Jane reaction

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Everyone has an opinion on the minister for education who has presided over a period of growing self-confidence in Welsh schools

Judging by the library in the loo at her cottage in Gwaelod-y-Garth, a village near Cardiff, Jane Davidson's humour is slightly off the wall.

Among the books providing light relief to visitors, mainly collections of Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson, sits a weightier work. Welsh Elections 1885 to 1997 gives you details of every general election since 1885, the European votes since 1979 and the two referendums on devolution in 1979 and 1997.

The book's location tells you that its owner doesn't believe life should be taken too seriously, a view that is reflected in the way she tackles her job as Welsh Assembly minister for education. In her two-and-a-half years in the job, she has attempted to strip away much of the dogma that is taken so seriously elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Testing for seven-year-olds has been abolished, GCSE and A-level league tables have been abandoned, and a play-based foundation stage for early years has been introduced. Such policies have proved hugely popular with teachers, unions, and the electorate. On May 1, Davidson was re-elected in her Pontypridd constituency with a majority more than four times her previous margin, and retained her post as education minister.

There was a genuine concern among many who work in education in Wales that after the election they would lose her. Jeff Jones, Labour leader of Bridgend Council and education spokesman for the Welsh Joint Education Committee, is a great admirer. "She is an evidence-based minister and if she thinks the argument you make benefits the children of Wales you are in with a shout. People with vested interests don't wash with her."

Her political opponents are not so fulsome. They praise her energy and drive, but believe she is too restricted by Downing Street to deliver; that she makes token gestures, but doesn't go far enough. Both the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru want her to follow up the abolition of key stage 1 testing with the same for key stage 2. They also want her to deliver on separate pay and conditions for school staff in Wales.

Mick Bates of the Lib-Dems can't fault her work rate. "She is very good at visiting schools but she doesn't think strategically in a radical way to promote education in Wales. I don't believe she possesses a creative and innovative mind to allow Welsh education to be the flagship it can be."

He says he had to fight hard during the coalition partnership - Labour ruled with the help of the Lib Dems for the first period of the Assembly until this month's elections enabled it to go it alone - to persuade her to bring in the changes that now set Welsh education apart from England.

Helen Mary Jones, her Plaid Cymru counterpart, was even more scathing. "She is like a queen bee, taking credit for everything her government does, but not the discredit for what they don't do. She is a bit of a one person operation, talking about I, I, I, and not enough about we, we, we. And that's not just me saying that. I've heard her colleagues in the Labour party say that too."

Are these just sour comments from opponents or a valid description of Davidson's personality?

Leaders of Welsh teaching unions, who can afford to take a more independent stance, are generally positive. They are pleased that the minister holds extensive consultations before reaching a policy decision. She meets the unions regularly, both individually and collectively.

Gethin Lewis, Welsh secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has said:

"She's taken risks that Westminster won't take and she wants to make a difference for the lives of pupils in Wales."

Brian Lightman, president of the Secondary Heads Association of Wales, applauds her willingness to consult. "After she gave a speech to our conference she answered questions from the audience for nearly an hour.

That was very well received. She has a very ambitious vision and wants it done quickly. She sets a very clear direction that heads largely subscribe to. But her vision is an expensive one and will only be delivered if she can bring the money into schools."

Jane Davidson undoubtedly understands a great deal about education. The 46-year-old spent the first three years of her working life as an English teacher. Her husband is a college lecturer, so it is no wonder she has won a reputation for being empathetic to teachers' needs.

She studied at Birmingham University and the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. In 1981, she taught English, drama and PE at Cardigan secondary school, Ceredigion, and then moved to Coed-y-lan school, Pontypridd. She only quit teaching as motherhood beckoned in 1984 - she is now the mother of three teenagers.

She spent three years as a youth and community worker in Powys before taking on her first job in politics in 1989, as researcher to the MP Rhodri Morgan, now Wales's First Minister, a post she held for five years.

Between 1994 and 1996 she was Welsh co-ordinator for the National Local Government Forum Against Poverty and in 1996 became head of social affairs for the Welsh Local Government Association before successfully standing for the Welsh Assembly in 1999.

As education minister she has travelled widely to other countries comparing education systems. She has visited the Basque country, because it is similar in population and size to Wales, to see how language issues are dealt with there. In formulating her early-years policy she visited The Netherlands, Denmark and Canada.

Two years ago on a family holiday in Cuba, she was so impressed with the island's education system that she spent the last day of the trip in discussions with education ministers. Those talks led to an exchange of visits between her and her Cuban counterparts.

Such passionate commitment has led her to set herself the task of visiting every school in Wales during her term of office. She has made a significant start already, visiting more than 700 of the 1,667 primary and 216 secondary schools in Wales. Those already visited have been left with the feeling that she has listened to them and taken their views on board.

One such is St Cyres in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, where Davidson looked at good practice in key stage 2 to 3 transition. Brian Lightman, the headteacher, commented: "She is extremely interested in seeing what is going on in schools and meeting staff and children."

Her determination to travel the length and breadth of the country is matched in her leisure pursuits. In her other life, she is vice-president of the Ramblers Association of Wales.

Conference date: Jane Davidson will address the Cardiff conference on Friday, May 23 at 9.30am

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