73 speeches by……and 10 more speakers
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Education. And the first question, Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on Welsh Government support for rural schools? OAQ(5)0158(EDU)
Thank you, Janet. Rural schools benefit from the full range of policies we have in place across Wales. In addition, since taking office, I have introduced a new small and rural schools grant worth £2.5 million a year, and, more recently, commenced consultation introducing a presumption against the closure of rural schools.
Thank you. As part of your twenty-first century schools programme, and on the promise of an amalgamation with Ysgol Dolgarrog, two rural schools in the Conwy valley in my constituency—Tal-y-bont and Ysgol Trefriw—have been closed for a year now. Yes, they were closed with the support of the Welsh Labour Government and Conwy County Borough Council at that time. The new school site at Dolgarrog is still awaiting any form of redevelopment. Can you say, in order for me to update my constituents, when the redevelopment phase at this site will start?
Thank you for your question. It’s important for Members to be aware that any changes to the schools organisation code will not be applied retrospectively, and I want to be very clear about that. The school site that the Member talks about, it really is a matter for the local council to pursue the building of that new facility. But I will write to the Member, having made enquiries with my twenty-first century schools team, as to the state of the progress on that particular project. We have the biggest school and college building programme since the 1960s. There are resources available and I am keen that those resources are put to good use and we provide the first-class educational settings in Wales that our children deserve.
Of course, the viability of rural schools depends so much on their ability to provide a comprehensive curriculum, and to do that to the highest possible educational standards in order to gain the confidence of parents and the wider community. So, Cabinet Secretary, can you add to what you’ve already said about ensuring that rural schools are connected through the highest quality broadband, to ensure that each of those schools is properly networked and can provide the most up-to-date technology for pupils in order to ensure that there is a prosperous future for rural schools?
Thank you, Simon. You’re absolutely right—the first consideration regarding the future of a school should be the educational viability of that school. Simply a school remaining open is not good enough. The education that that school provides has to be a first-class educational opportunity for those children. I don’t want children to have any less of an opportunity because they attend a small, rural school than if they attended any other school in Wales. Information and communication technology does give us an opportunity to address some of the logistical disadvantages that sometimes small, rural schools can face, as well as the professional isolation that sometimes the teachers in those schools can face. You’ll be aware that we have recently ensured that all schools—although there continues to be difficulty with one school in the Ceredigion constituency, thanks to difficulties with the contractor—are now up to the Government’s target for all speeds, and we’ve announced an additional £5 million, which individual local authorities bid into, to update even to higher speeds for other schools. But, as part of the rural schools grant, one of the key areas that we would like to see councils use that grant for is to encourage innovation, which would include virtual classrooms and investment in ICT and innovative ways of delivering teaching via a virtual network.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the impact of pupil development grants in the Ogmore constituency? OAQ(5)0160(EDU)
I would be delighted to, Huw, because, in Ogmore, 36.5 per cent of pupils on free school meals achieved level 2 inclusive at key stage 4, and that is a 12 per cent increase since the introduction of the PDG. Three quarters of free-school-meal learners achieved the core subject indicator for key stage 2, and that is up from 62 per cent in 2012, an increase of 14 percentage points. The teachers and those students should be congratulated.
Indeed, and I extend my congratulations to all those in the schools who work with children, with significant advantages, because of the disadvantage that they might face, but also the teaching staff and support staff who work with them to produce those excellent results. And there’s no doubt that the pupil development grant is an invaluable resource to financially assist schools in delivering support to those children from deprived families, with free school meals, of course, being the trigger to eligibility. But, what I want to ask is about those families that are not eligible for free school meals but could be experiencing major disruption in their lives, such as parents divorcing, the bereavement of a parent, chronic illness in a family, job loss within a family, et cetera, and that emotional disturbance that can really impact on a child’s educational needs, as well as social welfare. There is surely a need as well to ensure that these families are also given appropriate support. So, could I ask the Minister to suggest in which ways we can help these families to see that they are supported, if not by the pupil development grant, then by some other mechanisms to ensure that these pupils also have the chance to succeed?
