The rewards of going it alone are still evolving

19th September 2008 at 01:00
The state of education Part 1: The dilemmas following devolution

As a new academic year dawns, we also enter the tenth year of devolved education in Wales. Time, perhaps, to take stock and look at the state of Welsh education which has developed a distinctive agenda, but has formidable challenges ahead.

Aside from the policies that have emerged - important though they are - there has been less overt, but perhaps more significant evolution, of what we might call an "education state" in Wales. With the Department of Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills at its centre and 22 local authorities providing its delivery arms, it also encompasses bodies such as the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, the General Teaching Council for Wales, the teaching associations and a wide range of voluntary organisations.

Like all states, it is of course evolving. It will, however, almost certainly need to reconfigure even further if educational progress is to be maintained in Wales.

Devolution with 22 local authorities in place would not have been anybody's chosen starting point. They have, however, survived the first decade and have forged a critical, if sometimes uneasy, partnership with the Assembly government in achieving devolved educational administration.

Those who think that local authorities do not have a critical role to play in the successful children's agenda of the next ten years - and that includes all areas, not just education - are almost certainly misguided. It is likely to be an equally compelling imperative, however, that for reasons of effectiveness, the four emerging local-authority consortiums become increasingly the strategic planners and providers of unified children's services. In education and children's services, at least, only such a scenario will prevent a wholesale reorganisation of local government in Wales that nobody actually wants.

As for policies, many would contend that we have certainly had our fill of them: most would say they are rarely "joined up".

Nevertheless, there are real achievements. The full costs of the foundation phase are now becoming more apparent. In straitened times, it is good to see that the government and Assembly have stayed true. Here is a cutting-edge policy that over the next decade and beyond can transform Welsh educational outcomes and society. The phrase world-class is often debased, but this is a policy area where Wales is the envy of teachers across the UK and the world. Progress will be watched with interest.

Less consensual, perhaps, but equally influential, has been the way in which Wales has resisted the "high-stakes assessment" regime that has been and remains so dominant across Offa's Dyke.

Wales eschewed league tables early on and soon moved away from national testing of 7-year-olds. More recently, it has dropped testing of 11- and 14-year-olds. All the indications are that robust use of teacher assessment enables us to record pupil performance accurately. At 7 and 11, our scores compare favourably with other countries, but then move in a worryingly downward trajectory.

In adopting assessment for learning, Wales has almost certainly got it right. This is an area where we must continue to have the courage of our convictions and spread our ambitions. With the increasing modularisation of 14-16 qualifications, will our school and college students be assessed nationally at the ages of 15, 16, 17 and 18? This is pure madness. The loss of valuable learning and teaching time and the cost of this system to schools, and ultimately the taxpayer, are extremely difficult to justify in educational terms.

Enter, the Welsh baccalaureate, another of the success stories of the last ten years. The growth of the bac has been unique, visionary and admired abroad. Its spread and adoption has been judiciously cautious and measured. The schools and colleges that have adopted it have become huge fans, and many more are coming on board. It is likely that the target for 40 per cent of 14- to 19-year-olds estimated to be taking the bac by 2010 will be far too restrictive, bearing in mind the growing popularity of this qualification.

What is now needed is further courage from our policymakers and politicians. The bac has the capacity not only to broaden the curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds and capture the increasingly diverse courses they should follow, it could also become the sole qualification in its own right, replacing the GCSEASA-level and vocational qualifications.

The lunacy of testing at ages 15, 16, 17 and 18 would disappear and assessment would cease to be the tail that wags the educational dog.

Of course, this would be a major departure for Wales from the EnglandWalesNorthern Ireland qualifications framework. It would be essential that students in Wales were not disadvantaged by such changes to the system. This would also need to be an incremental process evolving over a number of years. Hopefully, Wales would not be alone in undertaking this journey. To take the lead, or even to go ahead alone, would be challenging and radical.

If this was the right course for Wales to take, then the powers that we now have for this to happen are surely the bonus that devolution was intended to provide. As one of its architects famously suggested, devolution was to be a process and not just an event.

Next week: I will consider what I believe to be the major challenges that lie ahead as the devolution process further evolves.

David Egan, Director of the Institute for Applied Education Research at UWIC. He is a former educational adviser to the Assembly government.

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