Resolution needed in New Year

24th December 2004 at 00:00
It is only 154 miles from Cardiff to Westminster, but at times like these you can measure the distance in light years. Charles Clarke, the former English Education Secretary has, as the world knows, been elevated to the Home Office and his deputy has been transported to the Cabinet Office. So England suddenly has a 36-year-old Education Secretary (Ruth Kelly) and a 37-year-old Minister of State for Education (Stephen Twigg).

By contrast, the political administration of Welsh education looks almost humdrum and sedate. Jane Davidson, the education and lifelong learning minister, has now been in post for more than four years. If she is still there next Christmas she will have lasted longer than even the most durable, and eccentric, of education secretaries, the late Sir Keith Joseph.

As she looks back on 2004, Ms Davidson can tick off several achievements: the abolition of testing at 11 and 14 years of age, the construction of distinctive learning pathways for three to seven-year-olds and 14 to 19-year-olds, free breakfasts for some of the poorest children, a raft of initiatives to promote Welsh language teaching, and the piloting of the Welsh Bac.

But there will be much to test her stamina in 2005. This week's report on the unacceptable number of Welsh teenagers who leave school with no qualifications (page 1) is a reminder that Ms Davidson could still use a pantomime genie. School funding, the dearth of jobs for NQTs, teacher assessment at 11 and 14, truancy - even the Welsh Bac - all pose questions with no easy answers.

The first problem is probably the trickiest. Ms Davidson is fiercely defensive of Wales's spending record and splatters her critics with statistics to show that Welsh schools are better funded than England's. But as Professor David Reynolds pointed out in TES Cymru last week, the Assembly government has sometimes manipulated spending figures to suit its side of the story. This debate will erupt again next year if some local authorities spend less on education than the Assembly wants (see page 2).

Any perceived underfunding of the workforce reforms could also trigger conflict.

High truancy rates, which some regard as Wales's biggest problem, will also demand Ms Davidson's attention. And the knowledge that even Tory leader Michael Howard skipped school to visit Llanelli's snooker hall (TES Cymru, October 29) will be little consolation. The training and moderation needed for the teacher assessment recommended by the Daugherty report may prove problematical and expensive too. But Ms Davidson will be emboldened by the good response that the tests' abolition had from teachers and parents.

The chronic shortage of jobs for new teachers, which TES Cymru has highlighted in recent weeks, will be harder to resolve. And her department may struggle to persuade university admissions officers that the Bac is equivalent to an A grade at A-level. But the education minister is an optimistic woman with unfinished business. She may break Sir Keith Joseph's record yet.

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