Resources are the key to entering Learning Country
Ever since devolution in Wales in 1999, there has been a continued debate on the present and future funding of schools. This has still not been satisfactorily resolved. Complex formulae and budget forums do not provide equal opportunities for children and young people in Amlwch, Cilgerran, Llanhilleth, Llandeilo, Denbigh or Welshpool. The most recent delegated funding per pupil for secondary and primary schools in Wales confirms this conclusion.
The TES Cymru on July 17, 2009 stated that "the gap in per pupil funding between the highest and lowest spending authorities in Wales was #163;1,500 while councils are holding back more cash from schools than ever before". If you were to ask any head, primary or secondary, in Wales to compare the amount the school has in its budget for 200910 with a school of the same number of pupils in the same age-range in any county in England, you can be sure that the figures will bear out the fact that the resources available to a head in Wales are much less per pupil compared to those available to their counterpart in England. No matter how the politicians at local or national level respond to such comment, this fact still holds.
The Learning Country 2001, the strategic educational agenda which was followed by The Learning Country 2: Delivering the Promise in 2006 and The Learning Country: Vision into Action, confirms that our young people are at the centre of learning. There is no escape from the commitment to the community school, whether delivered through the medium of Welsh, English, bilingually or in a faith-based setting. There are no academies. There are no trust schools. There are no city technologies. There are no specialist colleges.
Initiatives like Flying Start, Foundation Phase and the Welsh baccalaureate have been well received by education professionals in Wales. The distinctiveness is applauded. It was noticeable that the Department for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (Dells) changed to the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (Dcells) to show that children are at the heart of the Welsh Assembly government agenda.
However, does Megan, the name given to the child representing children in Wales in the preface to The Learning Country: Vision into Action, have the same "unprecedented new opportunities to develop to the limits of her ability rather than the limits of the system" in all parts in Wales? The Foundation Phase, although well received, stuttered into place because the resource allocation was well below what was expected after the pilot phase had been completed and had to be increased to enable heads to deliver the scheme. Primary school pupils no longer sit Sats, and they follow a curriculum offering varied and diverse opportunities delivered by teachers who are responsible for their assessment.
In the primary school of which I am chair of governors, the initial experience is positive; the quality of provision is excellent, and teaching, learning and leadership correlate with parental satisfaction and oversubscription. The pupils are doing well. Is it the same in Amlwch, Cilgerran, Llanhilleth, Llandeilo, Denbigh or Welshpool? Can it be improved? A personal plea for the curriculum would be that if the Welsh government wishes young people in Wales to be truly bilingual, it must provide real opportunities and the resources to develop other languages in the primary phase. Then, on transition to secondary education, Megan will not be faced with what is apparent in some places - fewer opportunities to study a foreign language at key stage 4. This comes about because studying a foreign language is only compulsory for three years from age 11.
Megan, in transferring to secondary education, has arrived at a key moment, the implementation of the Learning and Skills Measure. The measure should allow Megan "to follow high-quality courses" that will involve GCSEs, AS and A-levels and "the new vocational route", created through the formation of local curricula for pupils in key stage 4. The Welsh government will ensure that the 14-19 networks are established to ensure the implementation of this policy.
Learning providers are expected to collaborate in the context of delivering Skills That Work For Wales. Best practice should be based on allowing governing bodies the freedom to determine their own collaborative arrangements. Will the strategic operational plan in Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Blaenau Gwent, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire or Powys provide Megan with equal opportunities? This could be a critical period as we wait for the various curricular programmes and resources to be announced and we see how the young people view the choices.
If the funding issue were addressed at school level and, for that matter, college level, and resources placed with the heads and principals, much of the wonderful aspiration of The Learning Country would be more attainable. Megan would be guaranteed a safer journey from 14-19 to complement what she has already experienced on the initial steps of lifelong learning.
Mike Howells, Former field officer with ASCL Cymru.