Putting education at the forefront of the elections

Philip Dixon calls for a big discussion on the direction of our education system ahead of the assembly elections.

Ever since the sudden arrival of Huw Lewis, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, as education minister Scotland has become something of ‘the flavour of the month’ in Welsh Government circles. The momentous reform of the curriculum currently being guided by the Glasgow based academic Graham Donaldson is just the tip of the ice-berg. It was therefore interesting to note that Nicola Sturgeon has recently stated that ‘over the next four months there must be a great, ambitious and thriving debate in Scotland. A debate about how to build on our achievements, address the challenges that we face, and in so doing realise the full potential of our nation’. She went on to promise that ‘education will be front and centre of our plans for a third term in government’. It was good to see that education, which all but disappeared from view in last year’s Westminster election campaigns will be firmly on the radar screen in the run up to the Scottish Parliament election in May.

I hope the same will be true in Wales. We’ve already seen the parties lumbering up over health. The trimmings were hardly back in the box when Elin Jones told us that health was the ‘top priority’ for Plaid, and announced her ‘Cancer Contract’. The Tories too have made no secret that health will be their main concern in the run up to the election. But hopefully health will not dominate to the exclusion of all else.

The problem with an obsessive focussing on health is that it sucks life out of what should be a much wider debate. Big changes to local government are in the pipeline, the prospect of higher (or lower!) taxes too is now a possibility, Wales’ relationship to Europe is also on the cards. But it is the future of education which needs far more attention.

Let’s be blunt: Wales has problems with its education system. GCSE results compared to England, the reports of the inspectorate Estyn, and the dreaded international judgment represented by the OECD’s PISA, due at the end of the year, all point in the same direction: we could do a lot better. So there should be plenty for the political parties to argue and squabble over as they try to apportion blame and portray themselves as the Nation’s saviours.

The problem we have in broadening the debate is that while health is an almost universal concern for those past 40 only those with kids tend to be concerned about schools. Such a view is too myopic. Our children are our future. How they perform on the world stage will determine inward investment. Their knowledge and skills will provide the entrepreneurship needed in the Welsh economy and supply the building blocks of our public services well into this century. To put it succinctly tomorrow’s doctors are being taught by today’s teachers. ATL’s election campaign, Put Education First, is a rallying cry not just for teachers and parents but for all.

When we asked members for their five main priorities for any incoming Welsh Government there was a remarkable consensus. Some were obvious – better funding and fairer terms and conditions for support staff – but others showed the depth of commitment that teachers and other educators have to their children. They were keen to upskill for instance. They wanted to see a strong curriculum and qualifications that are portable across the UK. They were also adamant that they wanted to keep the state education system and not go down the Academy and Free School path.

The funding issue is one on which the parties will doubtlessly clash. FE has been particularly badly hit in the last few years. Labour will blame the current Westminster austerity regime but will be countered by those who will argue that the chronic underfunding of education longs predates the Coalition and Tory cuts. There may be skirmishes about the value of the Academy programme. And the current university fees regime, now on life-support it seems, could prove another key battleground with some wanting to restrict funding solely to those who attend HE in Wales.

It would be a great shame if none of these key areas got little or no airing over the next few months. ATL along with NUT and UCAC, an alliance which represents the vast majority of teachers in Wales, will be holding a joint hustings at the start of March to grill would be Ministers from all parties over their plans for education. We will also be working hard to ensure that education doesn’t fall off the radar screen with the media and political pundits.

Education consumes a vast amount of the Welsh Government’s budget. It would be a dereliction of duty if were not to have a robust discussion about how that money is spent, but also about what direction we want it to take.

Dr Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru.

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