Owen Hathway assesses what the new Programme for Government offers in terms of education policy.
“Our future prosperity and stability depends on the skills and values of the people of Wales. Education has a fundamental role to play in personal fulfilment, community development and wealth creation.”
The opening to the education section of the Welsh Government’s ‘Taking Wales Forward’ document makes a pretty important point. Often, especially when commentators speak about education in relation to PISA, it can be all too easy to see our school system as nothing more than a factory for tomorrow’s workforce. For today’s teaching workforce, who deal with pupils day in day out in classrooms across the country, it is far more than that.
Of course education is an economic driver and that is both reflected in this opening gambit, and indeed in the structure of our skills based curriculum, but it is also about personal development and building a socially responsible and creative community. With that in mind it is pleasing to see a range of pledges focused on this aspect of learning.
There is a reaffirming of the commitment to the Foundation Phase (albeit that it is sometimes hard to qualify this against the introduction of age-related expectations and literacy and numeracy testing which has skewed the ethos of the policy); there is a very welcome extension of the pupil deprivation grant; early years intervention strategies and specific focus on looked after children. This is not to mention the politically controversial “legislation to end the defence of ‘Reasonable Punishment” – or smacking ban to you and I, finding its way onto the agenda.
Aside from this we see the key Labour and Lib Dem election pledges of an additional £100m of investment for school standards and a reduction in class sizes respectively both featured prominently. We also see some big thinking policies such as the new curriculum, new ways of delivering supply teaching and the roll out of the digital competency framework.
However, while the above is encouraging, what is apparent throughout the document is that this is not a list that is heavy on accountability. There are plenty of commitments to ‘review,’ ‘examine,’ ‘promote,’ and ‘prioritise’ but few targets to measure how those policies will be judged as successful. At a time where one of the biggest bugbears of the education workforce is the harsh accountability measures and implications that go hand in hand with them, we seemingly have a programme for government without the metrics of measurements to fully hold the Welsh Government to account. What in practice does ‘developing closer links between universities and schools’ mean? How do we determine if the Welsh Government has succeeded in ‘supporting families and parents to reduce adverse childhood experiences’ in practical terms and how is a review of the current policy on surplus school places a policy in itself rather than the action it wields? Even on those key pledges we are not given the fine print on where that £100m comes from and how it will be filtered out to schools or when and how the class sizes policy will be implemented.
The IWA’s Acting Director wrote a pretty damning review of the programme for government this week. I have to say I very much share her sentiments that we should hope that this is “just an initial document and more detailed policy plans will be published over the coming few weeks and months.”
If what the Welsh Government intended with this piece of work was to simply establish a roadmap to the next 5 years it may prove to be a useful reference point. The skeleton of their body of work will have been established with meat to be added to these bones throughout the term. In many ways that is a natural position to have. We have to remember that in education more than anywhere else, as a result of a coalition of ideas between Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos, it may take time to work through the practicalities of delivering these policies. However, if this document is designed to be the measuring stick by which the government expects to be held accountable then it will have failed to build a sense of trust from the education sector or the wider public.
Few in the education sector would argue against the aims and objectives of the Welsh Government. The ambitions of this document are right but in spite of its publications we remain somewhat unclear as to how they will be achieved or evaluated.