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Education must do better

29/09/2021

This article was written for the Western Mail as part of their education month by Simon Thomas AM.

Despite over a decade of devolved government, and a history of valuing education as a tool to drive our people and nation out of poverty, we have yet to create an education system which fulfils the potential of our young people.  All parties share some of the responsibility for this, as do some parts of the educational professions, but the question now is how we set things to right.
It is completely unacceptable that one in four adults in Wales has a reading age of 11 or below. We will not succeed in lifting our communities out of poverty or in creating a strong, sustainable economy if our young people are ill-prepared for life and the workplace.


One of Plaid Cymru’s key pledges for the next five years is working to ensure that children leaving primary school are able to read, write and count to the expected standard. To these traditional skills, we must add the necessary IT teaching, so that our children have the basic skills needed to succeed.


Our vision for education is informed by our fundamental values:
•       that it is the people of Wales who should be responsible for shaping their own destiny and the shape of the nation,
•       that improving the life chances of the poorest is the prime measure of social and economic progress,
•       that the quality of relationships, not material wealth, is the sign of a good society,
•       that every child should be given the same opportunity to live a happy and fulfilled life empowered by knowledge, ideas and information.


The introduction of the Foundation Phase for the very youngest children, with its emphasis on learning through play, was an enormous step in the right direction for Welsh education and our young people. I am proud that Plaid in government delivered £164 million of investment in the Foundation Phase.


We also introduced an innovative lap top scheme for the most disadvantaged children. We invested over £500,000 to ensure that over 1,000 children were given the opportunity and encouragement to learn by themselves at their own pace. It’s vital the new Welsh Government evaluates this pilot to see how technology can help the most disadvantaged children to learn.


Although we are not in government at a national level, Plaid-led councils across Wales, in places like Gwynedd and Caerphilly, continue to invest in our children’s future.


Education is far more than what goes on in classrooms across the nation. Education should be about passion, energy and excitement. All too often our current education system detaches young people from their own interests, their natural talents and creativity.


We need to move away from a rigid system of assessment to a personalised and customised education, tailored to the needs of each child. As mentioned, the introduction of the Foundation Phase for the youngest children during the first phase of a Plaid driven government was an enormous step in the right direction. However Plaid believes that this innovation and creativity cannot stop at 7.


We must expand the concept of education beyond the school to create, for each child, a virtual learning environment – using sources of learning, learning networks, learning technologies and learning methods that complement the traditional school institution. This is why simplistic league tables, which do not recognise this added value to the child’s development of character, as well as skills, will not help us to tackle the current levels of illiteracy and innumeracy.


Schools should devise clear plans for reaching targets, head teachers should play a direct role in ensuring good teaching and improving standards, and the school standards body, Estyn, should measure outcomes.  Parents and governors should be informed at least annually as to how their child and their child’s school are measuring up to these standards and the Welsh Government should take an overview of how schools and education authorities are performing.
I want to see a more rigorous and responsive inspection system for teachers and schools, aimed at improving performance and outcomes for children, as well as catching any problems early on.


One question that arises is whether the period of training for new teachers should be extended and if there is a need to provide greater mentoring, monitoring and evaluation during the first years of a teacher’s professional career.  This is an area in which my party would like to hear views from the profession and educationalists.
Good teaching can take place under a tree, but on the whole Welsh weather, IT and the need to treat our young people with respect, means that our schools should be modern, adaptable and open to the wider community.


The changes by the minority Labour government to the 21st Century Schools scheme are therefore disappointing. It will impact on school building across the Wales.  The decision will ultimately cost Wales more if expensive PFI is introduced or if authorities cannot proceed with their school reorganisation plans.


Plaid Cymru has set out an alternative way for the Welsh government to raise money for new schools by creating a Build4Wales company.  Build4Wales would raise money for capital projects like school buildings through the financial markets.  Profits made by the company would be re-invested in our schools, our hospitals, and new homes.  Children deserve to have decent 21st century classrooms provided by the Welsh government.  This will be a key test of the Labour Party’s claims that it will “stand up for Wales” against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Westminster cuts.


Education is not just about academic achievement.  It should be about creating well-rounded, balanced individuals who know how their can contribute to society and what their responsibilities and entitlements as citizens are.  That is why work on apprenticeships, such as that done by Caerphilly Council, and wider issues such as access to a 21st century National Library Service, are vital.


A key area for the next five years is the performance of the Learning Pathways approach.  This is designed to give young people after the age of 14 more choice and opportunity to tailor learning to meet their needs, whether they be traditionally academic or more vocationally based, and to break down the barriers between the two so that the acquisition of skills throughout a person’s life is seen in itself as a fundamental part of learning.


The fact that around 10% of our young people are not in education, work or training threatens to squander the talents of a significant number of our youth.  It is also a recipe for disaffection, boredom and frustration.  I believe we need to examine how establishing a single Welsh body to coordinate and streamline the work carried out to help these young people could prove effective.


The growth of bilingualism is one of the success stories of modern Wales, and one of the features of our educations system that points the way to learning from European experience.  There is plenty of evidence that shows that learning another language at an early age assists linguistic skills in general.  Plaid Cymru in Gwynedd is building on language acquisition with primary school initiatives that encourage children to use the language outside the school environment.  We need to measure the success of Welsh language strategies by looking how young people are using Welsh after leaving education and ensuring they have the opportunity to do so.


There is increasing interest and demand in Welsh-medium education provision in all parts of Wales and the Welsh Government’s responsibility is to ensure that this is met now and in the future.  Plaid Cymru will support legislation if necessary to ensure this happens and will fight for the necessary funding for Mudiad Ysgol Meithrin and to develop Welsh language 14-19 vocational courses.


I also believe that we need to look again at how we teach Welsh as a second language in English-medium schools.  It is a compulsory subject, and rightly so, but too few pupils seem able to benefit.
In the past Welsh-medium provision in our universities was dependent on the goodwill and attitudes of departments, heads and lecturers, a situation that was unacceptable. Plaid Cymru was instrumental in government in setting up the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol to secure progress on this important issue.


A thriving Higher Education sector as a whole is an essential component for any aspiring nation.  Universities and colleges can provide an economic drive for Wales as well as equipping our young people for a highly complex, globalised workplace and demonstrating the value as a nation we place on educational excellence.


I believe we need to refocus on the emphasis on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in higher education, supporting new ideas for spin-out firms especially in the creative industries; design based manufacturing and green technology.


Plaid Cymru Leader Ieuan Wyn Jones, in his Economic Renewal Programme highlighted the importance of increasing collaboration between Higher Education and indigenous Welsh businesses.
Enabling our young people to study at higher education level must be a key aim of any progressive Welsh government.  Plaid Cymru was part of the government that established the current support regime for Welsh students.  Now Labour in government must ensure it is delivered and that Welsh high education institutions can attract the best students and drive up their currently rather poor research performance.


We used to be famous as a nation for turning out fly-halfs and teachers.  We now know that just as good fly-halfs were born of a particular sporting and working class culture, good education must also be rooted in a culture that supports and values it for its own merits, as well as its economic benefits.  This is the task facing us in Wales – building that culture of pride in education.