The same, but different

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Scotland's eyes will be on its election results - but what has been happening in the other devolved part of the UK? Neil Munro finds out

THE MANTRAS of current educational policies in Wales are set out in a document The Learning Country: Vision into Action. It has a ring of familiarity: Ambitious Excellent Schools perhaps?

Despite the existence of only two devolved parliaments in the UK (if we exclude Northern Ireland's stop-go version), there appears to have been little contact between them over the past eight years.

According to some insiders in the Scottish Executive, Jane Davidson, the Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills in Wales, felt closer to her English counterparts, possibly because there is less of a distinction between the two systems.

"Maybe we have missed a trick in not having closer relations," one Scottish source said, "but it seldom got to the top of the priority list."

Indeed, Peter Peacock, the former education minister, seemed keener to find out about more distant education systems such as Finland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But one thing has united both Welsh and Scottish education ministers since 1999 - an apparent determination to be as unlike England as possible. Ms Davidson, a former teacher, signalled her approach clearly and early in 2001 when she abolished the national publication of school performance tables, as did Scotland. Again like Scotland, exam results were instead posted on the national pupil database in Wales, last November for the first time.

There have been other similar initiatives. Wales is developing:

* Flying Start, "to give every child the best possible start in life";

* play-based "foundation" schooling for three to seven year olds;

* six specialist regional centres for additional learning needs;

* revised curriculum and assessment arrangements from 2008;

* the RAISE programme for pupils in disadvantaged schools and for those looked after by local authorities;

* a five-year strategy to improve teaching and learning, supported by leading research;

* improving opportunities and support for part-time students.

We can only speculate how many other similarities might have emer-ged had there been consultation between Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Of course there have been differences, the educational imperatives surrounding the Welsh language being the most obvious. But there have been groundbreaking moves also, the decision to introduce a Welsh Baccalaureate at advanced and intermediate levels for post-16 year olds being the most obvious. There would be vocational and traditional routes to this "made in Wales" qualification, allowing pupils to include diplomas in construction, ICT, health and social care, engineering and creative media from September 2009. Cer-tificated Skills for Work, anyone?

Ms Davidson, part of the Labour minority Assembly Government in Wales, is the UK's longest-ever serving UK education minister, with seven years in the job - but perhaps not after this week. She has been praised for her dedication, knowledge and drive. But she has been criticised for creating unnecessary red tape, and placing extreme pressure on teachers and schools to deliver her ambitious new policies, regardless of added workload.

Only five weeks ago, Sir Keith Rowlands, a respected primary head, who was honoured for his achievements in raising standards by Prime Minister Tony Blair, complained about the initiative overload he claimed was swamping schools. In an open letter to governors across Wales, marking his retirement, Sir Keith calculated there were 35 initiatives in train - many of them worthwhile, he conceded. But five training days and 30 staff meetings in a year were not enough to keep staff up to speed.

He spoke out shortly after Ms Davidson announced that radical reforms of teaching and learning for seven to 14-year-olds were next on her hit list.

The minister's tenure has won the same mixed praise from her political opponents. Peter Black, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman in Wales, said she had been "reasonably effective". But he accused her of being a "notoriously bad listener" and a "polemicist".

If she holds her Pontypridd seat for Labour, she may continue to pile years on to her long record as education minister. But some commentators have mentioned her as a future First Minister or Deputy First Minister.

In that political heavy-weight sense at least, she is very different from any of her Scottish counterparts.

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