Wales ploughs its own furrow

30th March 2001 at 01:00
April 1 sees the unveiling of the new council in charge of post-16 education and training in Wales. Martin Whittaker reports

The new post-16 landscape in Wales comes neatly packaged with a bilingual brand name: ELWa. In English, it stands for Education and Learning Wales, while in Welsh it means "to gain benefit from". It is the joint name for the new National Council for Education and Training in Wales and the principality's former higher education funding council. Its new logo is due to be unveiled next Wednesday.

ELWa is the public face of the post-16 changes in Wales and aims to link further and higher education in people's minds.

"It's difficult to find names that work in both languages," says Enid Rowlands, chair of the new council. "But it does capture what we're trying to do. We're trying to ensure that every individual in Wales can gain from learning."

From April 1, post-devolution Wales will diverge from the path taken by England. The new council becomes responsible for all post-16 education and training and will have an annual budget of more than pound;370 million. Accountable to the National Assembly for Wales, it takes over the work of the country's four training and enterprise councils and the Further Education Funding Council for Wales. It will deliver all post-16 funding apart from higher education and fund school sixth forms via local education authorities as well as all adult education.

The new body will also have a joint executive that will serve the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales - a legacy of the principality having had joint funding councils for further and higher education. At local level, there are 20 community consortiums (CCETs) for education and training. These are voluntary partnerships that represent local authorities, FE colleges, employers, schools, and private and voluntary training providers, who will collaborate to deliver learning in their areas. They will link with the national council via regional committees. Wales invented the learning and skills agenda with its original Education and Training Action Plan, which was hailed as "groundbreaking" by Peter Hain, then a minister at the Welsh Office.

One difference from England is the contrast in pace. Wales is taking a much more evolutionary approach to the changes; it has built in a transitional year that will allow the new council to take on its functions more gradually and give breathing space to produce its corporate plan for the National Assembly.

Similarly, the local partnerships that make up the Community Consortia are also being given more time to evolve in accordance with local needs.

Enid Rowlands of ELWa believes this approach allows for the geographic, linguistic and socio-economic diversity of Wales. "The strength of the Welsh system is that it's designed to try and achieve an all-Wales thrust and policies - but with a very strong regional culture," she says. "I'm not driven by neatness; I'm drivenby effectiveness. It doesn't matter if things are different in different parts of Wales, provided they work and they meet the demands of people of that area."

Steve Martin, the council's chief executive, has referred to the scale of the challenge ahead as "awesome". To overcome social exclusion and improve the skills of the workforce are huge tasks. A Basic Skills Agency survey found that 28 per cent of adults have poor literacy and 32 per cent have poor numeracy, compared with 24 per cent for both in England.

Another issue that Wales is keen to address is the breaking down of institutional barriers to learning. This is also part of the rationale behind ELWa - a joint branding to help bridge the gap between further and higher education.

"We're trying very hard to break down the institutional barriers so we can get the best from all the different ways of delivery, whether it's through a private training provider, an FE college, a traditional education system or through higher education," says Enid Rowlands.

John Stephenson, chairman of the Welsh colleges' organisation, Fforwm, believes the new system will bring many benefits, including improved progression routes for learners, planned use of resources and better links between providers and employers. "If we get it right, we'll bring huge potential benefits to learners in Wales," he says.

While the Government has made a financial commitment to improve adult education in England, no such commitment has been promised in Wales - so far. People are optimistic about the potential for adult learning and the role of the community and voluntary sectors, but there is also concern that these sectors are not yet finding enough of a voice on the voluntary partnerships that make up the community consortiums.

On the other hand, the changes to careers and youth support here are regarded with a certain envy by many in England. Wales has taken a very different route from that of the Government's new Connexions advice and guidance service by resolving to improve existing services. Late last year, the National Assembly approved a report entitled Extending Entitlement, which paved the way for an expansion of the existing youth service in Wales and an increase in budgets.

And from April 2, all information, advice and guidance on offer for adults and young people will come under Careers Wales. Seven careers firms in Wales will deliver the service and be responsible for work experience, mentoring of young people and business and enterprise awareness.

"The idea is to give coherence to this whole package of careers guidance," says Ray Collier, chief executive of Careers Wales West. "It's linked into the human resources development strategy; it's linked into raising skills; it's very much linked in with the overall agenda for the National Assembly in terms of raising skills, GDP and prosperity in Wales. And this is seen as just one element of that overall strategy."

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