Schools in poll position during election fever

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
After four years of LabourPlaid Cymru coalition, education is taking centre stage in the 5 May elections to the National Assembly. Darren Evans reports on the key manifesto pledges of the main parties



- Increase education spending

- Introduce school grading system

- National reading test

- Make teaching a masters degree-level qualification

Labour has made education the "keystone" of its election campaign and the party says it has an "ambitious, imaginative and radical programme" for educational renewal.

Most of Labour's major education policies will already be familiar to teachers.

The key pledge, to increase school spending by 1 per cent above the block grant from Westminster, was made during Carwyn Jones' bid for the Labour leadership in 2009, and many others were set out by education minister Leighton Andrews in his landmark speech in February.

These include a national annual grading system for schools, which Mr Andrews is adamant is not a return to league tables, and a national reading test to stop pupils falling behind their reading age.

He also wants to enhance the professional status of teachers by making teaching a masters degree-level qualification, and to review teacher induction alongside a review of the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW), in "full consultation" with the profession.

Those action points are now manifesto pledges, and Mr Andrews said he will set them out in more detail if Labour forms the next government.

"Labour is the only party pledging to increase spending on schools by above the 1 per cent block grant from Westminster.

"We are continuing to invest in education and demonstrating that by retaining the education maintenance allowance and ensuring Welsh students will not face higher tuition fees."

Mr Andrews said he is prepared to stand up for Labour's educational record in government, despite the widely publicised per-pupil funding gap and pupil performance issues, citing the success of policies such as the foundation phase and the 14-19 learning pathways, and the year-on-year improvement in A-level and GCSE results.

He said the pressure he has put on local authorities is starting to pay off, with councils pledging to improve collaboration and delegate more money to their schools.

And despite attacking "classroom complacency" in the wake of Wales' poor results in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, he praised the teaching profession.

"Teachers I meet are dedicated and committed, and they want to see this situation improve for their pupils," he said.

Mr Andrews attacked the Conservative party's finance figures and said more schools would be forced to close under their policies.

He said: "Labour is committed to the comprehensive principle. We will not seek the devolution of teachers' pay and conditions. We are committed to working with the teaching profession and we recognise the enormous effort they have put into the system."


Striking out alone on devolved pay

- Devolution of teachers' pay and conditions

- Review teaching methods to tackle basic skills

- Review role of GTCW and Estyn

- Start debate on term times and school day

Plaid Cymru, Labour's coalition partner, has urged teachers not to reward Labour's educational "failure" and said it is the only party with a "positive vision" for the future.

Nerys Evans, the party's education spokeswoman, said it has "interesting and dynamic" proposals compared to "more of the same" from Labour.

She pledged to review teaching methods to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy, particularly in the play-led foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds.

"There's concern that the foundation phase is potentially undermining basic skills," she said. "It's not an excuse not to get the basics right. We need to make sure guidance given to schools is more robust."

Plaid is the only party pledging to devolve control over teachers' pay and conditions to Cardiff Bay, despite its unpopularity among the profession.

Ms Evans said: "Pay and conditions would only be worse if a minister chose to make them worse. That would not be the case if a Plaid minister was in charge - we would want to enhance them."

The party also wants to review the work of the GTCW, amid concerns from teachers, and the role of school inspectorate Estyn.

"We need to make sure inspectors really see what's going on and not what is stage-managed," said Ms Evans.

Plaid would also start a "national debate" on whether shortening the six- week break and varying teaching hours could improve pupil performance.

The party also wants to review the educational role of local authorities, and plans to reorganise them along the boundaries of the seven local health boards, rather than the four regional consortia currently evolving.

Although Plaid has been in coalition with Labour since 2007, Ms Evans criticised Labour's record of "educational failure".

But she denied her party shares any of the blame and said she had spoken out in the Senedd.

"We haven't held the education portfolio - Labour has. There are some great things that have been happening, such as the Welsh medium education strategy and the foundation phase, and we are completely supportive of those. When there have been identified failures we haven't rested on our laurels. We have spoken out."


Empowering heads is flagship policy

- Fund schools directly

- Promote entrepreneurship

- Review curriculum

- Pilot free schools

Funding schools directly would save pound;102 million a year and empower heads to control the destiny of their schools, according to the Conservatives.

