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We mustn't be cowed by budget cuts

Since the announcement of the "cuts" to the UK, and Welsh, budgets in October, senior politicians in the coalition government in Wales, who are from different parties from their English counterparts, have felt that they are between a rock and a hard place.

Last week, the Welsh draft budget was announced. It is a pragmatic budget based on the principles of the LabourPlaid coalition, though the future consequences are difficult to predict.

The coalition had to be mindful that the next elections for the Assembly government take place in May next year. Thus the budget's priorities are to protect health (especially hospitals), schools and skills, the latter because of worries about the economy. Welsh ministers are concerned about the speed and depth of the cuts and they fear that Wales may be thrust into a "double dip" recession, through no fault of their own.

The overall Welsh budget has been cut by 9.9 per cent. Within this total reduction of #163;1.8 billion, the education budget has been reduced by 8 per cent. The key aim of the reduced (but heavily protected) education budget is, according to education minister Leighton Andrews, to "protect funding for schools, skills, early years and vulnerable children and young people".

The specific areas within the education budget that are to be protected include: a) the pioneering foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds, which will receive additional funding between 2011 and 2012; b) increased funding for Flying Start and Cymorth in 201213; c) year-on year increases for school-based counselling; d) increased opportunities and choice for young people, provided for by the 14-19 learning pathways programme, and those with special educational needs, with an additional #163;6.5 million for post-16 SEN.

In addition, there is a commitment to increase apprenticeship opportunities through the pathways to apprenticeship programme, with a focus on youth engagement and employment. Thus, indicative skills budgets will rise by #163;14 million between 2012 and 2014.

It is clear from a detailed analysis of the cuts in education in Wales that the coalition has done its best to mitigate the consequences in years two and three of the four-year period. Welsh local authorities have clearly fared better than some might have expected, though they too will be keen in future to maximise funding to schools. It has also become more obvious that the Welsh education system is continuing to evolve and diversify further from London. Sooner, rather than later, like Scotland, Wales will have its own unique education system, especially if it decides not to follow the new major policy shifts just announced in the Westminster government's white paper.

Although schools and councils are treated well, some of their future capital building programmes must be at risk. Schools and colleges that may require essential building maintenance to remain either "fit for purpose" or fit in terms of health and safety could be at risk of being closed or forced to merge.

The closure and merger programmes within some local authorities will be speeded up. More small schools will close, especially in some rural areas. Some senior management posts in councils and schools are likely to remain unfilled or amalgamated with other duties. Regional planning will be hastened, led by the four new school effectiveness consortia.

Ministers have undoubtedly done their best for most sectors within education in what is the toughest Welsh budget since devolution, but three new challenges are looming. These are the rollout of the national literacy and school effectiveness strategies, the publication of the latest set of Pisa (pupils' comparative international performance statistics), and the Welsh response to the wide-ranging new white paper in London, with all its potential challenges for Wales.

Managing the cuts agenda in the future will not be easy. What if the latest set of Pisa results or those on the foundation phase are not as good as hoped? It is important to retain teacher and public confidence. I suggest that ministers and their department establish a small, experienced implementation group to manage the cuts and to consider how best to explain them. We need to avoid kneejerk reactions to the white paper or the Browne peport on tuition fees. We need to keep the Welsh education community on board. We should not see parts of it as a threat as has happened in England. So far, Welsh ministers have made a good start. They need to keep listening.

Professor Ken Reid was chairman of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review. He is a former vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University.

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