Presiding Officer, can I thank the Member for that question? The Member is absolutely right. Unless we give due recognition to the issue of a child’s well-being, then they will not reap the benefits of the educational opportunities that we provide for them. As the Member will be aware, it is my intention to publish an updated version of ‘Qualified for Life’, and I hope that he will be pleased to see recognition of the issue of well-being when that document is published later on this year. With regard to specific action that I am taking, I am working very closely with my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for children. We are joint funding a series of pilots around ACEs, and the impact that adverse childhood experiences can have on a child’s well-being. And, in conjunction with the Cabinet Secretary for health, we’re about to launch some pilots with regard to how better we can support schools by ensuring that health service staff with expertise in child and adolescent mental health are more prevalent in our schools. And we hope to announce details of that pilot shortly.
As you may know, Cabinet Secretary, there’s a new Welsh-medium school in Bettws, a very deprived part of the Ogmore constituency. I’m wondering how clear it is that the PDG can be used to improve Welsh learning skills, if you like, for pupils from English-speaking backgrounds, which actually makes it easier for those families to choose Welsh-medium education for their children, helping them to become bilingual and giving them an advantage in the workplace in later life.
Thank you, Suzy. The Welsh Government produces quite comprehensive guidance to schools on how they can use the PDG. That includes reference to the Sutton Trust toolkit, which is an invaluable resource, evidence and research-based, about what actually works in these circumstances. But each individual school is responsible for deciding on how best to use the PDG allocation because they know their children and their families and their community best. As the Minister said yesterday, we want all children, regardless of their background, to have the opportunity to become bilingual citizens of our nation, and I would expect that, in the school that you spoke of, their PDG, I’m sure, will be used to that effect.
Cabinet Secretary, it’s good news to see that the pupil development grant is having an impact on improving the education chances of our most deprived children and young people. However, the children and young people in Ogmore are about to have their education decimated as budget cuts take hold. Bridgend’s local education authority comprehensive schools could see up to five teaching posts cut as a result of Bridgend shortfalls, which, for the current financial year, is over £300 per pupil below the Welsh average. Cabinet Secretary, how will this affect the pupil development grant?
It will have no effect on the pupil development grant, because the pupil development grant is paid directly from Welsh Government to individual schools on the basis of how many pupils they have on free school meals.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Cabinet Secretary, just a few weeks ago, Labour’s First Minister was telling people to vote Labour to scrap tuition fees, but yesterday, in a betrayal of the students and Labour voters across Wales, you, on behalf of his Government, announced a hike in the cap on tuition fees paid by Welsh students. And I think that it goes to show that Labour cannot be trusted to deliver on the promises that it makes to the people of Wales. Last year, in the National Assembly for Wales elections, you made a promise to cut early year class sizes to 25 or under. Can you tell the Assembly today what progress you’re making against that promise?
First of all, as I said, I am not an expert on the Labour Party’s manifesto for the Assembly elections of last year, but what I am aware of is that what that manifesto commitment said was that Welsh students would be better off than their English counterparts. The fact that this Government will introduce a grant scheme that will see our poorest students entitled to a grant equivalent to the living wage is something that we can be proud of. I noticed this morning in a speech, Justine Greening said that there were only two ways forward with regard to university fees: it was either fees or it was a cap. I would urge Justine Greening to pick up the phone and understand how a Government can do things differently, because that’s what we’re doing here in Wales. With regard to class sizes, the Member will be aware that we are currently introducing a class-size reduction grant. We are working with the local authorities about how best we can utilise that money, focusing on our youngest pupils, our most deprived pupils and on those children for whom Welsh or English is not their first language, because that’s where the money will make the biggest difference.
I think the voters will make their minds up as to whether the Labour Party has broken its manifesto pledges from just a few weeks ago in a country where it’s able to actually implement those pledges. Can I just ask for some clarification? One of the things that you made a big fuss about during your election campaign for the National Assembly for Wales elections last year was this pledge of reducing class sizes to under 25, but, of course, you’ve spent the past 12 months watering that pledge down so that it actually means nothing of the sort, haven’t you? What you’ve talked about is reducing ratios of adult staff to pupils in classrooms rather than actually delivering on your pledge, and that is because, of course, you’ve got a huge mountain to climb. As of January 2016, there were almost 80,000 children in early years classes with more than 25 pupils—three out of every four pupils in those classes. We know also that there are over 25,000 pupils across Wales who are in class sizes of 30 or more. You promised to deliver class sizes of under 25. You’ve watered it down so that it’s actually a meaningless promise. So, we’ve got broken pledges on tuition fees from Labour and broken promises from you on class sizes. So, given that that promise is really dead in the water because you’re not going to deliver 25 or fewer in those classrooms, will you now listen to the chorus of experts who have spoken up, condemned that policy and suggested that you spend the £36 million that you earmarked for it on other things in the education system instead, where you’ll get better a bang for your buck?
