Her reforms have transformed education in Wales, and she is seen by many as the teachers' friend. But Jane Davidson is having to fight to maintain her seat in the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections. Adi Bloom reports on how this former teacher is meeting the challenge.
In a neat, brown-stone cottage in Gwaelod-y-garth, a village on the outskirts of Cardiff, an 18-year-old student nurse is watching his mother defend herself on the BBC's evening news. It is, he says, slightly odd. But he's getting used to it. Joe Davidson's mother has been forced to defend herself in public fairly often lately.
She is Jane Davidson, Welsh Assembly minister for education and lifelong learning, and, in the run-up to the Welsh Assembly elections on May 1, she has been the subject of partisan attacks accompanied by inevitable calls for resignation as electioneering gets under way.
For Ms Davidson it is intensely frustrating. This is the first election a sitting assembly has fought, and early signs suggest the battle will be dirty. Plaid Cymru, the main opposition party in Wales, is already at loggerheads with Ms Davidson and her Labour colleagues for their refusal to answer questions relating to leaked documents on post-16 education and the funding of a "learning cafe" called the Pop Factory, planned for disaffected teenagers in the Rhondda Valley.
"We have intense political activity in the run-up to an election, which, to some extent, I would expect," Ms Davidson says, looking out of the big picture window of her cottage near the hills of the Pontypridd constituency where she is defending a majority of 1,575. "I would like the election to be a referendum on the policies we've delivered in Wales because we are confident we're taking forward an agenda that people are signing up to. But I don't think it will be."
Since devolution in 1999, education has been one of the few areas in which Wales has forged its own agenda. In September 2001, Ms Davidson published The Learning Country, her plan for education in Wales until 2010. Launched on the same day as the English white paper, it effectively eclipsed it, with its rejection of specialist schools, decision to abolish testing at key stage 1, and proposals for a Welsh baccalaureate to replace A-levels.
Eyebrows were raised and interest aroused. Suddenly, Ms Davidson's aim of placing Welsh education on the international stage was no longer risible.
"She's taken risks that Westminster won't take," says Gethin Lewis, Welsh secretary of the National Union of Teachers. In particular, Mr Lewis was thrilled by the abolition of key stage 1 tests; as head of Gabalfa primary in Cardiff, he had led the first test boycott in 1991. "We have enjoyed the partnership with Jane Davidson. She wants to make a difference for the lives of pupils in Wales."
She has also won the support of teachers as a minister empathetic to their needs. A former English teacher herself, she knows the obstacles that can stand in the way of good teaching. "When I was interviewed for my job at Coed-y-lan school in Pontypridd, I sat in a gym, surrounded by buckets," she says. "It was just after the Conservatives had taken power and they weren't putting money into school buildings. I don't think those buckets moved for 20 years. This year, that school is going to be totally replaced.
But that's the kind of timescale we've previously seen for building projects. There hasn't been the money."
She left teaching in 1984 to take up a post with the Youth Hostel Association. This job, too, laid foundations for future ministerial projects. It taught her to listen to the opinions of young people: that they had a valid contribution to make on issues that concern them. The result was a Welsh children's commissioner, pupil councils in every school, and youth forums in all local authorities.
Personal experience, the 46-year-old mother of three teenagers says, has guided many of her policy decisions. Her own education was fractured and eclectic: her father was a professor of medicine and took his family to Glasgow, Zimbabwe, Birmingham and the United States before settling in south Wales. The teenage Jane Davidson completed her education at an independent boarding school, Malvern College in Worcestershire. "I had friends who lived all over the world, but I'd come back to Cardiff for holidays and I wouldn't know anybody. I had no reference point."
Her younger sister went to the local secondary school in Gwaelod-y-garth, the same school where Ms Davidson is now a parent. "She has friends all over the world who come back here at Christmas time. I'm a strong supporter of that local community."
Consequently, she is keen to develop the school as community resource.
Instead of investing in laptops for teachers, she has channelled funds into school ICT units to serve as community facilities. And she is developing a scheme to extend access to Welsh-medium education, inspired by the experiences of her daughter, Hannah. "When I became an assembly member, I started learning Welsh. So Hannah, who was nine at the time, asked where she could get extra Welsh training if she wanted to move into the Welsh-medium class at school. It turned out there wasn't anywhere."
