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Nick Bourne: A real choice for Wales in Education

Two weeks ago marked the tenth anniversary of devolution.

The Welsh Conservative Party is very different now from what it was ten years ago - and with more seats, more votes and more blue ribbons in councils up and down Wales, we're much the better for it.

Devolved government has undoubtedly made a positive impact on Wales and the Welsh people.

We were the first nation to have a Children's Commissioner.

The Cardiff to Ebbw Vale railway line has been re-introduced after 46 years.

And last month the Welsh Assembly football team beat a Lesotho First XI by 5 goals to 1!

Overall, people tell us the Assembly and Assembly Members are open and accessible.

The core premise of devolution - to take power closer to the people - is one that all parties in the Assembly rightly cherish.

The tragedy is that under Labour's tenure, the promise of devolution has not yet been secured.

After 10 years hard Labour, the disappointing reality under this Assembly Government is that if you live in Wales, you are more likely to be unemployed, than if you live in another part of the UK.

You are more likely to have to wait longer for an operation - or an ambulance.

More likely to wait longer for an affordable home.

And you are more likely to finish school with fewer qualifications.

The Department for Work and Pensions marked the ten year anniversary of devolution by releasing damning figures showing the number of children living in poverty in Wales had risen - not fallen - in the last 2 years.

With a staggering 180,000 children living below an acceptable level of income, child poverty figures are worse now than they were 4 years ago.

In fact in Wales they are the highest of any UK nation.

The Assembly Government will not fulfil the promise they made to Wales to halve child poverty by 2010.

What a terrible indictment of so-called 'progressive means' and a party of 'the many, not the few'!

They've certainly let down the many!

So beginning today, I will show how the life chances of people in Wales could be significantly improved under a Welsh Conservative Assembly Government.

I will start by looking this evening at educational reform, so that we can tackle the disadvantage Welsh students currently face.

<h2>Education</h2>

Let us consider Labour's failure of the many.

Last year, 317 teachers packed up their lesson plans and gave up teaching in Wales.

There are now 55,200 young people in Wales in no recognised form of education, employment or training. Enough to fill the Liberty Stadium, Wrexham's Racecourse Ground and Cardiff's new stadium put together!

Nearly 700 pupils here left school in 2008 without any qualifications at all.

And just 4% of children in care currently gain 5 or more A star to C grades at GCSE.

Such a terrible record is scant reward for the amount of money that has gone into education under this Assembly Government.

During the ten years of devolution, the Assembly Government's budget has doubled, to nearly £16 billion.

While billions of pounds may have been spent on education - a vast amount of this money has not actually been spent on educating our children.

Instead, this Labour-Plaid Assembly Government has frittered public money away on gimmicks and giveaways.

Money they should've spent on educating schoolchildren - on more teachers, books and repairing crumbling classrooms - has instead been spent subsidising pre-school care for the middle classes via the free school breakfast scheme.

Make no mistake - free school breakfasts, at a cost of £8.7 million a year and rising, have been an unmitigated failure.

An independent review by the Cardiff University Institute of Society, Health and Ethics - commissioned by the Assembly Government itself - concluded that for those children receiving the free cornflakes there was no improvement in attention, concentration or behaviour.

The Institute's second report noted the scheme was not reaching "those children most in need."

So, nearly £9 million a year has been spent to no apparent benefit, and with no apparent results.

This sort of spending was frivolous in the good times. It is now unsustainable in the bad.

At a time when the Labour Government in Westminster is cutting the Assembly's budget by £416million, free school breakfasts are simply unaffordable.

This money could - and should - have been spent elsewhere.....

On the Assembly Government's devastating backlog of more than £700 million worth of school building repairs, for example.

When Finance Minister Andrew Davies brought capital forward to try and forestall the recession part of this went on getting children out of demountable classrooms, or portacabins.

This could have been done sooner.

So free breakfasts for some have effectively denied a proper classroom with heating, lighting and computers for others.

Such a policy reveals the persistent inability of Labour Assembly Governments to plan properly for the long-term, which is having a detrimental effect on the future of many young people in Wales today.

<h2>Achievement Gap</h2>

To illustrate this, consider GCSE results in Wales.

Last year, 55.8% of students in Wales gained 5 or more A* to C grades at GCSE - compared to 65.3% in England.

This 10% gap has grown under Welsh Labour in the last few years. It was 6% just the year before.

What's more, the achievement gap between the two nations masks unacceptable variations between our own twenty-two local authorities.

If you live and study in Powys, for example, you are 65% likely to secure the 5 good grades you'll need for a positive start to life.

But if you happen to be brought up in Blaenau Gwent, you'll have just a 45% likelihood of gaining 5 or more good grades.

In Merthyr Tydfil - just 40%. 3 out of every 5 children there, are currently destined to miss out on what the UK Government considers the minimum standard of what a child can expect from their education.