And that, Presiding Officer, is the truth of the matter: Darren Millar is not willing to listen to parents and he is not willing to listen to the teaching profession when they say that class sizes do matter. My manifesto said that we would aim to reduce class sizes to 25, starting with the largest classes first, and that is exactly what we’re doing with the £36 million that has been made available to local authorities over the term of this Government.
Let me remind you of another promise that you made to the pupils and parents across Wales: you said that you were going to raise standards as education Minister, and yet, over the weekend, we saw you downplaying expectations about GCSE results for this summer. Just because we’re having reformed GCSEs doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re heading for poorer results. So, is the promise that you’re making to improve standards going to be another promise that you will not be able to deliver for pupils and parents, and can you tell us why on earth don’t you have more faith in pupils and teachers across Wales and expect them to do well?
I am absolutely committed to raising standards. That is my and this Government’s national mission: to raise standards and to close the attainment gap and to ensure that we have an education system in Wales that is a source of national pride and national confidence. The reformed GCSEs are an important part of that process. The reason why Qualifications Wales—the independent body that oversees the examinations system in Wales—has published papers warning of a potential dip in results is because of the introduction of more rigorous maths, English and Welsh GCSEs, because we are moving away from BTEC science. It is appalling to think—[Interruption.] Darren, if you would let me answer, it is appalling to think that, in some schools, until recently, not a single student sat a GCSE in science. Entire cohorts were put into BTEC exams. That was a disgrace. We also know—[Interruption.] We also know—[Interruption.] We also know that we have seen record early entry into this examination series. I am deeply concerned that some schools, for whatever reason, are entering children early for exams, after only one year of study of a course that should have been delivered over two years. And those students, who have the potential to get an A* maybe after two years, will get a C this summer, and those schools will settle for that C. That’s why I’ve asked Qualifications Wales to do a report into early entry, and I will take the appropriate action to ensure that early entry does not jeopardise my pursuit of high standards in our education system.
UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, in 2012, you said that the welfare of pupils, teachers, and staff at our schools is paramount, and also, when talking about the discovery of asbestos, that the Government will try to shift responsibility on to local authorities and schools. Do you still believe, as you did when in opposition, that the Welsh Government should take responsibility when a local authority either cannot or will not give our teachers and students confidence that they are teaching and learning in a safe environment?
It is absolutely crucial for teachers and pupils that they are undertaking their work in an environment that is fit for purpose and meets all the necessary health and safety regulations. That’s why we are, as I said, investing in the largest building of schools and colleges since the 1960s, and the removal of unsuitable buildings is a key part of how we prioritise our investment in the twenty-first century schools programme.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. Last year, when you became Cabinet Secretary for Education, and again today, you quite rightly said that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools, and that pupils in rural schools deserve the same opportunities as children in other areas of Wales. What action, if any, would you take if you suspected that a local authority was letting a rural school rot in order to make the case for closure stronger?
Well, as you quite rightly said, a presumption against closure was a manifesto promise in the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto, and I’m delighted to be in a position to make progress on that when in Government. As I said in answer to the first question from Janet Finch-Saunders, we are currently out to consultation on the reform of the school organisation code to strengthen that code and, indeed, to create for the first time ever in Wales a definition of what a rural school actually is. The first question any local authority should consider when looking at the issue around small and rural schools is the educational viability of that school, and they should use the opportunity afforded to them by the £2.5 million we are putting into the small and rural schools grant to be able to look at alternatives to closure to maintain a good standard of education in those small schools.
Thank you very much for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. If a local authority isn’t maintaining a rural school properly, would you ever consider it appropriate to remove that school and a relevant proportion of the revenue support grant from the local authority and fund it directly as a delegated school?
