Still dancing to London's tune

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Wales could run its education system more efficiently, more excitingly and with more public support than is the case in England, writes Gareth Elwyn Jones.

It came as a surprise that the survey of teacher morale reported in The TES (January 10) indicated that teachers in Scotland are as disillusioned as their English counterparts. The situation in Wales is probably worse, in that there is even less room for independent action. The sad fact is that, although in Wales there is evidence of both policy and practice which could constitute a more enlightened system, these are not allowed to develop.

This is an apt time to comment on continuities. This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the most notorious official report in the history of Wales. The three commissioners charged with the investigation into the state of education in Wales in 184647 were upper middle-class Anglican Englishmen, who condemned the Welsh language, religion and the social structure. What insulted the Welsh most of all was the association of nonconformist religion (only a minority were members of the Church of England) and immorality. It was alleged that nonconformist meetings allowed the sexes to mix freely and indulge in sexual intercourse afterwards. There was national outrage and the report has ever since been known as the "Treason of the Blue Books".

Official attitudes are expressed more circumspectly now, but Welsh education seems to be as much at the mercy of outside forces as ever. This might appear odd, in that there would seem to have been sufficient devolution to ensure that this is not the case. For example, the curriculum and its assessment in Wales are nominally in the hands of a separate authority responsible to a minister of state in the Welsh office. The inspection of schools is assigned to a chief inspector whose annual reports apply only to Wales. There are separate funding councils for higher and further education.

I believed for a time that such institutional differences were sufficient safeguards for Welsh interests, so necessary with the dramatic increase in state intervention from the mid-1980s. Indeed, it transpired that there was enough room for manoeuvre to allow significant variations in the original national curriculum orders to allow a curriculum for Wales to emerge, in both individual subjects and, later, in a statutory cross-curricular programme. It attracted envious glances from England, not least from Dr Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The Curriculum Council for Wales had been allowed to influence both policy and practice, often developing a different line from its English counterpart.

The significant phrase is, of course, "allowed to". Ultimately, these Welsh institutions dance to London's tune. This became all too apparent with the Dearing Review of 19934, which made few concessions to Welsh interests. The devaluation of the foundation subjects, implicit in the revised assessment and inspection priorities, struck at the heart of those elements of the curriculum which are distinctive to Wales. At the moment, presumably at the Welsh Secretary's behest, the SCAA for Wales has a low profile. The funding councils are implementing an even less favourable financial settlement in Wales than their counterparts in England.

Does this matter in educational, as distinct from nationalist, terms? The record of the past few years shows that it does. Views which have emerged from official bodies, teachers and parents indicate that Wales could run its education system more efficiently, more excitingly and with wider popular support than is the case in England. Welsh opinion, professional and lay, backs a more homogeneous and co-operative structure. There has been minimal movement towards grant-maintained status (17 schools). There is equally little support for any extension of selection in secondary schools - indeed over much of Wales this is not an option.

At the moment, there is a ground swell of opinion against the voucher scheme for pre-school education. It was recently reported that the Welsh office has received over 4,000 letters on the subject; one was in favour of vouchers. The reason is simple. Local authorities in Wales have always placed a high priority on the education of three- and four-year-old children. Over 60 per cent of the former and over 90 per cent of the latter are in state schools. A superfluous voucher system will merely siphon off funds into the administration of a less efficient system.

It is not just a matter of there being creative opposition to policies being imposed inappropriately on Wales. Perhaps, from 1988 to 1993, central government allowed the Welsh too much of a free rein for its own good. They have shown that SCAA, local authorities, schools and parents can generate and implement positive reforms. The tone is set by the Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales, who is just as prepared to draw attention to shortcomings as his English counterpart but does so in a civilised and professional style which encourages that vast majority of teachers who are going beyond the call of duty in the present maelstrom.

There is creative thinking, scarcely noticed across the border, which ranges from exciting nursery school programmes to the proposed Welsh version of the baccalaureate. It is frustrating that energies have to be dissipated on issues which have either little relevance or are potentially harmful to Welsh pupils. It is also bad for morale.

Gareth Elwyn Jones is research professor of education at the University of Wales. His latest book, The Education of a Nation, will be published by the University of Wales Press in March

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