Valuable insight or opportunity lost?

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Review of Welsh education spending is a bit of both, and it fails to properly grasp long-term costs

Over the last two weeks education in the UK has begun to learn of some of the pain it can expect in the next few months and years. The first round of financial cuts will be soon followed by more in the Chancellor's June Budget, the autumn statement, and so forth. In Wales, however, we have had our own landmark review which could trigger major changes in educational funding.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report was ordered by the education minister, Leighton Andrews, ahead of the general election. It followed criticisms from leading Welsh education experts and teachers' unions that pupils at schools in Wales received pound;550 less funding than their counterparts in England each year. These criticisms clearly stung and angered the Assembly government.

The PWC report may not have been the response that the educational establishment was expecting. It casts an accountant's "eye" towards educational spending.

The key finding is that just 44 per cent of a budget of more than pound;4 billion is used directly to fund teaching. Although 77 per cent of spending in schools goes on classroom teaching, the equivalent sums in further and higher education are estimated at just 46 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. Critically, the report estimates that a 2 per cent shift in spending away from "behind-the scenes services" into frontline teaching services would equate to a cash injection of pound;83 million.

It is clear from the report, and Mr Andrews' own reactions afterwards, that there is unlikely to be much, if any, new money for education spending in the near future.

Rather than admit too little has been spent on education funding over recent years, the report plays politics by creating a diversion. Therefore, instead of accepting that HE students in Wales receive approximately pound;700 or pound;1,400 less pro rata than their counterparts in England and Scotland respectively, the report focuses upon purported administration costs.

It suggests that in future the minister's key tasks should be to simplify governance arrangements, to standardise and share provision and resources, and to review existing provision and services. What is all this likely to mean?

First, it is likely to necessitate the simplification of grant structures, prioritising the policy agenda and rationalising inspection and performance management. This will be bad news for the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS), especially as a whole raft of new initiatives have only recently begun or are due to start soon. Although the size of the civil service has more than doubled since devolution in Wales in 1999, no one close to DCELLS would seriously argue that it is over-staffed.

Second, the report hints strongly that there are too many separate educational institutions in Wales. It says that there are at least 60 major bodies outside schools which deliver their own strategic and support functions. Therefore, the minister is likely to order a speeding up of consortia and regional-based services, some of which may even share provision, amalgamate or merge.

But this is one of the weaknesses of the PWC report. While it makes suggestions, it does not analyse the real implications or future costs. For example, it shies away from either criticising or taking into account the full costs of the Welsh Language Act, which Wales alone bears. Most analysts would argue that Welsh education has been underfunded for years, partly because of the additional costs of the language and partly because in Wales we have a higher proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds.

The report suggests that all non-departmental public bodies could use a single back office. Therefore, it perceives Estyn, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and Careers Wales sharing single strategic and support functions, without thinking of removal, relocation or redeployment costs; nor the fact that none of these organisations are over-generously provided with administrative support at present.

While the PWC report considers that more schools, colleges and local authorities may be forced to collaborate or share resources, it avoids suggestions to reduce the number of local authorities from 22 to, say, eight, 12, or 15. Some critics are already seeing this as an opportunity lost.

Third, the report's own methodology appears confusing. Its parameters have been oversimplified and it fails to define teaching and learning adequately and clearly. For example, all teachers administrate as well as teach. Where are library and learning resources allocated on the balance sheet? What about ICT support? And in the long run, if job losses and cuts follow (as is bound to happen), where will it leave the teachers' workloads agreement, school support staff and classroom assistants, among others? Don't they all contribute to teaching and learning?

Fourth, the report fails to recognise that schools, FE colleges, councils and HE institutions in Wales have organised themselves specifically to manage the Welsh Assembly government's own priorities and targets as well as the recent abundance of UK and European legislation. Thus, every authority and college has had to establish its own equal opportunities, disability, quality and health and safety committees, and so on. You should not blame a sector for complying with its legal responsibilities and for the costs incurred.

The report is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the thinking behind educational policy, practice and funding in Wales. It may also be an opportunity lost. Perhaps it should have suggested that before ministers, DCELLS, the Welsh Assembly government and the UK administration implement new measures upon schools, colleges, universities and local authorities in Wales, they should first undertake a financial audit of the short-, medium- and long-term consequences of their actions.

Then, perhaps they should ask themselves what improvements will result for pupils and students and whether these are either necessary or beneficial. It is, after all, not the educational sector which determines policy and priorities in Wales.

  • Professor Ken Reid, Former chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review in Wales.

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