My expectation is, should we move forward with reforms to the school organisation code—. That is a code that is underpinned on a statutory basis, therefore, it is a legal requirement that local authorities comply with that code. If there were examples that that was not the case, then I would take the appropriate action.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch yn fawr. Cabinet Secretary, what did Carwyn Jones tell you when you asked him whether you could raise tuition fees?
The decision to link tuition fees to inflation was taken by the entire Cabinet, in recognition of a number of factors that I had to take into consideration—those factors being the ones I outlined to you, Llyr, in November of last year, when you raised this issue then.
Of course, Lord Adonis, Labour’s architect of tuition fees, has admitted that they’ve turned into a Frankenstein’s monster of £50,000 plus debts for graduates on modest salaries who can't remotely afford to pay them back. Many of those students are clearly on the brink. What do you think is an acceptable level of debt for students in Wales?
The issue of how we fund students through their higher education has to take into consideration the principles of access to that education and the ability to sustain it. You will be very well aware, Llyr, that the National Union of Students, through their ‘The Pound in Your Pocket’ campaign, have stressed that it is living costs, and not fees, that are a barrier for people from lower incomes going on into higher education. That is a view that was signed up to in the Diamond review, on which I understand Plaid Cymru did have a representative and was able to feed fully into that review. They said then that that was the issue that needed to be addressed. I’m very well aware that these are difficult and challenging issues, as are you, Llyr, very well aware that these are difficult and challenging issues, because, as you said in this Chamber in November, there is a risk that the funding gap between institutions in England and Wales will only widen and: ‘There’s a possible perception that the quality of courses in Wales—that because they’re cheaper they’re not as good’. He then went on to say—[Interruption.] You then went on to say—[Interruption.] You then went on to say, Llyr—[Interruption.] You then went on to say, Llyr, that, if fees went up in England, which they have done, it would be difficult to see how you could withstand the same move in Wales in many ways. You understand the difficulty our sector is facing and you should acknowledge that here in the Chamber.
Well, piling the pressure on the students isn't the answer, is it? And trying to make it sound as if the NUS is supporting the increase in the fee that was announced yesterday is plain wrong. Yes, there’s a shift in how you support students—nobody’s doubting that. But raising the burden of debt that students in Wales are suffering—and you didn't answer my question, by the way—is not an acceptable answer in my book. Now, I thought that the Liberal Democrats and Labour, in terms of—their principle was to move towards a free education. Your decision has taken us further away from that than ever, ever before. So, can you confirm that the original principle that you, and others on the Government’s bench, once held so dear is still in place?
Of course, in an ideal world, education at all levels should be free, but I don't live in that ideal world. I live in a world where people from poorer backgrounds can't access higher education because they cannot afford to pay for their accommodation or their books or their food. So, what we have done is fundamentally shift, in line with the recommendations of the Diamond review—of which Plaid Cymru were a part and signed up to—. We have moved the way in which we support our students so that we can ensure that those from the poorest backgrounds will have the equivalent of a living wage, that average Welsh students will have a non-repayable grant of £7,000 a year. And that is in stark contrast, Llyr, to your party, which has promised nothing on upfront costs, promised nothing on the day-to-day living costs of this country. And we have gone further than that, because we will ensure that this is available for part-time students and postgraduate students. Again, if Plaid Cymru were in charge, there would be loans for postgraduate students and no grants. We are delivering grants.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on higher education funding in north Wales? OAQ(5)0159(EDU)[W]
Can I thank the Member for the question? A thriving higher education sector is pivotal to achieving the Government’s priorities for the economy and for our society here in Wales. The funding reforms I announced yesterday will provide opportunities for all our institutions, including those in north Wales.
Since your announcement yesterday on increasing tuition fees, I have received a large number of messages from students studying in Bangor, as well as from school pupils who hope to go on to university. During the election, thousands of students and young people across the country were inspired by politics once again, partly because they had seen some of the political parties being willing to introduce policies that coincided with their own values. So, following your announcement yesterday, do you agree that politicians have raised the hopes of a whole generation of young people, only to dash those hopes a few weeks later?
Only yesterday, the Member was on her feet raising legitimate concerns about job losses in her constituency at Bangor University, and I’m sure that she will have had conversations with the vice-chancellor of said university about the necessity to respond to the situation we find across the border in England with fees rising, and his determination to ensure that Bangor, which recently got the very highest award in the teaching excellence framework, was able to compete with both UK and international students. The Member asks about values. The package that I introduced yesterday—[Interruption.] The package that I introduced yesterday, that will shift Government support away from paying off fees, which graduates have to do via their pay cheque, to supporting what many students and many parents say to me is the largest problem, upfront costs, is a package that I am proud of and it’s a package that is well in tune with my values. I’m not sure about what yours are.
Back to, I think, the issue raised yesterday, Bangor University are facing, or staff are facing, 115 compulsory redundancies. The university says this is because they need to save £8.5 million to address significant financial challenges, and we understand a number of other universities across the length and breadth of Wales are considering how they’re going to square the financial circle in similar circumstances. We know that universities lost out on tens of millions of pounds taken from them and given in grants paid to English universities through the fees of students going over the border to study, something that your party and mine accepted from Labour couldn’t be done after your party and mine and Plaid voted to scrap student fees during the second Assembly. We also know that yesterday, Universities Wales, responding to your student support package, referred to having had to absorb the increases in costs since the introduction of the current tuition fee system in 2012. Following your announcement yesterday, therefore, how quickly will the savings generated actually generate greater funding being received by universities in Wales to hopefully mitigate against these tough decisions they’re having to take?
We have to recognise, or some of us have to recognise, the very difficult situation that many of our higher education institutions are facing at the moment. It is a perfect storm of Brexit, of demographics, as well as having to compete in a market that is not just a market in the UK but an international market. This Government has to respond to that. Now, despite ongoing financial pressures, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales have been able to allocate funds in excess of £100 million to the sector for 2017-18, but there are challenging times ahead. However, our predictions over the implementation of Diamond should see HEFCW’s budget grow to be able to support our higher education institutions but, of course, that is subject to the usual budgeting processes that we have here in the Assembly. But you will be aware that, in my agreement that brought me into Government, I and the First Minister have agreed that universities should be no worse off as a result of the implementation of Diamond. In fact, it’s true to say that the implementation of Diamond will cost money to the Government in the first instance, but it is the right thing to do for Welsh students and Welsh institutions.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on measures the Welsh Government is taking to ensure music education is accessible to all? OAQ(5)0152(EDU)
Thank you, Rhianon. In Wales, all children benefit from music education during the foundation phase and at key stages 2 and 3, when it is a statutory part of the curriculum. Furthermore, the Welsh Government is collaborating with stakeholders across the education and culture sectors to deliver a range of measures aimed at enhancing that provision.
Thank you. Wales has world-class and globally esteemed institutions such as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Welsh National Opera and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama conservatoire. This is supported ably by National Youth Arts Wales and Tŷ Cerdd, who also administer the elite National Youth Orchestra of Wales, national youth dance, theatre, choir, wind and brass bands. These historical national structures and local Welsh music support services through accessible instrumental music support service tuition in school have sponsored, propagated and nurtured some of Wales’s finest talents, and that includes thousands of musicians and also icons such as Bryn Terfel, Catrin Finch and Paul Watkins and composers such as Huw Watkins and Karl Jenkins. Those of you who know that there’s a Welsh music event next Wednesday, some of them will be in attendance—a little plug. Cabinet Secretary, I also welcome the creative arts and learning action plan, a collaboration between Welsh Government and the Welsh arts council; the innovative new Donaldson arts-based curriculum; and the national endowment music fund as clear indicators of this Government’s early intent and direction of travel. Today I also welcome the pilot music amnesty; I do welcome these important measures. As the Cabinet Secretary stated to me in a prior Plenary, such initiatives and measures are a spoke in the wheel to the future sustainability of active Welsh music performance in Wales. Music is important to Wales. Economically, in creative arts—
You do need to come to a question, however important music is in Wales.
I will. Would the Cabinet Secretary agree that the time is right to futureproof and safeguard our structures in Wales? Would she agree with me that Wales would greatly benefit from a national overarching music performance strategy, a delivery model incorporating instrumental tuition across Wales regardless of income, wealth or privilege?
Wagner was shorter than that. [Laughter.]
