Vision is alive and well
David Reynolds offered a powerful critique of current developments in education policy in Wales (TES Cymru, June 4).
I know that David will agree that the fact that it is possible for me to take friendly issue with some of his analysis, and that I can do so in TES Cymru, is a sure sign of the growing maturity, as well as distinctiveness, of our educational culture in Wales.
As I see it, the nub of the Reynolds argument is that while the Welsh Assembly government has created distinctive educational policies, the chances that they will be effective are threatened by their lack of innovation and radicalism, problems with finance, and the reliance that the Assembly places on local education authorities as the delivery mechanism.
The contention that we have not developed radical educational policies in Wales over the lifetime of the first Welsh Assembly is one that I find difficult to accept. It is certainly not the perspective of educationists I have worked with in other parts of the UK over the past two years.
In general they are greatly impressed with - and often envious of - the breadth of vision contained within The Learning Country and the policies that have flowed from it.
Three areas of policy development particularly come to mind in this respect. The forthcoming introduction of the foundation phase curriculum will begin to transform the learning experience of our three to seven-year-olds. It embodies the outcomes of educational research in this field, world-class best practice and strong inter-agency working. It is already attracting widespread attention from the other nations of the UK and around the world.
Equally exciting developments in 14-19 education are still in their infancy, but a great deal more will be heard about them over the next few months. Along with the Welsh Baccalaureate pilot, they represent a distinct and much more innovative approach to providing inclusive education and training for all our young people than the Mike Tomlinson proposals being developed in England.
While the thrust of policy-making in Wales has been very much focused on learners, there are also major developments affecting teachers. The Assembly has, for example, over the past three years provided an entitlement for all teachers in Wales to receive funding for their professional development from the General Teaching Council for Wales. This has been met with an enthusiastic response, with virtually every school and the great majority of teachers in Wales participating in projects. These opportunities are totally unique to Wales and are contributing to changes in the learning culture within the teaching profession.
Innovation is also the word that comes to mind in describing how these policies have been developed. The foundation phase and 14-19 policies reflect strong practitioner and learner participation.
The professional development policies for teachers have involved partnership working with the General Teaching Council, where the teacher associations are strongly represented. This contrasts with the tendency in England to rely on the work of the civil service, "policy wonks" and committees of the "great and good".
It also reveals that while the Assembly government delivers education together with 22 LEAs, it has sought a genuine partnership with other areas of the "education state" and civil society.
Working through a large number of LEAs in such a small country as Wales, is indeed fraught with the logistical difficulties that David Reynolds points to.
It is, however, the democratic impulse favoured by both political and civil society in Wales, and there is good evidence that both some of our largest and smallest LEAs have much to be proud of in terms of effectiveness and adding value.
Nevertheless, David is right to point out the capacity and funding challenges that exist in delivering these policies. Wales is a small country with limited resources. It is likely, therefore, that we will have to be as smart in finding ways to deliver these policies as we have been in developing them.
This may require radical ways of developing partnership capacity between the Assembly, LEAs, other parts of the education state (including higher education) and civil society in Wales. This would provide an immense challenge, but one fully in keeping with the democratic nature of Wales's education culture and the precepts of devolved government.
"Without vision the people will perish," was the view of the ancient Romans. Vision we have aplenty, but it will take the efforts of producers and consumers alike to achieve it and, by so doing, produce a better life for the Welsh people through education.
David Egan is professor of education in the Cardiff School of Education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff