Devolution at a crossroads?

By NFER Cymru Research Team

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Since devolution of responsibility for education and training to Wales following the establishment of the National Assembly, NFER’s research has recognised the increasingly divergent approaches to education policy and practice across the UK. One question is, will the forthcoming election mean that Wales continues to develop its own educational policy and practice? What next for devolution and education?

Labour have been the biggest part of government in Wales since the establishment of the National Assembly in 1999. During that period, they have governed with the support of the Liberal Democrats (1999-2003) and Plaid Cymru (2007-11), and currently, a Liberal Democrat member sits in the Welsh cabinet with responsibility for education and skills in the Welsh Cabinet.

Broadly, Wales has a unified system of schools: there are no academies or specialist schools, and no selective schools. The main difference between schools is their language medium (Welsh-medium, bilingual and mainly English-medium). Around 14 per cent of Wales’ schools are faith schools.

The results of the current election will influence the level of resources that are available for the Welsh Government in the next five years.

All the main political parties have produced tailored manifestos for Wales, which take account of the differences in the delivery of public services in Wales. The Conservatives, for example, make no mention of their proposals in England to replace free lunches for all infants with breakfast clubs, given that these already exist in Wales.

Welsh Conservatives

The Welsh Conservatives offer a radically different vision of the school system compared with the other parties. It is also implicit that they may want to reconsider the respective role of the UK and Welsh governments.

In contrast, and although there are important differences in the Labour and Plaid Cymru manifestos, both parties’ proposals accord broadly with the general direction of travel of education policy in Wales since 1999.

The Welsh Conservatives devote around 750 words to education in the manifesto chapter entitled ‘The World’s Great Meritocracy’. They commit themselves to respecting devolution, stating that that ‘no decision-making powers that have been devolved will be taken back to Westminster’. However, they promise an end to ‘devolve and forget’, and envisage a role for the UK Government as ‘a force for good across the whole country’. This could be interpreted to mean influencing both devolved and non-devolved areas of policy. Interestingly, they propose that when EU funding for Wales ceases, future support will be made available through a United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund.

Welsh Labour

Meanwhile, the Welsh Labour manifesto talks about a ‘partnership’ with the Westminster Government, and how Labour will provide more funding for the Welsh Government to enable it to deliver its promises. The underlying message is that in the devolved areas, not least education and training policy, Welsh Labour will determine its own course and will be given more money to do so. In addition, Labour promise that the UK government would pay the Welsh Government an amount equal to what Wales currently receives in EU funding.

Labour’s commitments on education and training in Wales, outlined in around 1,700 words echo the party’s manifesto for the Welsh Assembly election in 2016. They include the implementation of a new largely skills-based school curriculum in line with what was recommended by Professor Graham Donaldson’s review, retaining free breakfasts in primary schools and ‘lunch and fun clubs’ during school holidays, continuing to prioritise tackling the impact of poverty on education, strengthening school leadership, and creating over 100,000 new apprenticeships.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru has produced an Action Plan, focused on its central message of ‘Defending Wales’. They warn of a ‘potential power grab’ by a post-Brexit conservative government and the need for a multi-billion pound investment programme to improve Wales’ public services.

Plaid Cymru’s promises include free full-time nursery places for three year olds (expanding the provision currently made to 3-4 year-olds), improved training and pay for teachers, a guaranteed place in education, employment, or training to every young person under age 25 who is looking for work, a network of specialist National Colleges of Vocational training, and more opportunities for children to be educated through the medium of Welsh.

The results of the current election will influence the level of resources that are available for the Welsh Government in the next five years. The manifestos also suggest that the outcome on 8 June may have a profound longer-term effect on the political dynamic in Wales and the relationship between the Welsh and UK governments.