Well, I can certainly agree with the intervention behind me, having sat through a Wagner opera once. It indeed was very, very, very, very long. Can I agree with the Member that we have much to celebrate with regard to music and creative learning through the arts here in Wales? But there is more to do, especially with regard to local education music services, which have gone through a very tough time. I met only yesterday with Karl Napieralla, who chaired the task and finish group in the last Assembly, to look to see what more we can do in this regard. I’m sure that all of us will enjoy the music showcase event that the Member has organised for us next week. Could I say that the timing of the event, Presiding Officer, is excellent? Because 19 July is the day that the Senedd will be a drop-off point for staff and Assembly Members to donate their unwanted instruments as part of the first ever Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales musical instrument amnesty. I would encourage all Members here today in the Chamber to start looking through their cupboards and their attics to see if they have anything that they could donate to this innovative project.
Rhianon Passmore mentioned the national endowment fund, of course, and back in February when you announced this, in answer to my question of whether the fund would result in support for core music services being diverted into this new fund, you replied that you were mindful of the fact that it might mean diversion and we’ll have to be aware of that as we go forward. I appreciate the fund is still pretty much in its infancy, but can you tell us about the development of the criteria of access to that fund, and whether the vulnerability that it might present to core music services has been resolved?
The Member will be aware that £1 million has been made available jointly from my department and the department for economy and infrastructure for the establishment and the seed funding of the endowment. The Arts Council of Wales is currently in the process of setting the endowment up, but I will write to the Member with more details about the specific question that she has.
I wanted to ask specifically about your conversations with the new organisation National Youth Arts Wales. I was speaking to tutors at Gartholwg school, when we went as part of the committee inquiry on music, with Dawn Bowden, and one of the tutors said to me, ‘My daughter is applying for the European orchestra because she can afford to do that more than she can afford the fees for the Welsh orchestra.’ I feel that if our young people are being priced out of being able to apply for their own national orchestra, what does this say to the future instrumentalists of Wales when they want to aspire to the top of the pyramid, which is National Youth Arts? If they cannot aspire to that because of the fees, then how are they then supposed to engage in the process? So, I wonder, with this new body now in place, what conversations you can have with regard to extending bursary schemes so that everybody can be part of this exciting venture.
Can I thank Bethan for her question and the intense interest that the Member has shown on this subject over a number of terms here in this National Assembly? I welcome very much the review by the committee that she chairs, and the interest that they’ve taken with regard to this. I’m very concerned that a young person with obvious talent should not be able to participate at a level that is commensurate with her ability to do so. If the Member would be good enough to write to me, I will look at that specific instance. We have to work across the piece with all bodies that have an interest and responsibility for delivering this to ensure that access is based on talent and interest and not on the ability of a parent to pay. I was greatly heartened recently, opening the new Ysgol y Wern in Wrexham. The headteacher there had used some of his pupil deprivation grant to purchase musical instruments for the children at that school, a school that has high levels of free school meals, and he said to me after the performance of their violin group, ‘I knew I’d cracked it when four of these children asked for a violin for their birthdays.’ But we need to ensure that, if we give them that chance, they are able to continue to pursue that at older levels. Again, this stresses the importance of why all Assembly Members should get into their attics and look to see what they can bring to the amnesty next week. I can assure them that their instruments will find a good home.
5. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the development of community-focused schools in Wales? OAQ(5)0151(EDU)
Thank you, John. I support the use of schools as community assets. We are working to progress the recommendations from the Public Policy Institute for Wales report on the use of school facilities by communities. The twenty-first century schools programme encourages the construction of flexible assets, especially those that can be used by the school and the community as a whole.
Cabinet Secretary, children spend relatively little time in school compared to time out of school, so it’s obviously very, very important that the home and, indeed, the community in which they live contribute to and encourage their education. Community-focused schools are a great way of building that partnership between the school, the family and the wider community. The facilities, sadly, are too often shut away at evenings, weekends and school holidays, which is not a good use of resource at a time of great strain on public finances. So, for lots and lots of reasons, including those, it would be great if we had more consistency in Wales. At the moment, I think it’s quite patchy. So, I’d be really interested in whether you are considering developing a mechanism, a means by which we could have consistently community-focused schools right across the length and breadth of Wales.
