Welsh wonder

Since devolution, Wales has begun to develop a very different education system to that in England. Richard Garner talks to Jane Davidson, the Welsh Education Secretary, about her plans
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The Independent Online

The debate among head teachers was at its most earnest. One head after another was complaining about the iniquity of the testing and league tables regime facing their schools.

The chairman of the proceedings, Gareth Matthewson, the president of the National Association of Head Teachers, could afford a wry smile. He had the answer to their problems because he came from Wales where - as Jane Davidson, the Welsh Education Secretary, explains - tests and the league tables that accompany them are old history now.

Since the setting up of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, the principality has moved further and further down the road of establishing a completely different education system from the one that operates on the other side of the Severn Bridge in England.

The first step was the abolition of tests for seven-year-olds. It was accompanied by the end of league tables for secondary schools. Davidson explains why she decided to put an end to the testing regime. "If you put the test results alongside the teachers' own assessments, there is no perceptible difference between them," she says. Therefore there did not seem any point in continuing with the tests. So last year they were abolished. Results this summer show there has been no falling-off in performance. More than 80 per cent of pupils reached the required level in both key subjects - maths and English.

As for the league tables, neither Ms Davidson not Mr Matthewson, the head of Whitchurch High school in Cardiff - a 2,500-pupil comprehensive reputed to be the largest in the country, shed a tear over their passing. According to both, the decision merely put an end to a week of "ritual humiliation" for the schools at the bottom of the league table which may have been battling against the odds and providing a decent education for their pupils.

But the Welsh revolution did not end there. The day before an important English White Paper was published outlining government plans for a massive increase in the number of specialist schools and paving the way for private takeovers of state-financed schools, the Welsh struck out on their own. A Welsh version of the White Paper announced that the country would have no truck either with privatisation or specialist schools. Communities in Wales were proud of their schools and wanted them to remain comprehensive, it declared.

It was not an attempt to cock a snook at Whitehall. But it was put out despite attempts by officials at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in London to persuade Ms Davidson to delay the announcement until after the English document was published. Jane Davidson is anxious to avoid saying anything that can be interpreted as critical of her Labour colleagues across the border. As far as she is concerned, she and the assembly are simply giving Wales the education system that a largely rural country - where, for many parents, there is only one local secondary school - needs.

Her reforms have progressed apace. A review group has been set up to examine the remaining national curriculum tests in the principality - those for 11 and 14-year-olds - although there is no guarantee that they will be scrapped, too.

But the Welsh are not at odds with England over everything. In some areas, they appear to be ahead of the English game and are pioneering reforms which are expected to be introduced by the DfES a long way down the line. Take exam reform. The Welsh Assembly is piloting a Welsh baccalaureate this autumn in 18 schools and colleges. Unlike England - where the jury is out over whether an English-style baccalaureate will replace GCSEs and A-levels - the Welsh baccalaureate is in addition to the present system.

Consisting of a mandatory core for all students, it will make Wales the first part of the United Kingdom to require all youngsters to continue with maths and English into the sixth form. There will also be a compulsory essay - as in the International Baccalaureate - designed to help universities learn more about the thinking skills of applicants. And it will be capable of being learned either through the medium of Welsh (a compulsory subject for all five to 16-year-olds) or English. It will offer youngsters "a more rounded education", says Jane Davidson.

Last week the Welsh Bac received the backing of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) which decided to award the core element a point score of up to 120 - the same as it gives to one A-level. That is important for the credibility of the new exam. "The decision means that the Bac will have hard currency in university admissions," says Davidson. In fact, it would appear to give Welsh candidates the edge over their English counterparts, with the chance to score 120 extra points.

The other area where Wales appears to have sorted itself out more quickly than England is over learning languages. From the beginning of this term, nearly 100 Welsh primary schools will be teaching a modern foreign language to children aged seven and over - a policy that remains simply a recommendation in a strategy document in England. Most of the options taken up by Welsh primary schools are European languages - French, German and Spanish.

Educationalists believe that languages are flourishing in Wales because the principality is committed to boosting its own language, thereby ensuring that all pupils are bilingual. The argument is that it is easier to master a third language once you have an understanding of a second. Before teachers in England hand their notices in and start looking for jobs in Wales, it is fair to point out that not everything is rosy in the Welsh garden. For example, Wales is signed up to the workload agreement for teachers whereby administrative tasks are removed this term and staff are guaranteed time off for marking and preparation in two years' time. However, unlike England, where there are specific funding streams for the agreement and a "national remodelling team" to give schools advice on putting it into effect, no such things exist in Wales.

Moreover Welsh schools are more dependent on individual local education authority funding levels than their English counterparts. In England, Education Secretary Charles Clarke is rumoured to be harbouring thoughts of including a pledge to fund schools directly from Whitehall in Labour's next election manifesto. Jane Davidson, however, is happy to talk about "partnership" between the Assembly and the LEAs

There are teacher shortages in Wales, too - exacerabated partly by the need to teach through the medium of Welsh. "If you find physics teachers who can speak Welsh when you get back to London, please send them back," says Ms Davidson plaintively. However, heads like Mr Matthewson acknowledge that schools in the principality have not been suffering from the funding crisis of schools in England. Most schools in Wales this year are at least surviving on a standstill budget - as opposed to those in England which have been cut by up to £600,000. Much of the credit for the good things about Welsh education, is due to Ms Davidson's drive, he says. When she is not running the Welsh education system, she takes time out for her three children and the odd Welsh lesson. Although born in Birmingham, she lived in Zimbabwe and the United States while her parents travelled the world, and was educated at Malvern Girls' College, the Welsh Education Secretary is strongly committed to Wales. She has been learning Welsh since coming to Dyfed to take up a post as a teacher.

As long as she stays in the job of Education Secretary, she will be dedicated to carving out a distinctive education system for the people of Wales. After all, that was what devolution was all about - wasn't it?

r.garner@independent.co.uk

WALES AND ENGLAND: TWO DISTINCT EDUCATIONAL SYSTEMS

WALES

* National curriculum tests for seven-year-olds abolished, those for 11- and 14-year-olds under review.

* Pupils to learn Welsh from the age of five, and can be taught through the medium of Welsh. Primary children are being taught a foreign language from the age of seven in nearly 100 schools.

* Primary-school league tables were never introduced.

* Welsh baccalaureate piloted in 18 schools - including mandatory core of maths and English. It has been recognised by Ucas and is designed to equip youngsters for the world of work and give them a broader qualification for university admission.

* No specialist schools or privately run city academies.

* Secondary-school league tables scrapped. Parents entitled to information about schools' exam results from their schools or local education authority.

ENGLAND

* National curriculum tests for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds - although less emphasis will be placed on tests for seven-year-olds in future in favour of teachers' assessments.

* Primary-school tables list results of tests for 11-year-olds.

* 1,500 specialist secondary schools in a range of subjects from the arts to modern languages and science and engineering. All schools in the country can apply for specialist status.

* Plans for 50 city academies - state-financed schools run by private sponsors, who have to put in 10 per cent of the cash - in the pipeline.

* Secondary-school curriculum allows pupils to drop foreign languages at 14 - although younger pupils will be encouraged to start studying a foreign language at seven. * Secondary-school tables listing results of A-levels, AS-levels, GCSEs and national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds.

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