Steady wins the race

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore sets the scene for next week's First National Education Conference with a frank assessment of the current state of Welsh schooling

Two years ago, many in Welsh education were full of optimism at the golden prospects offered by the Welsh Assembly.

"Too often," said Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council and of the Welsh Local Government Association, "what happens in Wales has been what happens in England with a few sentences changed.

"That's going to be different as members of the Welsh Assembly will live in your areas and go to your schools," he told chief education officers. "It's a great opportunity to ensure that education gets its fair share of the cake."

Wales, he declared, would attract business because of its "bright, well-educated kids" and would "take the rest of the UK to the cleaners".

Today, a year after the Welsh Assembly came into being, that vision of a brave new Wales does not seem much closer.

Most of the first year of the Assembly's life has been bedevilled by a futile dispute over performance-related pay for teachers. Welsh teachers - and many Assembly members - had assumed the Assembly would be able to set its own criteria for assessing performance, and were adamant that results should not feature among them. But, as education secretary Rosemary Butler kept telling anyone who would listen, responsibility for teachers' pay and conditions was not devolved to Cardiff.

Ironically, while many saw in the Assembly a chance to strike out in a separate direction from England, discontent currently centres on areas where teachers want more similar treatment.

Welsh teachers feel aggrieved that their colleagues in England are eligible for a pound;500 grant to buy a computer while they are not. They lament the administrative bungles and delays over setting up the General Teaching Council for Wales. And jaded Welsh heads grow impatient at the delay in introducing an early-retirement package, when nearly 300 of their English counterparts have already applied.

"The Assembly's tactics are to prevaricate, panic, delay," Alun Jones, the National Association of Headteachers' director in Wales, told The TES. He has found the Assembly's first year "depressing" and wants to see it given the right to pass primary legislation.

Mrs Butler concedes that the Assembly got off to a slow start but points to work on early-years education - currently under review by the Assembly's education committee - as well as extra money for education as evidence that her first year has been a success.

Whether or not Labour decides to court popularity by giving the Assembly more legislative teeth, education in Wales will continue to grow more distinct - both in content and practice - from education in England. It has long had quite a different ethos anyway.

The most obvious difference, of course, is scale. Wales has only 500,000 pupils and 28,000 teachers in 2,000 schools. There are just 230 secondary schools, and many of the primary schools are small and rural.

The 22 local education authorities - of which six are extremely small - were created in a single reorganisation from eight LEAs in 1996. Partly because of this smallness of scale, there is a collaborative spirit in Welsh education that often seems lacking in England. Very few schools opted out; independent schools cater for a tiny minority of less than 2 per cent; selection is not an issue. Except in a few areas, parents of all classes send their children to the local school.

Welsh LEAs have closer relations with the inspectorate and civil servants than their English counterparts. The competitive bidding for funds that sours relations between authorities in England is virtually absent (although many Welsh schools also feel not enough money is passed on to them).

There are no failing LEAs - inspection reports on councils' support for literacy and numeracy show that tey do make a difference - and no threat of privatisation. Even the monitoring of threshold assessment in Wales is to be done by local authorities, not a private contractor as in England - a concession won by Mrs Butler that went relatively unnoticed in the general protests over the link between pay and results.

The curriculum, too, becomes ever more different. Welsh is now compulsory for all pupils up to 16 (450 primary and 50 secondary schools are schools where Welsh is the sole or main medium of instruction). There are no literacy or numeracy "hours" in Welsh primary schools, and no recommended list of great authors in the revised curriculum for English at key stage 3. Requirements for key stage 4 also remain more flexible than in England, with no compulsory technology. There seems throughout to be a greater willingness to trust teachers' judgment.

But Wales also has deep-seated educational problems that are every bit as intractable as those of England, the legacy of rural poverty in some areas and now-defunct heavy industry in others.

As a recent report from the Basic Skills Agency showed, standards of literacy and numeracy among the adult population in Wales are worse than in England: 28 per cent of Welsh adults have poor reading and writing skills and nearly one in three cannot deal with even simple calculations, compared with one in four in England.

Truancy remains a serious problem in secondary schools. Nearly half of those inspected last year had attendance levels below 90 per cent. In a small minority, one-fifth of pupils is regularly absent.

The poor state of school buildings does not help. Last year's annual report from Susan Lewis, the chief inspector, says that poor buildings had an adverse effect on standards in more than half of all schools. The Government has found an extra pound;25 million for capital spending next year.

Starting from an often low base, schools in Wales have made steady strides over the past 20 years and they have recently made good progress with results in key stage tests at primary level. But the chief inspector's last report found evidence of stalled progress at key stage 3 and warned that secondary schools would have to move into a higher gear if they were to meet the Government's targets.

Between 70 and 80 per cent of 14-year-olds in Wales are expected to reach level 5 or better in maths, science and English or Welsh by 2002. At current rates of progress, the target would be met only in Welsh, says Susan Lewis.

But the picture on GCSE results is encouraging. The number of Welsh 15-year-olds achieving five higher-grade passes has risen by 30 per cent in the past five years. Wales had always lagged behind England but last year it drew marginally ahead, with 48 per cent reaching that level, against 47.9 per cent in England.

So perhaps, in a few years, Welsh school-leavers will take the rest of the UK to the cleaners after all.


* No education action zones * No "fresh start" schools or privatised local education authorities * No prescribed literacy hour, although Estyn (Her Majesty's Inspectorate for education and training in Wales) provides guidance on good practice * No Standards Fund bidding (the nearest equivalent, Grants for Education Support and Training, is principally driven by formula allocation) * No centrally-funded behaviour units * No advanced skills teachers * Teachers' pay threshold arrangements administered through the LEAs rather than the private sector. Teachers to submit threshold applications by September 29, rather than June 5 in England * Different national curriculum (technology optional, Welsh compulsory) * Different schemes of work * No school organisation committees or adjudicators * No "naming and shaming" * No whole LEA inspections - themed inspections instead (so far, numeracy and literacy)

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