Poverty: a record that shames Wales

12th December 2008 at 00:00

I believe unequivocally that education is the ladder out of poverty. However, Labour, since coming to power almost a decade ago in Cardiff Bay and before that in Westminster, has failed expectations of the party to cap inequality and underachievement.

Sadly, 10 years of devolution has not brought the much hoped for highly skilled, highly educated small but smart nation. Wales retains a culture of low mobility. Many communities are still suffering from previous recessions, let alone the one we are heading for. These communities have been left to smoulder in the ashes of long-term unemployment, leading to a cycle of generational underachievement and lack of opportunity and aspiration.

Twenty-nine per cent of children in Wales live in poverty. From birth, an underprivileged child's life story has too often been defined in terms of low achievement, limited job prospects and the likelihood of involvement in crime and drugs.

Between 2005 and 2007, Welsh children eligible for free school meals performed below average at key stages 1, 2, 3 and 4. In no other rich country outside of the UK is it harder for poor children to succeed.

Surely this is not a legacy that the Assembly government can be proud of.

On the international stage, our education system does not fare well. Wales languishes at the bottom of the programme for international student assessment (Pisa) charts with Azerbaijan and Croatia. We achieve lower exam results and spend less on education than England. It is true that we must not spend all our time looking at what is happening elsewhere; we must measure our success in the social and economic prosperity and confidence of our own people. But we fail in both measures. Inequality in our education system runs deep, with a white able-bodied, middle class girl being the most likely to achieve highly.

With the advent of devolution, our system has seen some positive divergence from our neighbours. The scrapping of testing, the introduction of the Welsh baccalaureate and the principle - if not the funding - of the foundation phase are all to be applauded.

However, we should not stop there. We have devolved powers over education, and this is our chance to raise the bar and give everyone a fair start. Yes we need more money, but we must also aim the cash where it is needed. This should be at our poorest and most disadvantaged children.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats' proposal is a pupil premium that invests in the most disadvantaged and stays with the child, whatever school they attend. The proposal would allow the most disadvantaged schools to deliver for their pupils what private schools take for granted, which helps them attract the best staff.

We need excellent leadership in every school, but the Assembly government's centralising policies and demands have left a teaching force that is exhausted and disillusioned by ever changing initiatives and paper trails that forget the child at the centre of the system. We believe teachers, schools and communities should have a greater say in how they achieve educational success.

We need more money for teacher development to enable teachers to progress personally and professionally within the classroom. We need to raise discipline, innovation and quality. We also need to put an end to the year-on-year spat between government and local authorities about where education spending has, or has not, gone and who was responsible.

The government recently published its school effectiveness report in an attempt to raise attainment levels in Wales. But until it truly cracks the problem of child poverty, I believe we will not see the improvements in such levels.

A child from a deprived home will hear, on average, 13 million words by the age of four. In comparison, a child from an affluent home will hear 45 million. By helping the parents, we can also help the child. Inequality is not just about the finances of a child: disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications whatsoever; only 13 per cent of adults with learning difficulties are in work; 38.3 per cent of children from a black ethnic background will get more than five good grades at GCSE level compared to 54.3 per cent of children from a white background. The south Wales valleys areas - Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly, Torfaen and Neath Port Talbot - have the highest proportions of people lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The disturbing statistics are endless. Perhaps this is part of the problem. Are we so overwhelmed by faceless statistics, that the real people behind them have all too often been forgotten in the halls of the Cardiff Bay bubble decision-makers?

Research confirms what seems common sense: spending on education now reduces long-term public spending elsewhere. Society pays in the long-term for the children it lets down, whether through the benefits system - healthcare, welfare - or the criminal justice system. It is clearly the soundest of investments. Let us hope that the Labour-Plaid government will see past the electoral benefits of short-term spending and give Wales the nest egg we need to secure our future; that is investment in access to quality education for all.

Kirsty Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson for enterprise, transport and education.

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