And so it begins

5 Feb

I had hoped that we wouldn’t see education used in the same way the NHS has in Wales in the run up to the election in May.  I was even hopeful that actually we would see education standing proudly as the battle of ideas.  Sadly the interventions we’ve seen this week suggest that isn’t going to be the case.

I have to say I don’t subscribe to view that anyone criticising standards in the Welsh NHS or Welsh Education is ‘waging a war on Wales.’ Just as politicians in Wales will look at the way public services and policies are delivered in England that will inevitably be a two-way street. You hardly hear a First Minister’s question time at the Assembly without Carwyn Jones contrasting the way his Government and David Cameron’s operate.  Those in glass houses and all that.

It is perfectly correct that the performance of the Welsh Government is scrutinised. Equally both education and health are public services and they rightly should be held accountable.  However if this is to be done then the criticisms need to be constructive and based on a legitimate knowledge and concern about the existing situation.  This recent attack by Stephen Crabb does appear to be lacking in both.  It comes from a far more political point of view.

Just look at some of the things that were said in the speech on Tuesday.

“We have not been setting our sights high enough when it comes to our vision for Welsh education.” 

Actually the opposite is the case.  The Welsh Government overreached by setting a unattainable target for PISA ranking improvements.  A target that the OECD themselves said was wise to downgrade as it was expecting Welsh education to show improvement on a trajectory at a pace never before seen.

“The truth is that here in Wales it’s not just a question of reforms not happening, we haven’t even begun to have that debate.”

Now, you can argue that the reforms the Welsh Government have put in place are the wrong ones.  You can argue that they have not been implemented well enough.  You can argue that they have not been funded well enough, and you can argue that they have been brought in too quickly.  All of which incidentally I have argued at different times depending on the individual reforms.  The Welsh Government will of course take a different view, at least in some instances.  What I find totally baffling is the argument that there haven’t been reforms in Wales.  The OECD when reviewing the Welsh education system actually reported ‘reform fatigue’ because of the number and pace of reform.  The above quote therefore really gives the view that the Secretary of State for Wales has not approached this issue with a grounding in the education debate but rather with a prepared press motivation for the headlines the speech produced.

“I don’t believe it is any accident that Finland and Singapore, the two countries judged to have the best education systems in the world, are also ranked as the second and third most competitive global economies by the World Economic Forum.”

I’ve highlighted this statement because I think it shows a worrying lack of understanding of the education debate.  Here Stephen Crabb is holding Finland up as a bastion of education and economic success.  Quite rightly as well.  However, Finland’s approach to education couldn’t be any further removed from what the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition have done in England, a system the SoS for Wales is advocating Wales replicates.  Granted, this is not the only nation that is given attention but still, if anything, the above statement makes the case for Wales opposing the system of Acadamies; a knowledge rather than skills based education system and performance related pay.  Stephen Crabb is in a sense undermining his own Government’s policies with this comparison.

None of the above analysis is to suggest that everything is right with Welsh education.  We certainly have some big challenges.  At the same time what we’ve seen over the past year is a recognition from Estyn that real progress is being made; an improvement in GCSE and A Level results and overall strides being made for the better.  Ignoring that through this bull in a china shop approach to making pronouncements about education that very often don’t stack up has only undermined the ability to legitimately critique the practices of the Welsh Government.  What is more concerning perhaps is that it will have hit the morale of the teaching profession, parents and pupils at a pretty crucial time.

I don’t anticipate for a second that this will be the last focus on Welsh education.  I only hope that future discussions, whichever political party generates the debate, have some recognition for the positive work that is going on and a less inflamed theme to their input.  If we want Welsh education to truly prosper then it is important that the moral and professional esteem of teachers is not just an afterthought.  On a political consideration we should also not forget that in an election that is going to be very tight the average 1,000 teachers per constituency will play an important role.

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