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Why Wales is different

The Education of a Nation. Gareth Elwyn Jones. The University of Wales Press Pounds 25

This is a well-timed book, coming as the prospect of greater devolved power to Wales seems a real possibility. The big books about the history of education tend to focus on England and to assume Wales has somehow tagged along, caught up in the local government machinery put in place for the sake of English towns and cities. Wales, as Wales is keen to tell you, is different.

The problems caused by an unevenly distributed population and by a small middle class willing to pay school fees have produced educational solutions that would not have been attempted elsewhere. When these problems are coupled with the need to teach Welsh so as to preserve a culture and celebrate a literature, in other words when bilingualism is important, then it is apparent that what works in England is unlikely to work in Wales.

Jones writes with verve and clarity, bringing the educational debates of the 19th century to life. We travel with the blue-book commissioners who informed Kay-Shuttleworth's educational policy; we note the effectiveness of Sunday schools and the ineffectiveness of the charitable societies that did such a sterling job in England; we live through the wrangles and battles following the 1902 Act, when local rates were directed into the financing of church-based schools; we see the appearance of multilateral (secondary modern and grammar under one roof) schools and the struggles of the anglo-centric civil servants in London who try to override local sensibilities. We draw parallels between events of today and those of a century ago.

The final chapters consider the curriculum most appropriate to Wales. Here, Jones's role as an insider, as a member of the national curriculum history working group, comes to the fore. Not for nothing does he dub what happened "the Dearing disaster". Having watched the battle for the soul of Tory educational policy rage between right-wing pressure groups and educationists, it seemed that a national curriculum for Wales was going to emerge. Then the emollient Sir Ron was brought in to calm the furore over assessment, and presided over a settlement that resulted in the testing of core subjects at four age levels. Payment by results was in danger of being reborn. The Welsh element in the national curriculum was largely dropped.

Jones comes to a range of conclusions: Kay-Shuttleworth probably used the commissioners' reports to argue that the government in England should fund a national educational system; post-1902 Welsh education was more egalitarian and meritocratic than its English counterpart; after 1944 bureaucratic dogma made multi-lateral schools difficult to establish; today quangos and the Welsh Office, despite their apparent independence, rigidly follow central government guidelines, especially in the realm of higher education; at school level, there is more independence through ACAC, the Welsh equivalent of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority; simple market-led solutions to educational standards are likely to be inimical to the real needs of the Welsh people; the assisted places scheme is largely irrelevant to Wales; and the voucher scheme for nursery schools is socially and educationally "corrosive".

If these conclusions read like a political indictment, they are presented in level and sometimes ironic tones and illuminated by genuine scholarship.

Dr William Kay is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Theology and Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen

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