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Is Wales a nicer place?

As bitterness in England culminates in strikes, Steve Hook explains why lecturers across the border are much happier

WHEN Welsh education officials looked at the upper age limit for modern apprenticeships a word instantly came to their minds: ageism.

They could not understand why a scheme aimed at removing barriers to vocational training should have a built-in age barrier. There was much ferreting around at the Welsh Assembly's Cardiff offices for an explanation for the age limit.

Perhaps it related to some piece of legislation, or a European directive about the use of public subsidies in the workplace? Much more likely, it seemed, the age limit was an arbitrary barrier imposed to keep costs under control.

In England, the age limit has been lifted in some cases, notably in shipbuilding, but in Wales, it was decided to lift it across the board.

In fact, Jane Davidson, the Welsh education minister, was in a good position to extend apprenticeships to all age groups.

The Assembly had budgeted for 14,000 modern apprentices to be on the books in by 20034. But so far, it has chalked up 10,200, leaving plenty of scope to soak up demand from the adult population without having to find more resources.

Enlargement of the apprenticeships programme is just one of a number of Welsh initiatives which Ms Davidson's department believes prove the effectiveness of devolution.

And the grass in the valleys is looking considerably greener for lecturers after a breakthrough in the pay negotiations. Ms Davidson has declared her firm intention to bring about much sought-after pay parity with schoolteachers.

So while English colleges were in the grip of strike action on November 5, unions dramatically suspended the action in Wales.

The pay dispute effectively took just four weeks to settle once the Assembly had turned its mind to resolving the issue. That was how long it took to decide that pound;9 million from Chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review would be allocated to pay.

Even the ill-fated individual learning accounts (ILAs) functioned better west of the border. While the Department for Education and Skills and its ministers were painting a gloomy picture of a scheme blighted by crooks siphoning millions from public coffers, Wales was sitting pretty.

The Assembly was quick to take credit for the apparent lack of ILA fraud on its side of the border. One possible explanation, it said, was the fact ILAs were administered by ELWa, the Welsh equivalent of the Learning and Skills Council, not by a private contractor.

The Assembly was established under the Governance of Wales Act 1998. There had been only a narrow majority in favour of devolution in a referendum the previous year. So, as the May elections draw closer, the turn-out will be critical to the Assembly's continuing credibility.

The colleges will be hoping for a vote of confidence in the new Cardiff regime. The new political structure has brought increased research through the Institute of Welsh Affairs and easier access to decision-makers, many of whom know each other personally.

This is not to say Wales is moving in a totally different policy direction. Instead, the country is able to take a "made in Wales" approach to implementation. It does not have the power to make primary legislation and shares with England the goals of raising standards, widening participation, and using lifelong learning as a lever to economic growth.

John Graystone, chief executive of Fforwm, which represents the 24 Welsh colleges, believes Ms Davidson has proved that devolution can bring real benefits to the country. "That success is due to some extent to Jane Davidson, who has shown a high profile and a great deal of enthusiasm and has been keen to make a difference, which means things get done."

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