Milk monitors need to show who's boss

26th May 2000 at 01:00
A year on, the new Welsh Assembly is struggling to find its voice on education. Jon Slater reports on the discontent in schools

THE first impression you get as you approach the National Assembly for Wales is that Cardiff was not quite ready for it. Roadworks surround the new seat of Welsh power and the assembly building itself is an office block with the site of the proposed new building still being used as a car park.

Critics of the assembly's first 12 months suggest that it is not just the capital's infrastructure which wasn't ready for devolution. A year after the election, many of the assembly members themselves are still struggling to find their feet.

Watching the full chamber in session, it is immediately obvious which speakers have been members of parliament in Westminster and which have been recently promoted from local


Rosemary Butler, the cabinet member responsible for schools, is one of those who has had to make a quick transition from councillor to assembly member - in her case with the additional burden of a front-line job.

She acknowledges that the assembly got off to a slow start. "In local government you have 12 months as a shadow council, we had six weeks between being elected and having the powers transferred from Westminster," she said.

With a reshuffle of Welsh ministers (known as assembly secretaries) expected in the summer and rumours that her head could be on the block, Mrs Butler is keen to show that she has a distinctively Welsh agenda for the future.

The assembly's education committee, which she sits on, is currently looking at early-years education and she is "seriously looking at" raising the school-starting age. "In other countries children learn through constructive play up to the age of six. We have appointed an expert to look at it," she said. The report is expected to be published later this year.

And she points to the largely successful completion of the curriculum review, numerous visits to schools and extra money for education - particularly for building work - as evidence that her first year has been a success.

Others are not so sure. The Willows high school has one of the most difficult catchment areas in Wales. Based in Cardiff's deprived east end, its intake area includes the assembly. Mal Davies, the school's head, who will be a member of the new Welsh General Teaching Council, is disappointed by the first year of devolution.

"The assembly hasn't produced distinctive policies at all. It's a young body and we've got to give it time to develop, but teachers feel they have the bad parts of the English system without the benefits," he said. "And the average parent hasn't seen the assembly make much of an impact."

He is also concerned that because of members' backgrounds they are too trusting of councils. "There is an incestuous link between local education authorities and the assembly. We haven't seen more money. The more cynical among us might think that councils are not passing it on," he said.

Other teachers at the school have two main gripes. The first is that while colleagues in England are eligible for a pound;500 grant to buy a computer, they are not. The second, inevitably, is

performance-related pay.

Initially, Mrs Butler appeared to promise that Wales would haveits own distinctive pay

system. However, when it emerged that the assembly did not have the legal powers to implement a different system in Wales, she backed the line from London - despite the assembly's education committee voting for confrontation.

"They handled performance-

related pay in a politically

immature fashion. They were completely out-manoeuvred by the Department for Education and Employment," said Mr


And an attempt to soften the blow by giving schools more time to implement the proposals has only created further resentment.

"Assembly members seem to be getting around their own problems rather than doing anything for education and other public services," said Gareth Cook, a maths teacher at The Willows. "You read in The TES that something is going to happen in England but we don't see anything until weeks later. It's like the threshold payments. We won't get them until February."

Alun Jones, the National Association of Headteachers' director for Wales, agrees. "The assembly's tactics are to prevaricate, panic, delay," he said. "They don't have the legal powers to change PRP, but they could have negotiated a different system."

Although he is a long-time supporter of devolution, Mr Jones has been disappointed by its early performance. He believes that this can partly be put down to Labour's poor performance at the polls, which left them without overall control and some senior figures - such as Wayne David, former leader of the European Parliament Labour group - without a seat.

But he also blames the assembly's lack of legislative powers. If the assembly wants to change or initiate legislation, it has to do it through Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary in London. And while his role is to represent the assembly's views in Westminster and Whitehall, he is also answerable to Tony Blair and his cabinet colleagues.

"They must feel like milk monitors; they can distribute the milk but the teacher or headteacher is in charge. Certainly, the public sees them like that," he said.

In many ways the assembly is caught between public opinion, which demands distinctively Welsh policies (but including the good bits from England), and Westminster which brought in devolution but has tried to keep the assembly on a tight leash.

Mrs Butler blames initial poor communication with the DFEE for some of the delays and confusion which have irritated teachers. "At the start they were not telling the assembly what was happening, but communication has improved. For the DFEE to understand devolution is more difficult than for officials here," she said.

Certainly, the relationship with London has overshadowed much of the assembly's first year. But the replacement as First Secretary of Alun Michel, the leader imposed by Tony Blair, by Rhodri Morgan has raised expectations in Wales.

If the assembly is to meet those expectations and gain the confidence of teachers, parents and the wider public, it will have to take on the Government in London more often - and prove that the devolution of power is real.

As Steve Davis, deputy head at The Willows, puts it: "They need to make a positive impact, take a big stand on something. It doesn't really matter what it is as long as they're seen to win a battle with Westminster."

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