Kirsty Williams writes… Education is a cause that unites us all

Education has always been particularly important to Liberals. Wales has always prioritised education but this great tradition has been left to slide.

Alarm bells rang when last summer, our GCSE and A level results fell behind England for the first time.

Now, two recent reports have exposed just how badly Labour and Plaid Cymru have mismanaged the Welsh education system.

Firstly, an international assessment of performance (PISA, run by the OECD) has shown that Wales is the lowest achieving nation of the UK and falling behind many European countries. Welsh students have fallen behind in reading, mathematics and science. In science, maths and reading, Wales’ performance and international ranking is lower than in 2006.

Secondly, a report by Estyn, the Welsh schools inspectorate, has concluded that standards in nearly a third of schools in Wales are not good enough and found improvement in schools was “slow”. The Chief Inspector didn’t mince her words:

“We need to face facts. We need to take bigger strides in improving the provision of education and training in Wales”.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have warned for years that the spending gap of £500 per pupil between England and Wales would have disastrous consequences. The latest figures show that the spending gap per pupil is now £604 per pupil.

It is a tragedy that Welsh children are paying the price for Labour’s gross underfunding of schools over the last decade.

We need two major changes to ensure that we can begin to rebuild our schools system. The first is that we need a Welsh pupil premium, as in England, to target money at the children who need it most. The second is to ensure that teachers in Wales are able to access teacher training and professional development that is modern, professional and rewarding.

Wales has more children in receipt of free school meals than England. A Welsh pupil premium would allow schools to pay for smaller class sizes, additional tutoring and the best teachers to work with the most difficult pupils. This would ensure that pupils from poorer backgrounds will get the results they deserve. Many of these benefits would affect pupils from more well-off homes and, of course, a schools system where everyone is given the chance they deserve makes every classroom better too.

Secondly, many studies have shown that the quality of teaching in classroom has a massive impact on both the achievement and the aspiration of many pupils. Welsh Lib Dems are proposing that money from the General Teaching Council and from the current teacher training scheme is used to provide better professional development and to encourage high-achievers into the teaching profession.

If we get our schools right than we can build the fairer society for which Liberal Democrats have always fought. It is a cause that unites us all, either side of Offa’s Dyke. In Wales, it has never been so central to the future of our nation.

Kirsty Williams is Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Wales.


  • Kirsty, while I agree with the basic point that education should be well funded, the recent publication of figures about schools spending and results achieved showed something very interesting and surprising: namely that there was a negative correlation between levels of spending per pupil and GCSE results i.e. where spending was higher, results tended to be poorer.

    Obviously it does not follow that higher spending per pupil *causes* poorer results. In reality, more money is probably already being spent in areas of social deprivation where schools are struggling that much harder to help problem children and to raise educational standards. However, this finding should be the starting point for a debate about non-monetary factors that affect the quality of education achieved. Saying that it all boils down to money is both wrong and distracts from some of the real problems that underly our educational underachievement.

    I am not an educational expert in any way, but the fact that so much extra money has been spent to so little effect in the UK suggests there are profound problems in what is actually being done with that money (teaching standards, culture and management) and how children interact with our educational system (discipline, parental value given to education). Until we can fix those problems, we can throw all the money we like at the educational system, but things will not get any better.

  • roy's claret army 1st Feb '11 - 1:24pm

    If the spending gap is due to not have to pay for PFI funded schools or pay for the London allowance to teachers’ salaries then there isn’t really a funding gap at all, is there?

  • The Welsh school system is lagging behind – and add to that the funding gap between English and Welsh universities which is likely to get worse during the next few years, depriving those with the least means of a chance to get a decent university education.There is also the ‘small’ matter of the Welsh NHS and so many other aspects where Wales seems to be lagging behind the rest of the UK. In my experience, the Assembly really hasn’t been serving Wales well.

    I see these problems as a blatant example of parochialism pretending to serve Wales while actually making matters worse. In order to really serve a small nation, a government has to think on a global scale instead of turning inwards, as this assembly government has been doing.

    A pity, really, because devolution seemed like a rather good idea at the time….

  • David Allen 1st Feb '11 - 3:46pm

    Oh gosh, our Welsh colleagues are desperately out of date, aren’t they? When will they learn that cuts improve services, and that spending public money is always a complete waste of time?

  • @ David Allen

    Your comment strikes me as a sarcastic reply to points that have been made in complete seriousness. The objective evidence is that shovelling more money into education isn’t having the desired effect. Don’t you think we should therefore stop and think about how we are spending education money?

  • >It is a tragedy that Welsh children are paying the price for Labour’s gross underfunding of schools over the last decade.

    Seems there’s money for ‘learning plazas’ in schools (very nice, but not sure kids learning TV broadcast production is a big priority), but none to fix the roofs.

    I don’t think it’s money or teaching that need to change. It’s the parents that are the problem. Lack of motivation or aspiration at home = kids who don’t want to learn, don’t see the point.
    It’s not A-levels you should be worrying about, but nurseries and infant years.

    However, a question occurs (and I’m a floating voter on the referendum so far):
    Given Wales is lagging on both education AND health – why should we vote for the Assembly to have extra powers to mess things up further?

  • Robert C. No he doesn’t. Your key point is in your first comment, which loosely translates as “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. In other words, other factors such as aptitude, value placed on education within the home, and the pervasive culture we live in have a far greater effect.

  • @ Tabman
    “Your key point is in your first comment, which loosely translates as “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. In other words, other factors such as aptitude, value placed on education within the home, and the pervasive culture we live in have a far greater effect.”

    No, you are distorting what I said. I said that non-monetary factors can be just as important as providing sufficient funding. This does not mean we can’t tackle non-monetary factors. On the contrary, we should be focusing on those in particular. If we have an anti-learning culture in some parts of our society and poor teaching in some schools, we shouldn’t just accept it. We should find ways of tackling it head on. We need to look at what successful countries like Finland (NOT Sweden) are doing and see what we can change in the UK to follow their example.

    In short, good funding is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for educational improvement.

  • Robert C – agreed.

  • The Pupil preimium is a charade, so whereas I sympathise with Welsh pupils receiving less money, the pupil premium isn’t the answer as it’s money taken from elsehwere in the education system.

    RobertC is right to point out that money per head is a flawed system, league tables are problematic, they need to be dumped, schools who deal with children with learning difficulties are made to look awful when they are providing a decent service.

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