Plain-speaking Jane

17th November 2000 at 00:00
The incoming Welsh learning minister wants the media to discuss her vision, not her looks, writes Julie Henry

THE new education and life-long learning minister for Wales wants to know if The TES is going to ask her about her


Since landing the post in the cabinet reshuffle last month, much of the media focus on Jane Davidson has been devoted to the fact that she is undoubtedly one of the better-looking members of the assembly.

While the 43-year-old laughs it off easily - the "Blair babe" tag does not apply in Wales - what she really wants to talk about is how the assembly can improve education in her adopted country. She starts the job with the immediate street cred of classroom experience, having taught secondary pupils English, drama and PE for three-and-a-half years in Cardigan and Pontypridd, her constituency; and she speaks "passable" Welsh.

While former-teacher status might not have saved English education minister Estelle Morris from being bawled out at this year's National Union of Teachers conference, in these early days at least, the Welsh unions are positive about the appointment.

Top of everyone's agenda is the pound;2,000 threshold payment for teachers and its link to pupil results. It proved a severe stumbling block for her predecessor, Rosemary Butler, who was criticised for failing to challenge Education Secretary David Blunkett over the results link after the assembly voted against it.

It also highlights the extent to which the assembly is living under Westminster's shadow. Responsibility for pay and conditions in Wales remains with the Department for Education and Employment.

Mrs Davidson sees the 2001 autumn review of the threshold as the time for teachers to make their voices heard. In the meantime, Welsh teachers have until March 16 to apply for the payment. They are being urged to do so by the minister who says she does not want teachers in the principality to lose out.

Less controversial is the "wish-list" of proposals to emerge from the Liberal DemocratLabour pact. Cynicism about how it will be paid for is countered by a confident "every single thing will be acted on this year".

A total of pound;300 million over three years has been allocated to upgrade the sorry state of Welsh schools, including the village primary attended by her children, now aged nine, 12 and 16, which has five mobile classrooms. Seven hundred teachers have also been promised reduced class sizes. At the same time, there will be a review of surplus places - a phrase that has become synonymous with school closures in England.

Mrs Davidson, whose first teaching post was in a school of 29 in Lampeter, said she will not make ny prejudgments.

"Eighty per cent of Wales is rural. Local schools for local children is absolutely the way forward. Reducing surplus places does not necessarily mean school closures. It could mean more imaginative solutions such as federations of schools and better use of information and communication technology.

Another hot issue in Wales is the Welsh inspectorate's naming and shaming of a school in Cardiff which has failed its inspection for the second time in five years. The move has been seen by teachers' unions as a shift toward Office for Standards in Education methods.

Three weeks in and the minister has yet to set a date to meet chief inspector Susan Lewis, or the unions, but discussions will be full and frank when she does, the minister says. And consultation will mean consultation.

Mrs Davidson said: "I want the assembly's business to be transparent. I am prepared to make hard and unpopular decisions when the process by

which they are made is seen as transparent."

She will need the 22 Welsh education authorities on the team in a way that has not been necessary across the border where the policy of contracting out education services has marginalised some authorities' education departments. The minister's former role as head of social affairs of the Welsh Local Government Association could work in her favour. Mrs Davidson insists she wants "to create excellence in the country, from Cardiff to Colwyn Bay".

But she will have to address the time lags and absence of initiatives, such as Excellence in Cities, in Wales, that have been a bug-bear for some headteachers.

Mrs Davidson said she is prepared to travel the length and breadth of Wales to meet education leaders face to face, but then she is used to a peripatetic lifestyle. Both her parents were doctors and lived in the Midlands, Zimbabwe and America before settling in Cardiff in the 1970s.

Nowhere captured her heart as Wales did and, after finishing university in Birmingham, Mrs Davidson returned to Aberystwyth for teacher training.

The minister is acutely aware of the teacher-recruitment problem. A crisis is just around the corner, according to the chair of the Welsh Society of Education Officers, Richard Parry Jones. The decision not to offer the pound;6,000 trainee salaries that are available to trainees in England was severely criticised. But the assembly has promised that, if the funding is still on offer in England next year, it will be matched in Wales.

Consultation on induction for newly-qualified teachers - which is already in place in England and has been talked about in the assembly for over a year - will start in the next couple of weeks.

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