Could we all adopt the Welsh attitude to education funding?

On 28 June, official agency Statistics Wales published the latest Welsh National Survey results about how people feel about public services.

Satisfaction with education is down to 6.2 from 6.6 last time (0 is very bad and 10 extremely good).

It isn’t curious that satisfaction is going down.  What’s interesting is that it is going down by so little.

This poll of 10,000 adults in Wales happened from April 2016 to March 2017.

A General Election has just concluded, running from April to June. Education was a top three hot topic for many in the General Election.  In England, that is, but not in Wales.

YouGov pollsters – who got closest to calling the outcome right – said that education was a top three issue for almost 1 in 5 voters in England.  Working with YouGov, respected academics in Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre found only half this number of voters in Wales -1 in 10 – thought education a top three issue.

In England, the dominant concerns were school funding, free school meals, and introducing Grammars into areas where they do not exist already. Local campaigns involved headteachers, teachers and parent groups.  This campaigning played a part in the election and its outcome – the minority Conservative Government dropped most of the education policies it proposed.

Proposals in England polarised opinion.  But in reality, they were minor in significance to the changes already underway in Wales.

Funding does matter.  Jobs, teaching resources and some learning experiences depend on it.

But funding is just a resource.  Funding is important because you need it to do stuff. Asking ‘is the money enough’ doesn’t make much sense if you don’t also ask ‘what’s it for’.  In England, the hot debate was more about the ‘how much’ and less about the ‘what’s it for’.

In Wales, there’s a quiet revolution underway in schools.  It is about the ‘what’s the money for’.  Reform of qualifications, curriculum and teacher training has begun.

By 2021, these reforms will have changed what’s taught, how it is taught, who’s teaching it, and how is success being measured.

This is change on a grand scale – not easily achieved, not easily undone. Most people will feel a bit anxious when change is happening, as research on managing change will confirm.

There’s no sign of the Welsh public being particularly anxious or moved about what’s underway in Welsh education, according to these polls. It seems clear that the changes have not begun to affect schools in ways that make parents sit up and notice. The polls, the election and the story in England and Wales points to a clear message – on education, what matters most to most people is what is happening in their local schools, in the here and now.

Reforms to the system will be judged by people, generally, by how little they affect what’s happening in the local school. Policy makers and others will need a different measure to elections or opinion polls to work out if large system reforms are successful or not.

In recent times, the key measure of the education system’s health has been international test PISA.  Success in PISA has been a key priority for Welsh Government, but recent statements by the Cabinet Secretary and the First Minister put this in doubt.  If public opinion is a poor way of judging system-wide reform and PISA is no longer a measure that matters very much, we are in an odd place – a place where a lot is being spent on doing something big but no one seems too sure on how we might know if it has all been worthwhile.


Author: Robin Hughes

Robin Huges HeadshotRobin has been a school governor for over ten years and is bilingual, Welsh and English. Before becoming a consultant and working with a number of private and public sector educational organisations, Robin had stakeholder management roles in an examination board and was Wales Secretary for ASCL, a body that represents over 16,000 senior school leaders.

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