A quiet revolution in Welsh education

Philip Dixon examines a clash of cultures between Welsh and English education policy

The White Paper on education published in England recently has evoked quite a storm of controversy. Many see some of its proposals as the death blow for publicly accountable, state education as the system is fragmented still further and removed bit by bit from local authority control. By comparison the Education Measure currently starting its progress through the National Assembly seems more innocuous. But make no mistake, once the Measure goes through the structure of education in Wales will change for ever. Although much quieter this is still a revolution and education in Wales will never be the same again.

At root the English White Paper and the Assembly Measure are a clash of two diametrically opposed ideologies. The English proposals will ramp up the competition in that system on the basis that the market and the market alone is the mechanism for successful change. Schools in that system will become more atomised and more autonomous and compete against each other for custom. Academies, Free Schools and a raft of other options will be open to bewildered parents, all touting their wares and all claiming, with massaged statistics, to be the best option for children.

This is not to be the case in Wales – in fact, quite the opposite. Education Minister Leighton Andrews considers that collaboration is “to be the defining feature for the delivery of education in the future”. The Measure will place a duty on local authorities, schools and FE colleges to consider how they can work collaboratively when providing education, and how they can use their resources more efficiently and effectively.

The Measure is concerned with three main items: collaboration, school governance, and the prohibition of further Foundation Schools. Collaboration has been the name of the game in Welsh education for quite some time. The Learning and Skills Measure, the Transformation Agenda for school and college reorganisation, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report and its resultant reviews, have all been advocating a cultural transformation towards much great collaboration between educational institutions.

It’s not the direction but the pace of change that the Measure seeks to tackle. In response to reports from Estyn, the schools inspectorate, and local authorities the Measure seeks to ensure that collaboration becomes not just, in its words, an “add-on” but, again in its words, “natural” and “integral” to the education process. The Measure wishes to “drive a culture of collaborative working”. A duty will be placed on schools, colleges, and local authorities to consider whether collaboration is the best way to ensure provision and the best use of resources.  One gets the distinct impression that this consideration will carefully and rigorously policed. Expect more college amalgamations, more joint bodies responsible for education provision, and more supra-institutional decision making.

On governance the Measure echoes some of the recommendations of last year’s Enterprise and Learning Committee. Governors are to be offered more training. The Clerk to the Governors is to receive mandatory training before carrying out that role. But there are also provisions relating to federation, especially those concerned with small schools. It’s worth quoting the Explanatory Memorandum at length:

“The Welsh Government wishes to make federation more common place, especially  amongst small schools…to achieve that goal the Welsh Assembly Government thinks that local authorities will need to lead changes …the Measure [will] provide local authorities with the power to propose and create a school federation”.

Small schools therefore will not be able to resist the pressure to join together in planning provision and education. It is also highly likely that such federations will take a more critical and detached view of the use of resources and the maintenance of plant and buildings.

The rather curious provision prohibiting the development of new Foundation Schools or the change of existing schools to that category starts to make sense in the context of collaboration. In the face of unpalatable reorganisation proposals in the wake of the Welsh Government’s Transformation Agenda the governors of several schools, most notably Whitchurch in Cardiff, have dallied with the idea of seeking Foundation status. Such schools are largely out of the control of the local authority and therefore out of the scope of any reorganisation. The Measure would mean that such an escape route is closed off. It’s an irony that given Tory support for such flight the Measure effectively means that ‘we’re all in this together’.

The Measure has now begun its progress. It will be interesting to see the skirmishes. Once the dust has settled two things are for sure: the educational set up in Wales will never be the same again, and it will look even more different to that emerging over the border. The battle between those who think that collaboration and cooperation are the best ways to deliver public services and the advocates of competition and contestation is set to enter another phase.

Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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