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Will distinctiveness lead to isolation?

Preview of the National Exhibition and Conference, Cardiff International Arena, May 27-28

Adi Bloom on ambition and trepidation in the Welsh education system

Mention the increasing divergence of the English and Welsh education systems to Jane Davidson, and she takes a sharp intake of breath. Then, struggling to disguise her irritation, the Welsh Assembly minister for education and lifelong learning says: "People feel what we're doing is in some way an attack on England. But we don't want to be compared with England. We just want to develop something that's right for Wales."

Since she took on the education portfolio in 2000, Ms Davidson has been battling for Welsh education to be seen as a global player in its own right, not an adjunct of its more prominent neighbour. Her vision is of Wales as an education trendsetter, reacting to the voice of the public and taking the kind of chances that a more cautious England would not dare.

Having received an unequivocal mandate in the Assembly elections last May, she is on her way to achieving this goal.

A series of changes to the curriculum means that pupils in Wales will now receive their entire education in a uniquely Welsh system. They will begin their schooling in a new, play-based foundation stage, which delays formal education until seven. Instead, the three-to-seven curriculum will focus on general educational and social development, with goals such as awareness of their own bodies and personal hygiene, and a multicultural understanding of the world.

Since 2001, there has been no testing at key stage 1 in Wales. Instead, seven-year-olds are measured by teacher assessment alone. But, this year, Ms Davidson took the Welsh dislike for standardised testing a stage further: she commissioned a comprehensive review of testing at key stages 2 and 3 (see opposite).

The new assessment mechanism for 14-year-olds would link with the proposed Welsh 14-19 curriculum. This will combine work-experience and out-of-school study with secondary learning, enabling pupils to pursue vocational or academic routes from an early stage. Consultation on these proposals ended last year, and the Assembly intends to have a pilot programme in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the first 18 schools and colleges began to pilot the new Welsh Baccalaureate qualification this September. Fitting neatly into the broader aims of the 14-19 curriculum, the Welsh Bac combines existing A-levels or vocational courses with a compulsory core of skills-based study.

(Baccalaureate courses at GCSE level have not yet been piloted.) But the new qualification has already caused controversy: earlier this year, it was revealed that pupils would receive the equivalent of an A grade at A-level merely for passing the compulsory core. And staff in Welsh-medium schools fear that the diversity of the Bac will force them into partnership with English-speaking colleges because only colleges offer certain vocational courses, compromising the schools' ability to provide a primarily Welsh-language education.

Moelwen Gwyndaf, general secretary of UCAC, the Welsh-speaking teachers'

union, said: "We want to see schools co-operating with colleges. But we want pupils to go to institutions that have a Welsh ethos, and contribute to the local community. We don't want to see Welsh-language education compromised."

The Assembly insists that Welsh-medium schooling is central to any vision for a distinctly Welsh education. In April, Ms Davidson launched an immersion scheme for primary pupils, enabling 11-year-olds from English-medium primaries to transfer to Welsh-medium secondaries. She also plans to pilot a scheme that offers similar immersion programmes, with financial incentives, for teachers hoping to work in Welsh-medium schools.

In areas of pastoral care, too, the Assembly has developed a series of uniquely Welsh policies. The implementation of a scheme to install water coolers in every Welsh classroom began in April, with pupils in poorer areas the first to benefit.

Their thirst assuaged, pupils will also see their hunger taken care of during school hours. Ms Davidson has pledged pound;1.5 million towards a scheme to provide free breakfasts for every primary pupil. Having rejected Westminster's plans to introduce on-the-spot fines for truants, she hopes to improve school attendance by offering pupils a healthy, satisfying meal at the beginning of the day. Again, the initiative is to be piloted in more deprived areas first, and extended to all pupils by 2006.

But heads have criticised the Assembly for failing to consult with them over the staffing and resource implications of the changes. Terry Williams, head of Litchard junior in Bridgend, Glamorgan, says: "Teachers don't want to serve breakfast because it would extend their day, and kitchen staff are already overworked. Yes, schools care for children. But money for education should be spent on educating children."

As Ms Davidson grows nearer her goal of a distinctly Welsh system, heads have become increasingly nervous about the impact on schools and staff.

Teacher-training experts and heads are concerned that cross-border recruitment - and teachers' career prospects - may be affected by the increasing distinctions between England and Wales.

Alun Charles, director of school-based studies at Trinity College, Carmarthen, said the differences "will affect the way we teach our trainees. They will be preparing for two different systems. But good teachers should be flexible. They need to be able to adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in."

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