Power to the Yes men

26th September 1997 at 01:00
"An historic day for Wales," said the Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, jubilant at last week's referendum vote to devolve power from London. Most Welsh educationists and union officials are also celebrating.

Besides moving them closer to the seat of power the Welsh assembly is set to take on the Welsh Office's powers, responsible for distributing budgets and controlling influential quangos which oversee schools, further education colleges and universities.

It will be responsible for setting the principality 's education strategy,and may take on the establishment of a Welsh teaching council.

There is also growing speculation that the new assembly might seek to overturn unpopular policies introduced by the Conservatives, notably by abolishing school league tables. Such a move, however, is likely to set it on a collision course with the new Labour Government.

So how much real power will it have? The short answer is not a lot. Control will rest with 60 elected members of the Welsh assembly in Cardiff.The Welsh education minister's responsibility for schools, further and higher education will pass to the chairman of an education committee.

It will be unable to pass primary legislation or raise taxes. It will have the same responsibilities as the Welsh Office and distribute Westminster's #163;7 billion block grant to local authorities.

Jubilant pro-devolutionists predict the assembly will bring new energy and ideas, and a clearer Welsh perspective to the principality's education system, others are not so sure. Critics say that it will bring new jobs for the "boyos".

What is unlikely to change, given Labour's aim of sticking to Tory fiscal targets, is overall funding. The National Union of Teachers in Wales estimates that term started this year with 700 fewer teachers for 1,000 extra pupils. Class sizes look set to rise and, devolution or not, these problems will intensify.

Alun Jones of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers warns that a cash-strapped assembly "might contemplate the modification of teachers' pay". He says that "while the Government has committed itself to retaining responsibility for Welsh NHS pay and conditions, there is no such commitment to teachers".

He fears that the General Teaching Council proposed for England and Wales in the White Paper, could allow for separate Welsh pay scales. He believes the Welsh assembly will prefer a separate GTC and that a Scottish situation could emerge where qualifications are not recognised beyond the border.

The most likely changes will be in rationalising advisory, special education and technology services. Welsh education's unanimous opposition to local government reorganisation in 1996, when eight county councils were split into 22 single-tier authorities, was founded on anxiety that old inter-school strategies would fall apart. While piecemeal co-operation has had some success, the shrunken authorities immediately fell to bickering with Cardiff and Rhondda boycotting the Welsh Local Government Association. Many hope the assembly will sort them out.

The NUT, which collected money for the Yes campaign at the Eisteddfod and placed Vote Yes ads in local papers, anticipates the assembly's "strategic role". The NUT's Gethin Lewis hopes for "one funding formula, one curricular policy, one special needs policy for every school in Wales". Edgar Lewis, Denbighshire's director of education and leisure, says: "I detect the beginnings of a debate about getting to grips with regionalising services."

It will be fierce debate which could open up northsouth, ruralurban, Welshnon-Welsh speaking divides, and will be the first round in a power struggle where new regional government meets old local regimes recently wrenched into unwelcome shapes by a past national government.

Legal wrangles loom if the assembly seeks to unpick some of the effects of the primary legislation it cannot revoke. The Welsh assembly could restore regionally-based school services and after that may attempt a cross-Wales funding policy. It might tinker with education law and reject "competitive English policies" by abolishing league tables and truancy charts. But this remains speculation until the small print of the Welsh government Bill which goes before Parliament in November.

Undoubtedly opponents will question the authority of an assembly voted for by one in four of the electorate. The fragile mandate for devolution should be set against a Welsh consensus supporting its distinct brand of state education. The first comprehensive was in Anglesey, the first nursery school in the Rhondda Valley and Glamorgan awarded the first student grants. Only 20 of Wales's 2,000 schools opted out and the Tories abandoned plans for a Welsh schools funding council.

There was universal rejection of nursery vouchers and there's long been near-universal allegiance to the Welsh examinations board. There are administrative differences too with a separate Welsh inspectorate, plus further and higher education funding councils. A separate curriculum accommodates compulsory Welsh language teaching into secondary schools and there are no primary school league tables.

Where England got Excellence in Schools, the Welsh version of the White Paper was called Building Excellent Schools Together.

The Welsh junior minister, Peter Hain, said: "This reflects our commitment to building a distinctive education policy, even in advance of a Welsh assembly."

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