Education spokesman Paul Davies said Wales's education system is too centralised, too bureaucratic and does not trust its professionals.

The Tories' flagship policy would free teachers to get on with the job of teaching and help them to drive up standards, he claimed.

"Heads and teachers know best how to run their schools. This would give them ownership over standards and allow them to get on with teaching."

Mr Davies said teachers would enjoy more freedom, more responsibility, and less interference from a Conservative-run Assembly government.

Perhaps most controversially, Mr Davies said his party would pilot free schools in Wales as an extension of that "freedom and empowerment" policy, despite their mixed reaction in England.

Although Mr Davies said it was important to devolve power and responsibility down "to the lowest common denominator", this approach would not apply to pay and conditions, which would still be set by Westminster.

The Conservatives would also review the national curriculum and have questioned whether it is currently "fit for purpose".

But Mr Davies said plans to reintroduce home economics to the timetable were not a "backward step", but a necessary way of improving pupils' life skills.

He also wants to instill an "entrepreneurial spirit" in the classroom by setting up social enterprises in every secondary school, with the long- term goal that they would help expand the private sector.

Despite being the official opposition in the Assembly, the Conservatives have been accused by some critics of being "lacklustre" in holding the government to account over its education policies, and of giving the minister a "free ride" on controversies over funding and attainment.

But Mr Davies said: "We have been successful in holding the government and the minister to account. I have questioned him and tackled him on the major issues; we have been going on about the funding gap for some time now."

He accused previous Labour ministers of "failing to get to grips" with education, and attacked the current government's tuition fees policy as "unsustainable".

He said the Tories would introduce a system "along the lines" of the one drawn up in Westminster, although it would also create a hardship fund for the poorest students.


In England's wake, the pupil premium

- Introduce pupil premium

- Scrap GTCW

- Pay good teachers more

- Update ITT

A pupil premium that would target money at the poorest children in Wales's schools would help raise attainment for all, according to the Liberal Democrats.

The policy, which has already been launched in England, is the key pledge in the party's manifesto for the Assembly election.

Party leader Kirsty Williams said although the extra pound;2,500 per pupil would initially be targeted at the 80,000 pupils entitled to free school meals, it would have benefits for other children.

"If we can address those issues for some of the most disadvantaged pupils it is good news for everybody in that classroom because it has a knock-on effect," she said.

The extra cash would replace the "plethora" of government grants and would be sent directly to schools, bypassing local authorities, for heads to spend as they see fit.

Mrs Williams said it would begin to address the pound;604 per-pupil funding gap between Wales and England.

"Teachers, school leaders and governors I speak to feel they could do an awful lot with that money."

The Lib Dems are the only party pledging to scrap the GTCW, which Mrs Williams said is too bureaucratic, and unpopular with teachers.

The pound;6.2 million saved would be invested in a Quality Teaching Programme to provide up-to date training and development for teachers and heads, she said.

The party would also make it possible for schools to pay good teachers more, and allow staff to take an unpaid sabbatical year to pursue academic study.

Despite claims that the Welsh Lib Dems will suffer in this election for the actions of their colleagues in the Coalition government in Westminster, Mrs Williams is confident that voters will see the difference.

With this in mind, the party is pledging to pay any additional tuition fees for students from Wales wherever they study in the UK, the "beauty", Mrs Williams said, of devolution and being part of a federal party.

"We see this as a continuation of our track record of trying to make higher education as accessible as possible."

Mrs Williams attacked Labour's education record, claiming it had not launched a single education initiative that was without problems, and said the party had waited until the "fag end" of its time in government to "wake up and get a grip".

She said: "I think that Welsh schools can do better, but to enable them to do better we need to address the funding gap. We are the only political party that has clearly stated how we would seek to deliver that and pay for it."


Leighton Andrews Education minister

Number of seats held: 26

Plaid Cymru

Nerys Evans Education spokeswoman

Number of seats held: 14


Paul Davies Education spokesman

Number of seats held: 13


Kirsty Williams

Party leader

Number of seats held: 6.

Original headline: Schools in poll position as election fever takes hold

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