The Member highlights a very important point. After the quality of teaching, a family’s engagement with their child’s education is the second biggest factor that will determine that child’s educational outcomes. So, when I talk about community-focused schools, I am clear that it is not just access to a building. It is an ethos within that school that sees its role as engaging with families as a whole. The Member is absolutely right, Presiding Officer: good practice is not uniform. There is outstanding practice going on in Wales. I would particularly like to commend Miskin Primary School in Rhondda Cynon Taf; Monkton Priory Community Primary School in Pembrokeshire, which does some outstanding work with the wider community in engaging parents back into learning, developing qualifications for them then to go on into the world of work; Ysgol Maesglas in Flintshire; and Hafod Primary School, a school I hope to visit with Mike Hedges shortly, which have all been seen by Estyn to be outstanding in this field. We need to ensure that local education authorities and regional consortia are addressing issues of inconsistency when they carry out their challenge and review meetings.
Cabinet Secretary, you represent one of the largest rural areas in south Wales in this Chamber. Rural schools are among the most community-focused schools in Wales. They are at the heart of the communities they serve. Since 1999, hundreds of local authority maintained schools have closed, with rural areas worst affected. What action does the Cabinet Secretary intend to take to address the issues of underfunding, which is the biggest obstacle to keeping rural schools open in Wales?
Presiding Officer, can I correct the Member? I don’t represent one of the largest rural constituencies in this Assembly; it is the largest single rural constituency, geographically, in this Assembly. It is because of that that I have a deep interest in the subject. And that’s why my previous experience as a backbencher led me to be determined that this Government can take the issue of rural schools forward. The Member will be aware of answers I gave earlier. We’re currently consulting on the school organisation code to move to a presumption against closure. But with regard to finances, he will be aware of the special grant that has been developed, of £2.5 million per annum, to address some of these challenges—very real challenges—that face rural schools and maintaining education in those communities.
I was wondering what work you had done in relation to community relations and schools that are community focused. For example, in my area—and others’—we’ve got a new superschool in Ysgol Bae Baglan. They were told before the school was built, amalgamating different communities around that area, that they would be able to access provision—be able to access the field—for activities, but it now comes about that it’s for the governors of that school to be able to make the decision. Quite often, that creates tension in the local community, where the governors may have a different view as to what that field should be used for as to what the community has already used it for over many, many years. So, I’m wondering what conversations you’ve had to try and encourage proper conversations between the schools and the communities to ensure that everybody can actually access those facilities when they do need to use them.
I’m very sorry to hear that there are tensions around the Bae Baglan area. I officially opened the school. It is an impressive, impressive facility, and the expectation, as I said, in our twenty-first century schools programme, is that we build buildings that are flexible assets, with the expectation that the wider community will be able to benefit from the significant investment that Welsh Government is making in partnership with local authorities to provide those facilities. Of course, because of the local management of schools, governing bodies are very powerful, but I would be surprised that any governing body would not see their school as being central to a community. They are one and the same, or at least they should be, and I will take further advice as to whether this is a one-off or whether this is a systematic problem that Welsh Government will need to address.
6. What is the Welsh Government doing to monitor the outcomes of its five-year Global Futures plan to improve and promote modern foreign languages in Wales? OAQ(5)0155(EDU)
The implementation of the Global Futures plan is overseen by its steering group, which comprises key stakeholders from across the education sector in Wales. The steering group monitors the delivery and the outcomes of the plan, and encourages partnership working to improve and promote modern foreign languages in Wales.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. As I’m sure you will have seen, the British Council has recently published their third annual language trends survey of modern foreign languages in Welsh secondary schools, the results of which, I am sure you will agree, are very worrying. The survey comes just 18 months into the plan, which is aimed at promoting modern foreign languages in Wales, but in reality we have witnessed the continuing diminishing status of modern foreign languages in Welsh schools. In fact, the report tells us that between 2002 and 2016 the number of pupils studying a foreign language at GCSE level has declined by 48 per cent, and more than a third of Welsh schools have less than 10 per cent of year 10 pupils studying a foreign language. In light of the report’s results, Cabinet Secretary, what more can we do to realise the Government’s ambition for Wales to become a ‘bilingual plus 1’ country?
