Too cosy for comfort?

4th June 2004 at 01:00
While Wales is making valiant attempts to put its own stamp on education, it may be thwarted by cash flow, writes David Reynolds

Wales has diverged significantly from England in its educational policies over the last few years. There is a commitment to the "bog standard" comprehensive, a reduction of market-orientated pressures, and the shift towards internal school assessment of pupils announced last week.

Education authorities remain key players. Wales believes providers can get it right without the pressure, harsh words and constant actions and initiatives that represent educational life over the border. In doing this, the education and lifelong learning minister, Jane Davidson, has rightly attracted significant international praise.

The jury is out on whether it will all work. For the moment, Wales performs similarly to England at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16, despite a population that is more disadvantaged. However, Wales does not have the combination of poverty, pathology and fractured communities that mark out many parts of England, nor the stubbornly under-performing groups of low-performing schools in those communities. Wales, in many ways, has the easier task.

Coming on the horizon though are a number of problems, the main one of which is, of course, money. Wales has caught up with England in the amount spent per pupil, but current expenditure plans suggest a gap opening again.

This year, 20045 expenditure is planned to increase by 5.5 per cent in Wales but is increasing by 6 per cent a year in England. Local authorities only delegate 81 per cent of their budgets to schools in Wales compared to more than 90 per cent in England - so morale suffers when heads compare their budgets with colleagues in England.

There are no direct payments to schools - no cheques dropping through the school letterbox - as in England. Wales is spending only pound;140 million a year over the next four years on school rebuilding - at the English rate it should be pound;360m now and pound;480m by 2008.

This means that a much poorer, older and more unsuitable set of buildings will remain so. To those of a cynical disposition, it seems the Assembly is raiding its capital budget to support its current spending.

The trust placed in Welsh local authorities to deliver may also be misplaced. Expenditure per pupil varies by virtually pound;1,000 across the 22 LEAs, with some spending four times more on central administration, and three times more than others on school improvement. Although this variation is grandly said to represent the expression of community views, it owes much more to educational history. The words "educational" and "lottery" come to mind.

Lastly, there is a strangely traditional tone to educational discussions in Wales, a consequence of the lack of innovation. England has had its ferment of education action zones, excellence in cities, local education partnerships, Pathfinders and test beds. And indeed so many different attempts have been made to shift the system that the system itself is overloaded. Yet all this activity means that there is a ferment of ideas in England - about creating information-rich schools, improving teaching and using the variation between teachers within schools to improve them - that has no Welsh parallel.

England now knows more about what to do, and about what not to do, than we in Wales.

The next step would have been for Wales to demand powers over teachers' pay and conditions, where it is currently tied to England. Wales has a high proportion of small schools where the head is paid less than others in spite of having to teach and be a head at the same time. This could have been changed, as could Wales' participation in a threshold pay hurdle that remains distrusted.

Quite why there is little enthusiasm in the Assembly for distinctly Welsh pay and conditions for teachers is unclear, particularly when there has been enthusiasm for Welsh everything else.

It may be that the real problem with the Welsh alternative is that it is simply too cosy for the strong currents of the modern world. By comparison with England, Wales is a still pool educationally.

It shows us why producer-led policies have been increasingly abandoned across most of the world, which is because they generate settings in which producers by and large do what they did last year, with change only at the margins. Whether Wales can generate more radical change than this is unclear. After all, we all know what strong currents do to still pools.

David Reynolds is a professor of education at the University of Exeter. He lives in Wales where his children attend Welsh medium schools

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