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.

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