Tories' king of calm eases education into Assembly challenge
With eight months to go until the National Assembly elections, political battle lines are being drawn between the parties in Wales - and education is set to be a key issue.
The Conservatives, currently in opposition to the LabourPlaid coalition in Cardiff Bay, are hoping to capitalise on their success in May's Westminster elections.
Speaking to TES Cymru, shadow education minister Paul Davies revealed he is preparing a detailed educational policy manifesto with which to fight the next election.
"We are in the process of consulting with educational professionals and organisations and asking them to feed into our policy development process," he said. "Over the next few months, we will be looking at their views and opinions and forming our policies around those. The consultation is an ongoing process until we announce our manifesto next year."
Mr Davies, a 41-year-old former business manager with Lloyds TSB, took over the shadow education post in March last year. He is seen as a quiet and contemplative politician, not prone to emotional outbursts of rhetoric, grandstanding or political posturing like some of his colleagues.
Mr Davies has sometimes been criticised for not being proactive enough in challenging his coalition counterpart - currently Leighton Andrews and previously Jane Hutt - but his calm and measured criticism has won him many admirers.
He is also not afraid to admit he is wrong, having changed his initially sceptical opinion of the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification.
Some of Mr Davies' educational views are traditional: he has called for the reintroduction of home economics to secondary school timetables to better prepare and equip pupils for life outside education.
He has also called for the scrapping of costly "gimmicks", such as the free school breakfasts scheme, to save a potential pound;8 million a year.
As a Welsh speaker he is keen to promote bilingualism and expand the availability of bilingual and Welsh-medium schools. He also believes a Conservative government in the Bay would have a better chance of persuading the Westminster government of the need for fairer funding for Wales through the Barnett formula. However, he admits this will have to wait until the current cuts have been made and the Westminster government can spend again.
Although the Welsh Conservative manifesto is still a work in progress, the party's flagship educational policy is the establishment of free schools.
"I think heads want the flexibility to run their own schools because they know best," said Mr Davies. "What's good in one particular school may not be suited to another. I think if we look at what England has been doing, schools have been given greater autonomy than they have in Wales and the results are better. Clearly there must be a correlation there."
Mr Davies believes the initiative would free up more money for teaching, and cut bureaucracy. It would also protect school sixth forms, many of which are under threat as part of the post-16 transformation agenda.
"If parents, teachers and governors are determined that their sixth forms should continue, then of course they should continue," said Mr Davies. "We should see greater collaboration between schools and colleges, but it's important to protect our sixth forms at the same time, because we are giving real choice to pupils."
Beyond these themes, the Conservative education manifesto is largely unclear at present.
There are a raft of educational issues on which the Conservatives could take the Government to task, such as the pound;527 per pupil funding gap between Wales and England, a growing achievement gap with the rest of the UK and instability within the education department.
In the past, the Conservatives have been accused of failing to capitalise on the Assembly government's problems, with much of the staunchest criticism of educational policies coming instead from the teaching unions, academics and occasionally the Liberal Democrats.
But Mr Andrews will be aware that rather than facing the kind of Tory rhetoric he knows how to dismiss, the opposition is instead biding its time and crafting more detailed policies with which to challenge his government.
CV: PAUL DAVIES
Born in 1969, Davies grew up in Pontsian, near Llandysul in Ceredigion.
Attended Tregroes Primary School, Llandysul Grammar School and Newcastle Emlyn Comprehensive School.
Joined Lloyds Bank in 1987 and later became a business manager, and also a school governor.
Unsuccessfully contested the Ceredigion parliamentary seat in the 2000 by- election and 2001 general election, and the Preseli Pembrokeshire seat in 2003.
Became AM for Preseli Pembrokeshire in May 2007.
Currently shadow minister for education and the Welsh language, having served until March 2009 as shadow minister for culture, the Welsh language and sport.
Lives with wife Julie in Blaenffos, North Pembrokeshire.