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.

7 thoughts on “Putting education at the forefront of the elections

  1. Timely and Relevant but I wouldn’t be citing SNP’s policies as the way ahead. SNP is looking to Welsh Labour’s education policies and a way to set Scotland apart from the rest of the UK in the same way that Welsh Labour has done in Wales by prioritising Welsh language and related ‘bilingualism’.

    It’s now more than evident that these policies are damaging, corrosive and unsustainable. Education Standards in Scotland as in Wales are rapidly declining and this will not change unless we change the focus away from the Welsh language, bring back parity with the English system in every sense of the meaning but above all free the education of ‘linguistic’ political dogma.

    We must have a separate WM and EM education and pursue excellence through parental freedom of choice in selecting educational language for their children. Current policies of only employing Welsh speaking teachers in primary education must stop (Horrendous implication for the kids and standards of teaching too)!

  2. J Protic – What about the imposition of the English language? That’s unjust, immoral and colonialist!

    Why are you siding with the narrow-minded evils of Imperialism and Colonialism against the righteousness of Welsh resistance? Unionism is evel!!!

    Welsh language education will turn around the performance of our educational system which is being destroyed by bigoted Anglicisation.

  3. May I suggest that discussion on way forward for our education system includes a study on the way history is taught in our schools. Following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Berlin Wall several ex-communist countries imposed a temporary stay on the teaching of history until new history text books were produced, text books which this time would tell the truth. As the, for want of a better term, “history” we are taught in our schools is basically Daily Mail-ised English nationalist poppycock lets set up an independent committee to review this. I realise this will upset some English nationalists who hold that England won the war single-handily, with one hand tied behind their back. But its time to admit that maybe the Russians and Americans may have played some part in the war

  4. Dr Dixon is right. Health is a black hole for spending while education is the future. It deserves at least as much attention.

  5. Neurotic Protic – Could you provide any direct evidence that only Welsh speaking teachers in EM are employed?

  6. Education is the future and I question whether the future has been stolen by successive Labour-led assemblies. I trust the idea of a strong curriculum and portability of qualifications across the UK and, I posit, beyond. ” Their (Welsh pupils) knowledge and skills will provide the entrepreneurship needed in the Welsh economy”, but entrepreneurship is not on the agenda, in fact current Labour education policy is to reduce entrepreneurship to a level below that which is needed. All subjects ought to be delivering aspects of entrepreneurship in engaging ways. The world is embracing concepts of 21st skills lost in Wales.

    @Phillip Hughes – The teaching of historical topics ought to be a matter of choice and not prescription. The skills learned as I understand it, revolve around selecting and evaluating sources to make a point It is NOT a means by which indoctrination can be taught so children regurgitate facts that can be found on websites readily.

    @Protic bilingualism is a skill we are told that is valuable and helps people develop cognitively. Yet in Wales, the number of modern foreign languages offered children is decreasing. Why is this? We are told that school timetables are congested owing to so many compulsory subjects. Once again evidence that our children’s futures are being stolen by successive Labour-led educational policies.

    @Gwyn if you read the 1847 report into how well the English language was being taught in Welsh schools you will find evidence that parents chose bilingualism as a means for their children to lead better lives with more opportunities. Attacking the English language as ‘colonialist’ and declaring ‘unionism as evel (sic)’ is a look back in anger approach and unhelpful in furthering a debate about a better education system for Welsh children.

    For me the simple truth is a Labour led assembly is stifling progress and socially engineering a future public services time bomb where there will be too many all expecting the state to solve their collective problems. It is entirely inefficient.

    “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” Lincoln

    Not presuming to dictate… Why is our education system soooo prescriptive and why are our results so poor is there a correlation? I, without out a doubt, believe that to be true.

    Give the children more freedom to choose their pathways…

    “There is currently a powerful push-pull factor in schooling. The push factor is that school is increasingly boring for students and alienating for teachers. The pull factor is that the exploding and alluring digital world is irresistible, but not necessarily productive in its raw form.” Michael Fullan 2014

    The Welsh education system is not even debating what it means to be Welsh whilst planning the delivery of a curriculum that espouses Welsh values at its core! Consider the anthem. Wales needs a bilingual anthem plain and simple. Bilingual anthem for a bilingual nation, anything else is oppression.

    There is nothing more poisonous and debilitating than coercing a perception of Welshness on the unwilling and disengaged. The Welsh education system is nationalism in disguise. Whilst children live in a global economy and collaborate relentlessly on global platforms in ENGLISH!!

    Welsh people in 1847 could see the benefits of a more globally motivated education system and chose bilingualism as a way out of the suffocating system employed in Wales. Contemporary politicians are now saying our ancestors were wrong and quite simply contest their point of view hence alternative wales blog… http://walesuk.blogspot.com

    It’s just my opinion, after all it only took one match to burn a thousand trees.

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