The National Assembly elections on May 3 2007 marked the completion of the second four-year term of devolved government in Wales. Allan Tait presents some of the key issues facing school governors in Wales
The principal concern governors in Wales have remains the level of school funding. Unlike in England, almost all the funding schools receive comes through the LEA, and the amount is still largely at the discretion of the LEA.
This leads to very large differences in per-pupil funding between LEAs. On 2004-05 figures (the latest currently available) the highest spender was 15.6% above the Welsh average and the lowest 8.1% below it. There is also a perception that schools in Wales are significantly worse off than those in England. Because of the different systems, comparisons are not straightforward, but the 2004-05 figures suggest a difference of 3.8% in favour of England.
However, in June 2006 an Assembly Committee produced a report on school funding arrangements in Wales. The report contains 27 wide-ranging recommendations. Of these the most significant is that the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) should establish, publish, and enforce ‘minimum common basic funding requirements for school staffing, accommodation, and equipment’.
This recommendation, and the recommendations as a whole, would do much to relieve the ‘funding fog’ that currently exists. Schools, and School Budget Forums, would be far better able to monitor and challenge the fairness of the allocation they receive from their LEA.
The response from Jane Davidson, the Education Minister, has been generally positive. Changes will take time to put in place, and this will fall to the next WAG. But, as an interim step, she has agreed that local authorities should be held to account where their allocation to education falls below what WAG thinks they should be spending (known as the Indicator Based Assessment).
Jane Davidson has been, by a street, the longest serving education minister in the whole of the UK in recent times. It has been under her that the distinctive vision for Education in Wales, as set out in The Learning Country (2001), has developed. It has been particularly marked in the sphere of the curriculum.
October 2006 saw the publication of The Learning Country – Vision into Action. This builds on the original strategy and extends across the whole age range in schools.
The Foundation Phase for three to seven year olds has been piloted in each LEA area since 2004. It puts an emphasis on learning by doing, and stresses the importance of outdoor as well as indoor activities. It will be rolled out across Wales from September 2008, an important commitment because of the higher staffing and training levels it entails.
The curriculum at key stages 2 and 3 is being revised for September 2008. The new curriculum will be skills based with special emphasis on thinking, communication, ICT, and number skills.
At ages 14 to 19 the Learning Pathways agenda is being implemented, covering both traditional subjects and the skills and experience vital for employment or higher education. The Welsh Baccalaureate is being extended beyond the original pilot schools.
Implementation of such major changes in the curriculum is a substantial challenge for schools, but there is strong agreement amongst both staff and governors that this is what is needed in Wales.
Peter Clarke, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, and the first person to hold an appointment of this kind anywhere in the UK, died from cancer in January this year. His legacy includes two innovations in school governance in Wales, stemming from his Clywch Report into child abuse at a secondary school in the Glamorgan valleys.
Where a child protection issue arises against a member of school staff, and after any necessary police or social services involvement has been completed, there now has to be an independent investigation before disciplinary action is contemplated. WAG has commissioned an organisation known, rather bizarrely, as ‘the Dream Group’, to carry out these investigations. Schools have to use this team, paid for by WAG, unless they wish to secure, and pay for, an investigation by some other independent body.
Secondly, if following the investigation a case has to come before a governors’ disciplinary committee, and subsequently an appeals committee, those committees have to include an independent person, not connected with the school, and with full voting rights.
Hopefully, child abuse allegations against school staff will continue to be rare, but where they do arise these changes to the governance regulations, implemented from September 2006, will help to ensure that cases are handled in a way that is beyond reproach.
Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the National Assembly will, after the May elections, obtain a degree of primary legislative power through a rather complicated Order in Council procedure. What are the prospects then for significant changes in the legal framework for schools in Wales?
At the time of writing none of the major political parties had put forward any really radical new proposals. Plaid Cymru wants all Year 7 pupils to be given a free laptop computer; the Liberal Democrats want primary class sizes limited to a maximum of 25; the Conservatives want schools to conduct annual pupil and parent satisfaction surveys; Labour’s programme of Vision into Action (see above) is already in place.
One third of the 60 seats in the Assembly are elected by proportional representation. This makes it unlikely that any one party will secure an overall majority, so some form of coalition government is the probable outcome. Over the eight years since devolution a remarkable consensus has developed on the way forward for schools in Wales. This means that governors in Wales can anticipate that the distinctive pattern of education in Wales will continue whoever secures power after the May 3 elections.