Welsh education faces challenges on a scale it has not previously envisaged. Never since devolution has there been so much uncertainty about the future.
The background to the present quandary is itself part of the problem. In Wales, there is a coalition Government comprised of Labour and Plaid Cymru. They have been loosely following the One Wales policy document on initiatives in education.
In London, there is the new coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with entirely different aims and educational policies to those in Wales. The recent emergency Budget announced massive "cuts" in the future funding of most state-controlled departments. Like the rest of the UK, Wales will be taking its "fair share" of these cuts.
The irony in Wales is that the forthcoming "targeted" cuts in the public sector will mainly hit crucial Labour-Plaid seats with the pending elections for the Welsh Assembly Government next year. But the political and educational implications are much more severe. Why?
First, approximately 40 per cent of all employees work in the public sector; a higher percentage than for the rest of the UK. Many of these employees are currently living in fear for their jobs, future pensions and existing standards of living, as no one has any real idea how the financial downturn can and will be managed.
Already, the Welsh Assembly Local Government Association has begun a campaign to save jobs in the 22 local authorities. Welsh universities have been told to find savings of 35 per cent over three years and the minister has announced that several will merge or close by 2013. Funding for further education colleges is dire and an urgent review of sixth form provision is under way.
Second, Wales has a much higher dependency culture than most of the rest of the UK, which means fewer opportunities for the Welsh Assembly government to be flexible. For example, Wales has a higher proportion of children and adults living in poverty. Dependency on social services support is greater and, alongside Scotland, there are more acute health needs in the population. There are also rising numbers of pupils with designated special educational needs, literacy and numeracy problems. In addition, familial breakdowns are now affecting more than half the children within the school-age population.
Third, there has been a long-standing consensus within Wales that too little Assembly government funding has been devoted to education, although in fairness, the pressures on the social services, health and other budgets are no less significant.
The recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers audit of Welsh educational spending has further stoked this debate. The suggestion that almost one-third of the annual Welsh education budget of #163;4.5 billion fails to reach front-line services, and only 44 per cent (or #163;1.8 billion) goes directly to schools to spend on teaching and learning, has greatly intensified the "cuts" debate within Wales.
Increasingly, statements emanating from ministers suggest that the long-term security of middle and senior management posts within the public sector in Wales are those most at risk.
Consequently, but hardly surprisingly, there are early signs that the anti-public sector lobby is leading to potential conflict between different competing sections of the public sector in Wales.
All this leads us to the real conundrum. How can the Assembly government possibly go ahead with its much lauded new policy initiatives in a climate of serious financial constraints? Thus, some flagship policies may themselves be at risk: these include such schemes as the Foundation Phase, School Effectiveness Framework, Welsh Baccalaureate, 14-19 curriculum, school-based counselling services and the Pedagogy Initiative, as well as ideas to improve the links between health, social services and education. The planning and implementation of these new policies has been one of the real potential benefits for Wales since the creation of devolution in 1999, along with the success of Welsh medium education in selected schools, the widening of participation in higher education and the general competence of the teaching profession, which has prevented the behaviour disorders associated with some schools and conurbations outside Wales.
Now for the real quandary. It has taken 11 years for the Labour-led administration to develop these policy strategies and to start to implement them. These initiatives are at the very heart of future policy and practice in education in Wales. But the Con-Lib coalition emphasis on financial cuts in London is threatening the leading Welsh educational reform strategies, which only last year were highly praised for their innovative thinking in a National Audit Office report.
So what will Welsh politicians do? They face a real dilemma. Do they protect the new Welsh-based school initiatives? If so, how will they manage to salvage key jobs in critical fields for Labour and Plaid in the run up to the Welsh Assembly elections? It is a real test of leadership for both education minister Leighton Andrews and first minister Carwyn Jones.
Even worse, with an economy in Wales based on public sector enterprise, how can they prevent a double-dip recession in the Welsh economy? It is very easy to forget that at least one-third of private sector contracts in Wales are gained through the public sector (including hospital, school and building contracts).
It is already clearly apparent that there are going to be more losers than winners. The ministers will need to acquire the Wisdom of Solomon to steer through the maze. If they are unable to do so, it may be the Labour-Plaid coalition which will shortly pay the heaviest price. The coalition in London must be laughing.
Professor Ken Reid, OBE, Former chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review in Wales.