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Friday, March 10, 2006

Sniping from the sidelines

Wednesday's Plenary meeting saw an innovation at Minister's Question time. In the past the Party Leaders had the option of asking multiple supplementaries on a question of their choosing to the First Minister. Somehow this privilege had been extended to the subject Ministers' question time as well. As a result, backbenchers and party spokespersons did not get much of a look-in.

Following a number of discussions the Presiding Officer decided to change this. As of this week it will be party spokepersons who will have the opportunity to ask multiple supplementaries of their ministerial counterparts. Surprisingly, this led to us getting through more questions and to a better informed question time. It did not stop however, the usual sniping. The best example of this was actually a fairly bitchy remark from the Education Minister about one of her colleagues. I do not think it meant to come out that way:

Leanne Wood: I am sure that you would agree that Flying Start and the foundation phase are closely linked, as the foundation phase is the comparable scheme for three to seven-year-olds. You announced in November that the foundation phase will not be rolled out across Wales until two years later than was originally intended, therefore we will not see it implemented until September 2008. There are many concerns in the education sector that this scheme may never go ahead. Given your Government’s recent record on broken promises, how can you convince the people of Wales this afternoon that the Flying Start scheme and the foundation scheme are more than just election gimmicks?

Jane Davidson: There are two ways of responding to that. The first is that you would have to work very hard to demonstrate that I have any broken promises in my portfolio; I have none, and I will demonstrate that unequivocally. [Interruption.]

Health Minister, Brian Gibbons, who had recently announced that he was abandoning Labour's manifesto promise to introduce free personal care for the disabled smiled wryly at this remark and shuffled awkwardly in his seat. It was a very effective put-down of a fellow cabinet minister.

Jane Davidson was also responsible for another put-down later on, during a debate on school discipline. Mark Isherwood had made a extremely preachy-speech full of generalisations and his usual flowery language in which he urged the Minister to preach less and act-more. He had started off by accusing schools in deprived areas of failing and of setting their pupils up for a life on the dole. Not many headteachers will be happy with this passage of his speech, largely because it is untrue and derides the efforts of a dedicated and hard-working profession:

As the ‘Lost Children of Wales’ report states,

‘today, in Welsh schools, too many pupils’ minds are unseen and their owners are made economically disabled’.

They become disillusioned. School inadvertently trains them in absenteeism as they devise ways to escape what they see as a raw deal. Headteachers have stated that these forgotten young people can comprise up to 50 per cent of a year group. A further 35 per cent of those aged below 17 with anti-social behaviour orders have a diagnosed mental health disorder or an accepted learning difficulty. The number being sent to pupil referral units has jumped, and a high percentage of convicted young offenders have learning difficulties. They have been let down by a system that lacks the expertise and resources to meet their very special needs.

Last autumn, I spoke to a conference in Wrexham on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and heard from experts that children need agreed boundaries. Let that be a lesson to us all. Let us develop a whole-school approach to behaviour and discipline in Welsh schools that is child centred and evidence led. Let us start by listening more, preaching less, and moving out of the educational never-never land in which we seem to be trapped at the moment.

The Minister, though, had his measure:

Mark, when I think about never-never land, I always feel that that is where you are, rather than the rest of us. I say that because the chief inspector produces an annual report for the Assembly without fear or favour, where she has said that the quality of schools in Wales has continued to climb, as has the quality of teaching. The number of schools that are considered to be failing, where we have had to introduce special measures and so on, has always been small—these are facts; it is not never-never land.

All we need to do now is to decide which character from J.M. Barrie's classic tale Mark best represents. Is it Peter Pan himself, Captain Hook or should it be Mr. Smee?
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