The stated aim of Plaid Cymru’s education policies is to reclaim Wales’ position as a “beacon of educational excellence”. This reflects concerns about the performance of Welsh education internationally, and in comparison to other nations in the UK, based on recent PISA assessments.
Plaid Cymru does not seek to follow the recent radical reforms in England. Instead, the party conveys a clear set of values and a desire to maintain a distinctly Welsh approach, rooted in a vision of a Welsh progressive community. Plaid Cymru’s actual policies, however, are often short on detail, and do not radically depart from the current system and policies in Wales.
Consensual and collaborative
Plaid Cymru rejects England’s free schools policy, and instead wants to maintain a greater role for local authorities. The party’s manifesto explicitly mentions cooperation with teachers’ unions, building on the consensual model of educational policy development that exists in Wales, compared to the more confrontational stance taken in England.
One of Plaid’s central proposals is for a new national curriculum. The party suggests some changes, not least a greater emphasis on ecological issues such as climate change, Welsh history and culture and languages. But these suggestions don’t depart substantively from the current Curriculum Cymreig.
There is also an emphasis on advanced information and communications technology and coding skills, which appears similar to recent reforms in England. In the light of economic and technological developments, this seems a sensible proposal. But, as the English example has shown, policymakers will need to ensure there is a sufficient number of teachers able to deliver such a programme.
Another key pledge is to provide an additional year of schooling for three to four-year-olds by qualified educational staff. This is particularly important in light of recent findings about how better quality provision in early years can improve outcomes over the long-term. But again, the proposal is rather vague, with no information about funding. This is true of a number of other costly commitments in the document, including more support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a programme to replace unsuitable school buildings.
Incremental, not radical
The incremental nature of the manifesto is evident in the proposed relationship with schools. Essentially, the approach is similar to the “earned autonomy” principle, which has formed the basis of many accountability systems across the world, and was introduced in England in the 2002 Education Act.
This means that high performing schools will be given a more light-touch accountability regime, with fewer inspections for schools reaching required standards. Those that don’t are subject to possible spot-check inspections – an approach that carries some risk of engendering too strong a focus on inspections, rather than improvement.
Plaid take credit for the introduction of the Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG), so it’s not surprising that the party restates its support for this programme and promises to help more schools implement effective support strategies. The PDG is a measure which means schools receive an additional £1,050 for each pupil eligible for free school meals, and £1,150 for each child looked after by the local authority. These sums are to be earmarked specifically for supporting these pupils. As such, it is very similar to England’s Pupil Premium.
A distinguishing policy proposal, which again points to the progressive nature of the manifesto, is a complete ban on hitting children through the abolition of the “reasonable punishment” defence
When in Wales…
Of course, the “Party of Wales” includes an emphasis on the promotion and protection of Welsh language and culture in its manifesto. Plaid aim to do this by ensuring that the existing requirement for local authorities to develop strategic plans to meet the growing demand for Welsh medium education are implemented effectively. Plaid Cymru emphasises the need for students to develop a positive understanding of the history of Wales and local communities through the curriculum. In addition, there is a call for further devolution of powers, to allow the Welsh Assembly to set teachers’ pay and conditions.
Plaid Cymru’s education manifesto is essentially a relatively standard set of centre-left policies, with the added element of protection and promotion of Welsh language and culture. It builds incrementally on current policies in Wales, and will not upset the apple cart. But, by the same turn, it’s unlikely to meet the ambitious aim stated at the beginning of the document.