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Our education specialist Joe Atkinson takes a look at the state of play in Wales.
Welsh classrooms are facing major reforms. Photo: Skitterphoto via Pixabay
As Carwyn Jones fast approaches the end of his nine-year tenure at the top of Welsh politics he may see education as a missed opportunity. Wales was the worst-performing UK country in the most recently Pisa results published in 2016, while the proportion of pupils achieving A* to C pass grades fell to 61.6% in 2018. Opposition parties have regularly asserted that the system has stagnated, and devolution has failed to deliver the step change many had hoped for at the turn of the century. At FMQs on November 13, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies, said the system is weaker than when Mr Jones became First Minister in 2009 and accused the Welsh Government of being “asleep” for the last decade. The First Minister has pointed to rising A* and A grades and has also sought to blame UK Government austerity for reductions in council spending on schools. Mr Jones’ Education Secretary, Lib Dem Kirsty Williams, vowed radical transformation of Welsh education when the National Mission was published in 2017, but what exactly is the Welsh Government doing to rectify the position it finds itself in?
New curriculum
Arising from the recommendations of the Donaldson review in 2015, the new curriculum will be the most significant overhaul of Welsh education in 30 years, and the Welsh Government is hoping a greater focus on life skills and adaptability will better equip young people to deal with the challenges of the modern world. The new curriculum will feature six ‘areas of learning experience’ (AoLEs): expressive arts; health and well-being; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; mathematics and numeracy; and science and technology. These will be underpinned by three cross-curricular responsibilities in literacy, numeracy and digital competence. ‘Progression reference points’ at ages 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16 will replace the well-established key stage system, with the intention being for pupils, teachers and guardians to develop a better understanding of whether appropriate progress is being realised. The mental health of children and young people has been high on the agenda recently and Kirsty Williams has said the health and well-being AoLE will offer children a more thorough education in these issues than at present. Ms Williams recently announced £24m to help prepare teachers for the new curriculum, and she has told AMs that the draft curriculum will be published next spring, with the final curriculum and assessment arrangements available by January 2020. These will be used across the country from 2022.
Reforms in post-compulsory education
Post-compulsory education is also facing a major revamp as the Welsh Government prepares to go ahead with plans to reform the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. The proposal for a Tertiary Education & Research Commission for Wales responds to the recommendations of the Hazelkorn review, which called for a single regulatory, oversight and co-ordinating authority for the post-compulsory sector. The review found a lack of coherence between further and higher education in Wales. This week, Skills Minister Eluned Morgan announced a series of changes to how further education colleges are funded to bring them in line with school sixth forms. Baroness Morgan, who is in the midst of the Welsh Labour leadership race, also announced that the government will provide £8m to ensure further education teachers and support staff receive a pay rise in line with their sixth form equivalents doing the same job. The government suffered a rare defeat in the Assembly on Wednesday as three backbenchers abstained from a motion calling for an end to further education cuts.
Student finance reforms in higher education
The 2018-19 academic year is the first for Wales’ new student finance system. Kirsty Williams is adamant that the new system is the most generous on offer to students in the UK, but opposition AMs have noted a significant drop in EU students coming to Wales after the tuition fee grant of up to £5,100 for Welsh and EU students was scrapped and replaced by maintenance grants. Student finance reforms were the first step in the implementation of the recommendations of the Diamond review, which set out to make the Welsh higher education sector more sustainable. Kirsty Williams has spoken of a ‘Diamond dividend’ – the money saved by the student finance reforms – and has discussed plans to use this to boost Wales’ capacity to provide expensive courses. This week Kirsty Williams launched a pilot programme that will see Welsh students at Welsh universities offered study abroad opportunities. Only 2% of Welsh students study abroad while at university, and the Education Secretary wants to double this by the end of this government in 2021.
Early years: Focus on the Welsh language
The Welsh Government sees education as a key component in its goal of reaching one million Welsh speakers by 2050. In September Eluned Morgan, who also has responsibility over the Welsh language, announced a £46m grant with the intention to create more than 2,800 school and childcare places for Welsh learners. With a strong Welsh-speaking rural population, recent government action to strengthen protections against the closure of rural schools will also provide a boost to the language.
The Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, has announced a series of reforms to the Welsh education system. Photo: Liberal Democrats via Flickr 
What are the Assembly’s committees looking at?
The Children, Young People and Education Committee is currently looking into the status of the Welsh Baccalaureate. The qualification, rolled out across Wales in 2007, is designed to equip learners with transferable skills and broader experiences than academic or vocational subjects. Earlier this year Qualifications Wales said the qualification is “too complex” for pupils, teachers and parents, while some AMs have expressed concerns about how universities value the Welsh Bacc. Elsewhere, the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee is holding an inquiry into research and innovation in Wales. University stakeholders have told the committee that Wales isn’t on a level playing field with the rest of the UK in terms of funding and said the Welsh Government’s vision for research and innovation isn’t clear. In June the government published the Reid Review, which made several recommendations on how to sustain and grow research and innovation activity. The review outlines the need to move away from EU funding sources such as Horizon 2020 as Brexit draws closer.

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