Thank you, Lynne. I have noted the language trends survey and I have asked the Global Futures steering group that I referred to in my first answer to review the report at its next meeting, which will take place on 14 July, and report back to me on what more we can do to improve the take-up of modern foreign languages. There is a whole host of reasons why the drop may be happening, but the Government is taking action. Since the launch of Global Futures, we have invested in a modern foreign language mentoring scheme in conjunction with some of our higher education institutes, which send undergraduates who are studying languages into schools to inspire and to support pupils. We have recently signed an agreement with the Spanish embassy to support the teaching of Spanish, and we have done similar work with France and Germany. For instance, the Goethe-Institut are setting up a specific programme at Cardiff University. But there is still more, I’m sure, that we can do, and I will take advice from the steering group.
Cabinet Secretary, during First Minister’s question time yesterday I referred to the latest ‘Language Trends Wales’ report that found teachers were extremely worried about the future of modern foreign languages. The report said that Global Futures was popular with teachers, but, so far, it is having a limited impact on take-up of modern foreign languages in Wales. Can the Cabinet Secretary advise when she intends to the review the progress of Global Futures to ensure the serious decline in modern foreign language learning in Wales is reversed? Thank you.
Well, I would refer the Member to the answer I gave Lynne Neagle with regard to how we are following up on Global Futures. But can I just take this opportunity—I think we’re all, and rightly, concerned about the numbers of students who are taking modern foreign languages, but it’s not all bad news. GCSE results in 2016 showed that Wales had higher A* pass rates and A* to C pass rates for French, Spanish, German and other modern foreign languages than their counterparts across the border in England. So, whilst I want to see more students taking these GCSEs, the ones who are are doing really well and are to be congratulated. We need to understand what more we can do to encourage more students to emulate their colleagues in school to take these languages, because when Welsh students take these exams, they do well.
The report on language trends was discussed at the last meeting of the cross-party group on international Wales, and, by the way, I invite everyone to a meeting next week to discuss connecting with the Welsh diaspora and hearing what GlobalWelsh and Cymru a’r Byd have to say at that point. But one specific concern raised was that the Welsh baccalaureate used to include modern foreign languages, but that element has now been removed. Could that be reviewed now, because this perhaps has actually eradicated that pathway to a modern foreign language for some?
The Member makes an interesting point. I’m not sure that we should be adding more to the Welsh bac. Indeed, listening to professionals, actually, they say they want less in the Welsh bac, so I don’t know whether we’re in a position to add more input into the Welsh bac. What we do need to look at, potentially—there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that modern foreign languages, indeed all core subjects that have not previously been part of the schools’ accountability measure, have seen a drop in the numbers taking them, so music, drama et cetera. So, there may be an underlying trend that schools are entering students into exams that count towards that school’s individual accountability measures and, therefore, there is a narrowing of the curriculum. The Member will be aware that I have announced a fundamental review of accountability measures for schools so that any unintended consequences, whether that be a narrowing of the curriculum or, indeed, early entry, which we discussed earlier, stop. So, that issue around accountability and whether that’s driving some of these behaviours will be tested as part of that review.
Finally, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Llywydd. When I was in school, the best part of 100 years ago, the policy was that everybody learnt at least one foreign language up to the age of 16. Things are radically different now, and I’m pleased to hear the figures that the Cabinet Secretary announced a moment ago and the emphasis that the Welsh Government is placing upon learning modern foreign languages. But one of the big problems we’ve got in persuading schoolchildren to opt for modern foreign languages is they’re perceived to be difficult, and it is true that learning a language from scratch is difficult and requires discipline for the mind. That’s, of course, one of the great, important reasons for learning a modern foreign language, and it also broadens the mind. And having learned French, German and Russian, as well as Latin, at school myself—it’s made me the cosmopolitan world citizen that I now am. [Interruption.]
The Member tempts me, Presiding Officer; the Member really does tempt me. But, you’re right, we do need to promote modern foreign languages within our schools, and that’s why we have extended the student mentoring project with Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth universities. We have over a quarter of schools working in that programme, where bright, sparky, enthusiastic undergraduates go into schools to provide that buzz around languages that we need to create to encourage pupils, before they’ve made their choices on GCSE, that this is something that they can enjoy, something they can be good at, and can give them really life-enhancing work and personal skills. We also have to ensure that the quality of language teaching is as good as it can be, and, as I said, whilst the figures in the report are concerning, it’s not all bad news. This year, two of the three German teacher of the year awards were awarded to teachers who are teaching German in Welsh schools.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary.