David Reynolds: Is Wales blazing a trail in schools and colleges?

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The Independent Online

The Welsh educational alternative is now taking shape, involving commitment to the "bog standard" comprehensive school, the reduction of market-based pressures to perform and a shift towards internally based assessment of pupils. The private sector will not be used. The absence of a large middle class wedded to A-levels allows a freedom to change curriculum that is unknown in England. There is, in Wales, no private sector to flee to.

Wales is now for the first time being taken seriously in London. I can remember English civil servants chortling that "the Welsh are coming" when bilateral meetings were being held. No one laughs now. Instead, one detects an irritation at the popularity of Jane Davidson's Welsh alternative, and a concern that Wales may soon be an outrider for England.

Whatever the politics, Wales does seem to have something to offer. The Welsh system now adds more value than does that of England, since Wales gets similar results at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16, despite its considerably more disadvantaged population.

Something is going on here. Yet whether Welsh policies are appropriate in England is unclear. Abandoning the national publication of secondary-school results is sensible when many parents have no choice other than their local schools. In England, a market might work.

England also has a trailing edge of several hundred poorly performing secondary schools that have no Welsh equivalent. The softer Welsh educational debate may be inappropriate to these schools - greater English muscularity may be appropriate.

Whether or not the Welsh policies will continue to work is also unclear. If Wales can be characterised as "new producerism" rather than English consumerism, it is unclear whether this will motivate the profession to deliver high-quality provision reliably for all children, any more than the "old producerism" did. Even Jane Davidson visiting every one of Wales's 2,000 schools may not be enough to motivate the troops.

Another Welsh problem is that the trust invested in local authorities to deliver improvement may be misplaced. Whereas in England central government controls most reform implementation, in Wales local authorities retain a role that puts them in the front of the vehicle, if not in the driving seat that they historically occupied. About 20 per cent of resources are held back by LEAs, compared to what will soon be 6 per cent in England.

The reluctance of the Welsh Assembly to advise local authorities what to spend on education, or indeed to recommend effective ways of working with schools, has generated huge variance between them. Expenditure per pupil varies by almost £1,000 across the 22 Welsh LEAs. Some devolve 75 per cent of their budget to schools, others 85 per cent. Some are increasing expenditure this year by 13 per cent, others by 6 per cent. Some spend over four times more than others on central administration, and some three times more on school improvement.

The reluctance to "hypothecate" is said to be a distinctive Welsh commitment to ensuring that local democracy flourishes, and that the interests of the community are given importance, along with those of the individual and of the State. This variation between LEAs seems much more likely instead to reflect historical factors - the results of the division of the old Welsh counties into the new local authorities and all manner of other processes that would verge on the non-rational. What is the point of having a nationally devolved tier of government if it is not to do something about a state of affairs that is an educational lottery based on where students live?

The jury is still out on the Welsh experiment. From an early focus upon simply not doing what England did, a mature set of distinctive policies have been crafted by Jane Davidson. It does seem that professional opinion in schools and colleges favours Welsh educational policies more highly than does its counterpart in England. But whether Welsh policies are appropriate in the very different English context is unclear. Whether Wales can deliver a "new producerism" that updates the old ideology is also unclear. It would be a pity if the trust of local authorities, which many people would regard as inappropriate, were to negate the entirely appropriate trust of the Welsh teaching profession.

The writer is Professor of Education at Exeter University. He lives in South Wales and his children attend Welsh medium schools