The tragedy for these young people lies not just in the way that their life chances are dashed compared with other children.

It is that they are often then condemned to a life of inactivity and social problems as a result.

Last month, the Office for National Statistics revealed that for every job available in Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent, there were 43 applicants.

This is the worst ratio in the UK, according to the TUC.

More than half of all young people growing up in these towns will add to the 43 applicants every year, because they won't have the qualifications they need to continue with their education.

And should they be unable to find work - they will be 20 times more likely to commit crime, and girls, 22 times more likely to become pregnant before they reach 16.

This Assembly Government is letting down the young people of Wales.

The situation is clearly untenable.

So after 10 years hard Labour, it's time for change.

<h2>Conservative Policy</h2>

That's why today, I am delighted to announce that a future Welsh Conservative Assembly Government would begin to take education seriously again.

We would renew the focus on long-term development and begin to re-engage children in learning - boosting their levels of attendance and skills, and setting them on their way to sustained and productive employment.

In doing so, we would replace the short-term populism of this Welsh Assembly Government with meaningful long-term strategies that will result in lasting improvements in Wales' education system.
 
Conservatives believe the best way to help people improve their prospects is through education and employment, not welfare and hand-outs.

In this respect, we are unique as a party in Wales. It is the defining distinction between the Left and Centre-Right.

And only Conservatives understand that if we are to give our children the very best start in life, then we must start listening to those who know best - the professionals.

This evening, I am pleased to announce Welsh Conservatives are to start consulting on a programme of 'Free Schools' in Wales - which will award academy-like freedoms to Headteachers and their staff, and allow them to get on with the job that they do best - teaching our children.

<h2>Free Schools</h2>

Free Schools are now a defining feature of the educational architecture, not just in England - but in countries as far and wide as America, parts of Canada and China, Sweden and New Zealand, as well.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests freeing up schools to make their own decisions leads to a wide range of benefits.

To start with, let me outline which freedoms a Welsh Conservative Assembly Government would consider devolving directly to schools, and how we envisage this progressing.

I want to say clearly at the outset, that Free Schools will be just that - free.

In a pilot of secondary schools to last the duration of the next Assembly term, Welsh Conservatives would extend the freedom of running those schools to the Headteachers, teachers and governors, and honour that freedom when it came to decisions concerning maintenance, teaching, parts of the curriculum, and administration.

But let me be clear: all schools will have to abide by the national curricula on the core subjects of English, Welsh, Science, ICT and Maths.

Estyn will still be responsible for ensuring these Free Schools are held accountable.

And Free Schools' very freedom would include the right of pupils to attend.

There is to be no privatising of any kind under Welsh Conservative reforms. Pupils at Free Schools will pay no fees and bids would not be subject to the raising of millions of pounds in sponsorship as is currently the case in England.

There is to be no selective exclusion either, so Welsh Free Schools would have to abide by strict criteria in order to exclude a pupil, and ensure that child was placed in a referral unit should they do so.

<h2>Class sizes, ICT and help for those that need it</h2>

In return, we as an Assembly Government would hope to see teachers and staff using their expertise to deliver exciting, tailored and tangible benefits to the pupils in their school.

Freedom over decisions could lead to a whole range of positive outcomes.

Because extending freedom over decision-making to those on the frontline is no less than a manifesto for choice, innovation and diversity.

<h2>Funding</h2>

On funding for example, evidence shows some schools choose to spend the money they're allocated centrally on getting class sizes down.

Others choose to boost the provision of computers, in order to pioneer better standards in ICT and more innovative, knowledge-based learning.

Others still decide to take on more classroom assistants, in order to help those in greatest need.

Imagine if extra assistance were available to those pupils who find some subjects particularly difficult.

If the pupil dazzling in History but struggling in maths was given help to improve in the latter.

Or if the student keen to excel in Welsh received tailored support.

Estyn's recent annual report concluded Wales' most gifted pupils weren't being stretched.

With more classroom assistants or better technology, there would be a chance for these pupils to develop their full potential.

And it really would be up to the Headteachers to decide how they spend their budgets.

They may well do things differently in Powys compared to Blaenau Gwent, Aberavon to Aberystwyth, and they would have our full support.

<h2>Teaching</h2>

Devolving responsibility for learning to the teachers means trusting the experts to do the job they know best.

This would lead to a wave of curricula and academic innovation.

Experience from elsewhere shows some teachers have used their expertise to teach pupils in three hour blocks, in workshop-based lessons, or in lectures for example.

Some schools have set up direct links with businesses and run apprenticeship schemes.

Others have built in more school trips to teach students about theories in context.

Devolving responsibility to teachers allows them to use their skills to best suit the students and the local populations.

