Hitting the targets.
WHEN First Minister Rhodri Morgan wished to demonstrate his claim that there was 'clear red water' between his policies and those of New Labour in Westminster, it was to education that he frequently turned. Academic analysts agree there has emerged an increasingly distinctive set of education policies in Wales.
More than at any time previously, many commentators are pointing to the emergence of a truly national education system in Wales, geared to meeting the needs of Welsh society.
The Welsh Assembly Government has pursued an extremely active agenda of policy initiatives, especially within the compulsory sector of education in schools. In contrast with what is happening in England, policies such as the abandonment of published 'league tables' of test scores for individual primary and secondary schools, were intended to soften the competitive edge of relationships between schools.
More recently, following the recommendations of the Daugherty Committee, the decision to remove the regime of standardised tests in Welsh schools means that the promotion of higher standards of pupil attainment will be achieved through enhanced support and continuing professional development for teachers. This contrasts with the centralised and competitively driven approaches being pursued in England. It reflects an emphasis on partnership and collaboration between the Assembly Government, the local education authorities and the teaching profession and other employee groups.
Most importantly, the strong commitment to the maintenance of comprehensive schooling in Wales, ruling out the adoption of the English pattern of specialist secondary schools and selection, is an important re-affirmation of a traditional Labour principle.
Curriculum reform too has embodied distinctive approaches. The introduction of a foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds reflects an almost Scandinavian model, where formal education is delayed, but schooling starts as early as possible, focusing on 'learning through play'.
The reform of the 14-19 curriculum is aimed at breaking down the barriers between academic and vocational pathways, strengthening students' experience of employment and work, as well as other aspects of citizenship. Of particular interest here is the piloting of a Welsh Baccalaureate, with a view to providing a framework for the accreditation of different types of qualification and the provision of a 'core' of key skills, personal and citizenship education with a distinctively Welsh orientation.
In higher education, the Assembly Government's approach to student funding differs not only from that in England, but also from that adopted in Scotland. The introduction of an Assembly Learning Grant for all students resident in Wales for three years or more (including part-timers and those in further education) is regarded by many as highly imaginative. It remains to be seen, however, how the Assembly Government will resolve the continuing problem of 'top-up fees' and the funding of the Welsh universities.
There is considerable evidence, therefore, that education policies in Wales are diverging significantly from those in England (and elsewhere in the United Kingdom). It is very difficult to see how this distinctive Welsh agenda would have been possible under the previous Welsh Office regime. Democratic devolution has created the circumstances in which the Welsh Assembly Government has been able to pursue a set of policies based on an explicit - and explicitly ideological - vision of how a Welsh educational system ought to be organised.
These new directions in education policy are real enough. However, at the same time, there is little to suggest democratic devolution has - as yet at least - opened up avenues of influence to groupings in society which were previously excluded from process of education policymaking. Education policy in Wales remains a matter for politicians, civil servants (amongst whom the inspectorate exerts an especially powerful role), professional organisations (such as the teacher unions and now the General Teaching Council Cymru) and the local education authorities. It is these groupings, for example, whose views are reflected in the distinctive policies on the schools curriculum and comprehensive schooling which have been adopted by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Commitments such as those to state comprehensives and the avoidance of selection probably accord with the views of the bulk of Welsh citizens too. However, in terms of the policy-making process, it is the established groupings which have exerted the critical influence over the development of policy initiatives, rather than the views of the wider electorate. This is (almost) as true under democratic devolution as it was under the previous Welsh Office regime. And it is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that major elements of the divergent pathway followed by the Assembly Government consist of avoiding the initiatives being undertaken in England (such as specialist secondary schools, differential 'top-up' fees, public-private finance) in favour of established ways of ordering educational opportunities.
Ultimately, however, the impacts of the Assembly Government's new educational initiatives will be judged by educational outcomes. Are more people taking advantage of educational opportunities? Is teaching and learning improving? Are levels of attainment improving? Over recent years, there have been marked improvements in the conventional indicators of educational attainment, especially in Welsh primary schools. Many of the targets set by the Assembly Government have been met and even exceeded. In all sorts of ways, the Welsh education system now out-performs England.
For the proponents of democratic devolution, these trends demonstrate its effectiveness. However, we should be cautious in accepting this analysis. Careful comparisons need to be made with the rising trends of attainment in other parts of the UK. Account needs to be taken of what was happening prior to the introduction of new initiatives by the Welsh Assembly Government. At best, the impacts of new policies on educational outcomes measured in these terms are indeterminate as yet.
Moreover, perhaps we should be looking for other kinds of outcomes altogether. It may be somewhat premature to talk in terms of a fully blown 'national system' of education in Wales, but there have undoubtedly been shifts in that direction. To the extent a national system of education does emerge in Wales, it may be that its most profound impacts will be on the ways in which the Welsh understand themselves, especially in relation to the other national groupings of the UK, rather than on the easily measurable, technocratic outcomes which currently preoccupy so much educational debate.
Contemporary Wales is an annual journal of social science research in Wales, supported by the University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies and edited by Paul Chaney and Jonathan Scourfield of Cardiff University and Andy Thompson from the University of Glamorgan. It can be ordered from University of Wales Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 029 2049 6899