for the causes of our problems, it is the functioning of KS3 that is beginning to interest educationists. Our KS2 results are good; equal to England in science and ahead in maths and English. But KS3 is poor. What is wrong?

It is important to note that we do not have serious, large-scale research on this issue, which joins others such as rural school closures, Welsh as a second language and poor foreign language performance, on the list of topics that the Assembly won't - or can't - research. But a number of factors seem to be important.

First, the transition from primary schools, which average about half the size of English ones, to secondary schools that are about the same size, may cause problems.

Our gap between family-like primaries and factory-like secondaries may mean that our children have "belonging" until age 11 but do not "belong" to their secondaries.

Second, it may be that the innovation that is so noticeable within English secondary education has helped it to do well. The projects, the estimated 60 "field forces" from quangos and the like which spread good practice, its secondary strategies and transformative schemes like Excellence in Cities, may have helped England to make KS3 a happier place.

Primary education in both countries may have been more progressive than secondary education. There is likely to be less disruption in transition in England, where secondary schools are changing rapidly, than in Wales, where they aren't.

Another possibility is that our traditional focus in Wales on the education of the able has led to neglect of our 11 to 14-year-olds. Perhaps staffing policies that kept the best teachers and heads of department back for GCSE classes and the A-level groups are still operating here.

Maybe KS3 is still the place where we in Wales put the new teachers, the trainees, the less experienced teachers and those who are not so competent, who cannot be risked on the examination years.

The final possibility - the most likely - is that it all boils down to money. Opinion is now pretty unanimous that in Wales we are spending around amp;#163;400-600 less per secondary pupil than England.

Assembly government figures, Welsh Local Government Association estimates and indeed the remarkable TES Cymru article by Alan Tootill, head of Swansea's Penyrheol Comprehensive ("We really are a poor relation", July 11), show schools are all in this ball park.

The Assembly government, of course, removed London from the English figures because it spent too much. When even that didn't stop the English expenditure figures from being higher, it tried expressing educational expenditure per head of population, not per child, which shows Wales in a good light because our children are a smaller population of the total than those in England.

If the costs of educating an average child are the same in England and Wales - which they are, because salary scales are the same and pupil-teacher ratios are virtually identical - then it is possible that virtually all the money in Wales is spent before it ever reaches schools, as it were.

If these "fixed" factors are about amp;#163;4,000 per year in total cost, as they are, England will still have amp;#163;500 or so per pupil uncommitted to spend on IT, books, equipment, professional development, capital spending on refurbishment from revenue and the like. Wales may well have virtually nothing left to spend because we haven't got England's amp;#163;500 extra per pupil.

No money means low morale. It means low levels of innovation. It means no possibility of experiment because there is no spare money with which to try anything new.

It means no time and space to build the capacity to change. And we are probably stuck with the same old KS3 because we can't afford anything better. This sad and evasive Assembly government pretends to us that it is classic Labour. But it is actually increasing education expenditure by less than the supposedly right-wing New Labour of England.

It is not just stealing money from schools - it is stealing our children's futures. It is time something was done about it. And it will be.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Plymouth.

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