Power of a critical eye

13th January 2006 at 00:00
An outsider's view can help us to develop, and England has much to offer, writes Mary Bousted

No one visiting the Welsh capital could fail to be impressed by the renaissance taking place there. The Millennium Stadium, new Millennium Centre, and soon-to-be-opened new National Assembly buildings are vivid icons of a nation reborn.

The striking architecture is the outward manifestation of a new-found self-confidence. In terms of policy, even hardened critics of devolution and the devolved government admit that education has been one of the Assembly's successes. And it is easy to see why.

The pyrrhic league tables and pseudo-market mechanisms have been swept away, new trails blazed in the foundation phase, and the Welsh baccalaureate promises an enhanced and broader curriculum.

The comprehensive community school system is fully supported, and the distractions of academies and trust schools nowhere to be seen. It could seem churlish, then, for an English woman to criticise this Arcadian scene.

But honest criticism from an outsider is how I have learnt and developed.

While England can indeed learn much from Wales, a conversation between Education Secretary Ruth Kelly and education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson would not be just a monologue.

First, while the ethos of co-operation that the Assembly government has sought to develop between itself and teachers is commendable, and in stark contrast to the "policing" that characterises Whitehall's approach, there is the risk that the emergent cosy consensus fails to address the real problems facing Welsh pupils.

The recent Westminster white paper got the wrong answers but it was asking the right questions: how do you tackle social exclusion, raise standards across the board, and ensure a universally good state education system?

The same questions need to be asked in Wales. The continued failure of working-class children in certain schools, as even a cursory look at comparative data about underperformance and free school meals will show, simply cannot be tolerated.

It is not good enough to say that things are getting better, or that they could be worse. It is too easy, too lazy, and too patronising to use social deprivation as the sole reason for lack of achievement.

Education action zones in England have made a real difference. Wales could also learn a lot from the Fischer Family Trust project which provides contextual, value-added data about individual schools and helps them and local authorities make the most effective use of pupil-performance data in their evaluations and planning.

The information provided takes into account previous performance and a range of other school-specific factors.

Next, the fog that envelops school funding needs dispersing. As an outsider, I was disturbed that the Labour administration was so reluctant to have this area scrutinised - especially from a government that prides itself on openness.

I was also disturbed, but less surprised, that the Welsh Local Government Association, the lobby for local government, has made impassioned pleas for the maintenance of the status quo. This takes no account of the genuine anger and concern felt by members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and others who are fed up of hearing of money that they never receive.

Once again, Cardiff can learn from London. Schools in England know that the new funding regime will passport 100 per cent of a given figure to their school. Their leaders know now what their budgets are for the next three years. Transparency and stability in funding matters are essential for strategic planning to meet a complex educational agenda.

Finally, the Assembly government needs to study closely the model of social partnership that has developed in Westminster. This is far more than a ritualised getting-round-the-table to discuss issues. It is a binding partnership between government, employers and staff organisations that shows a commitment to negotiation in which imposition is replaced by shared responsibility.

It can be tough. It means that no single group comes away with every item on its wish-list. The problem with the informal chumminess of the Cardiff model is that it leaves parameters of responsibility blurred, major disagreements ducked, and the back door open to the favoured.

Too often the differences between England and Wales have been portrayed as a simplistic dichotomy of heaven versus hell. The reality of devolution has challenged us all to become mature enough to accept that "they do things differently there", but we also need the confidence to realise that we will grow by subjecting our patch to the scrutiny of others.

In Britain we have four different national cultures and history, but they are similar enough to justify comparative studies of educational models.

Our governments can experiment and we can fruitfully compare the results.

Such comparison and contrast helps us all to become learning countries.

Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. This is an edited version of a speech she gave in Cardiff on Wednesday

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