<h2>Performance</h2>

And there would likely be a range of other benefits, as well.

Truancy declines at Free Schools.

Staff turnover is lower.

A greater percentage of students stay on to study at sixth form or college.

And Free Schools are considerably more popular with parents, who value not only the way learning becomes more pupil-focused but the input that they're afforded as well.

Teachers and parents develop a greater sense of ownership of their school.

Most important of all, GCSE results have been shown to improve at Free Schools.

At the 27 English academies to have opened prior to 2005, the number of students achieving 5 or more good GCSEs is increasing on average by 8% a year - four times the rate of improvements for other schools.

In the US, a study of 40 such schools found measurable improvements in 31 of them.

In Sweden, three separate studies have judged the impact of free schools on a given location to be 'positive.'

So much so, that Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby, a leading expert on school choice, has likened state-funded Free Schools to "a rising tide that lifts all boats."

<h2>Cream-skimming?</h2>

However, education reform is understandably controversial. So let me deal today with some of the prevailing criticisms.

To start with, opponents of Free Schools claim they lead to academic or social selection, or "cream-skimming."

In actual fact - this has been disproved.

At present only 44% of poorer children in the UK "have a good school nearby - compared to 61% of their better-off peers." The old system is inequitable and it's unfair.

But under the Free Schools system there are currently more disadvantaged children at academies in England than there were at their predecessor schools.

England's academies have an ethnic and socio-economic make-up which is much broader than that of existing comprehensives.

<h2>Sink schools?</h2>

Other critics suggest Free Schools lead to division. They argue that "sink schools" spring up in their wake, and community cohesion suffers as a result.

Even the current Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, said upon his appointment that he wanted to "bring academies back into the local family of schools".

First of all, let's not be deceived by such talk of family.

The "local family of schools" to which Mr Balls refers is a 'family' that continues to fail far too many children in both England and Wales. Any school failing its pupils is not helping any family at all, but instead merely consigning it to a life of misery, crime, teenage pregnancy and economic inactivity.

Mr Balls' own predecessor David Blunkett, pointed out last year that Sheffield Fir Vale Academy, which has helped more than half of its students to achieve five or more good GCSEs, is a lot more family-friendly than the comprehensive it replaced - in which just 8% achieved the grade.

A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded overwhelmingly "there (was) no evidence that as academies have improved in status they have caused neighbouring schools to sink."

The same conclusion's been drawn from independent analyses in Sweden and New Zealand, as well.

There is therefore considerable evidence to suggest Free Schools raise standards, choice, attendance and parental approval.

And they do so without resulting in social exclusion either within or between schools.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

I said earlier that while I thought the premise of devolution was secure in Wales, the promise of devolution had not yet been achieved.

The difference is crucial and there for all to see.

It is the 10% of Welsh children that are not able to achieve the same grades as their counterparts in England because of where they live.

The truth is, we can continue as we are:

  • With the achievement gap between England and Wales widening with each passing year.
  • We can continue telling a child in Bridgend that they're 10% less likely to do as well as a child in Birmingham.
  • Telling a child in Cardiff their future is worth 10% less than a child in Cheshire.
  • We can continue to use the money we've got to subsidise middle-class breakfasts for the few, leaving the many to suffer in squalid classrooms with outdated books or computers.

Or we can say unequivocally now, that children in Wales deserve the same chance in life that other British children currently enjoy.

Devolution allows us to learn from the very best reforms and innovations around the world, in order to pioneer methods that best suit the needs and circumstances of pupils here in Wales.

Educational failure in Wales is the failure of an assembly government, not a form of constitutional government.

It is Labour's failure - the natural result of their inability to trust teachers and frontline staff.

And it is Labour's failure, not the pupils', as they continue to prioritise short-term gain over long-term improvement and development.

<h2>Welsh Conservatives</h2>

Welsh Conservatives strongly believe every child in life deserves the chance to realise their potential.

We believe teachers do a brilliant job, but are all too often held back by government diktat and control.

And we believe a high-skilled, knowledge-based and well-paid job, so often the result of a good education, is the best method of welfare yet devised.

After 10 years hard Labour, we're the real choice for education in Wales:

  • The real choice for students and teachers.
  • The real choice for Headteachers.
  • And the real choice for parents.

Educational failure is no longer inevitable, no longer acceptable, and we'll do our very best to improve standards in all Welsh schools.

<h2>Welsh Conservative Reform</h2>

This is our promise to the electorate.

Should we form the next Assembly Government, we will invite bids for a pilot of Free Schools from schools across the country.

From now until the next Assembly Election, a team of independent experts and stakeholders will meet as part of a panel led by Shadow Minister Paul Davies, to see how best this policy can work for Wales.

That way the promise of devolution can start to live up to its premise: a brighter future for the children of Wales.

Thank you very much.

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