This September, Welsh schools will pilot a language-immersion scheme for 11-year-olds - the kind that will benefit children like Hannah. The intention is to provide an entry point, at the end of primary school, for children interested in transferring to Welsh-medium schools.
But now, despite her professed emphasis on local communities, there are rumblings of discontent, not only from Plaid Cymru, but from within the Welsh heartlands. Ms Davidson has come under fire for approving the closure of several two-room schoolhouses in rural villages. Primary heads, who rejoiced at the abolition of key stage 1 tests, are now calling for key stage 2 testing to be removed as well. And schools and unions alike moan that assembly education funds are channelled through local authorities, which allocate them according to their own spending priorities.
"Jane Davidson has done more to plough her own furrow than perhaps any other minister in the assembly," says Karl Davies, Welsh director of the National Association of Head Teachers. "But one consequence of that is that expectations rose and haven't been met. Teachers can't see why she didn't go that extra mile when, for example, there's consensus about getting rid of tests at key stage 2. To some degree, she's the teachers' friend, but perhaps she's played that card too hard and it's beginning to wear a little thin now."
Was it inevitable that the bubble would burst - that the period of grace had to end? "I don't think any minister ever has a period of grace," says Ms Davidson. "I like to see myself as a listening minister. So I'm not in favour of saying, 'well, we'll just get rid of key stage 2 tests on day one of the new administration'. I'm in favour of getting the right transition between primary and secondary school, looking at the ways children are performing in primary, and seeing how we can build on that at secondary level. We need to consult."
She is certain that children's performance needs to be measured in some way at the age of 11. "If Wales is going to be a learning country, I want to be sure we can be seen as a country that can outperform on international comparisons."
The decision to close small schools, she adds, is taken by local authorities; she merely serves as a final arbiter. Local government, she believes, plays a vital role in any democracy. It is for this reason that she also advocates delivery of assembly funding through local authorities: accusations of a funding fog come only because England has chosen to bypass community-based governance.
In a second term, and assuming she keeps her ministerial job, she will listen further to the demands of the electorate, consulting on the transition between primary and secondary school, and the best way to deliver Welsh-language education. She also hopes to focus on the implementation of policies currently in development. These include the Welsh baccalaureate, and a play-based foundation stage in primary schools.
And Welsh teachers, on the whole, appear willing to give her this chance.
"I'm not saying I agree with everything she says and does," says Selwyn Jones, head of Gelli primary in Rhondda Cynon Taff, commenting on a stump speech delivered by Ms Davidson. "But her knowledge of the education system has given her a head start. She's out and about in the field, talking to people, getting a feel of things. I'd like to see her have a second term in office, to see if she can further deliver the goods. The vision is there."
WHAT THE PARTIES WANT IN WALES
* Reform 14-19 curriculum, removing barriers between academic and vocational education. Continue six-year rolling pilot of Welsh baccalaureate leading to implementation in all schools. Develop plans for a GCSE-level baccalaureate.
* Implement new, play-based early-years foundation stage, and increase number of full-time nursery places to cover all three-year-olds whose parents want a place.
* Cut primary class sizes to 25 by end of second term
* Invest pound;560 million in school buildings
* Provide free breakfasts for all primary pupils.
* Abolish key stage 2 and 3 tests
* Develop a "true baccalaureate", as part of a revised 14-19 curriculum
* Press for teachers' pay and conditions to be devolved to the Welsh Assembly, rather than handled through Westminster
* Prioritise investment for early-years Welsh medium education, and increase funding for Welsh as a second language
* Make continuing professional development a requirement and an entitlement Liberal Democrats
* Examine the case for the abolition of tests at key stage 2
* Reduce all class sizes to no more than 25
* Explore ways to establish Welsh-medium schools, provide extra funding for bilingual education where desired, and extend language-immersion courses
* Introduce non-contact time for all teachers
* Extend the Welsh baccalaureate to 14 to 16-year-olds Conservatives
* Introduce specialist schools, and encourage an increase in the number of faith schools
* Introduce private investment
* Protect small schools from closure, unless they are failing to deliver the national curriculum
* Scrap the Welsh baccalaureate scheme, and review post-14 education
* Allow individual schools to decide whether to teach Welsh at key stage 4