Welsh education funding gap should be plugged

Jenny Randerson challenges a claim that the absence of league tables is the cause of relatively poor Welsh attainment

The Welsh GCSE and A-level results that came out in the summer made depressing reading. For the first time since the creation of the National Assembly they revealed a gap opening up as English GCSE and A Level students outperformed their Welsh peers.

New research by Bristol University now claims that it was the decision of the Welsh Government to abolish school league tables that lead to a relative decline in standards compared with England. I was a member of the Liberal Democrat /Labour Partnership Government in the Assembly’s first term which made the decision to abandon league tables. I believe we did so for sound reasons, so I need some persuading that the absence of league tables is to blame rather than any other factors.

The research showed that levels of achievement had become relatively lower since league tables were abolished. This is not the same as ‘cause and effect’. What I find disappointing is the lack of any educational analysis of these trends. The authors state that they have made a statistical adjustment for differences in funding between England and Wales but they have not undertaken any analysis of the educational impact of underfunding.

That funding gap between England and Wales is now £527 per pupil per year. It is a matter of common sense that such a big difference will mean that class sizes are larger than they would otherwise be and that there are fewer books and less equipment. As an ex-teacher myself I find it impossible to believe that this has not had an impact on pupil achievement. With the introduction next year of the Pupil Premium in England (announced recently by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) the funding gap could widen even further. The Pupil Premium will channel £2.5 billion directly to schools to assist with the education of the most deprived pupils, those at greatest risk of failure. It will also indirectly improve average levels of achievement because all pupils benefit from an improvement in the behaviour and achievements of their most vulnerable classmates.

Recent Welsh statistics show plenty of evidence that a similar initiative is needed here. Standards have improved in Wales but our problem is that they have improved much faster in England. For instance, this year there was a 0.9 per cent improvement in GCSE passes at Grades A*-C in Wales but a 2 per cent improvement in England.

There are other worrying trends in achievements in younger age groups. At Key Stage 3, Welsh pupils performed less well in English and Maths than pupils in every region of England. The difference in the results in English is now 8 per cent, the greatest since devolution. Another worrying trend is the attainment gap between boys and girls. The performance of boys at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 has worsened compared with that of girls. Even at Key Stage 1, the gender gap is still 8 per cent, although this is marginally down on the previous year.

Of course, there are other statistics which show improvement, particularly at Key Stage 1. However, I am sure even the Minister would admit that we are not where we would like to be. The Foundation Phase has, so far, been well funded, following a massive political row when the previous education minister planned to water down the initiative by slashing its funding. We all hope that it will form a firmer basis for future academic progress.

And that is where I believe the answer lies – in the funding, not in the spurious competition of league tables. However, parents should still be able to access key data about local schools. The Bristol research did reveal a worrying piece of evidence that many schools do not publish results on their websites. Moreover, the schools least likely to publish their results were those with the poorest results. Parents and pupils are entitled to transparency and I shall be urging the Minister to ensure all schools fulfil their obligations on this.

The Minister also needs to take other steps to stop Wales falling behind. The Welsh Liberal  Democrats believe part of the answer has to be in trusting schools and Local Authorities to spend the available money where it is needed. Currently, the Welsh Government ring-fences dozens of education grants, thereby creating a time wasting and expensive bureaucracy to process the grants. We favour rolling most of the grants into the core budget for schools to give them the freedom to target limited resources where they are most needed.

One of the Education Minister’s early cost saving measures involved a review of the training budget for teachers. There is a dangerous tendency to underestimate the value of training and cut it at times of financial stringency. I believe this must be avoided. We need better trained teachers and stronger leadership in our schools.

I have already challenged the First Minister to honour the promise he made in his campaign  for the Labour leadership to improve the education budget. He was non-committal in reply. He made the promise at a time when the Welsh Government was already preparing for cuts next year and there is no excuse for drawing back from that commitment now. The budget will not be easy but the Comprehensive Spending Review represented a much better settlement for Wales than the Welsh Government had been anticipating. To solve our economic problem here in Wales, the Welsh Government must solve our educational problems and that means a fair budget for education.

Jenny Randerson AM is the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Education Minister.

2 thoughts on “Welsh education funding gap should be plugged

  1. Yesterday the Conservatives argued that spending on Health in Wales should be ring fenced in next week’s Assembly budget. Today the Liberal Democrats argue that education spending should be increased. This at a time when the Assembly which has no revenue raising powers faces the toughest financial settlement in its short history. It is easy to argue which areas should not be cut . That is the prerogative of opposition parties since democracy was established. It is much harder,however, to set out the areas which would have to be decimated in order to protect health or education. Mrs Randerson argues that money could be released by just ending the ringfencing of certain grants. If only it was that easy. One of the problems with education spending is that it is directly controlled not by the Assembly but by local government. Last year ,for example, the Minister for Education wrote to Swansea Council which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats to ask why the money allocated by the Assembly for education had not been spent on schools. The Council argued that it had to spend the money on children;s services which as we all know were in special measures. Another Council according to its budget papers spent over £900,000 less on education than the Assembly allocation argued it should do. Again the Council argued that it could not protect education because of the effect that this would have on other services and the council tax. If the Assembly wishes to protect school budgets then it has to follow the English example and ring fence the expenditure while at the same time accepting the consequences of this decision on other local government services. If Mrs Randerson had read any of the work by the IFS or even articles in the FT she would also realise that the UK Coalition’s claim to be increasing spending on schools in England is really a smoke and mirrors operation. This is because due to a mini baby boom in the early years of this century numbers in primary schools are beginning to rise. Politicians who argue for certain services to be protected have to also set out where the money will come from and which services as a result cannot be protected. It’s called developing a credible policy alternative. You can’t really complain about Labour’s failure to set out an alternative at the UK level if you play the same game at the devolved level.

  2. might be nice to get away from continually comparing ourselves to a country 20 times larger in population and the polar opposite in Politics and general values. Why can’t we compare ourselves to Scotland or Ireland for a change. at least they have similar populations and issues

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