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Sunday, June 08, 2008

A question of priorities

Welsh Education Minister, Jane Hutt confirmed yesterday what we have long suspected, the One Wales Government does not have the money to properly fulfil its commitment to deliver the Foundation Phase for 3 to 7 year olds, nor does she seem to have the support of other ministers in putting that oversight right:

The under-fire minister told the audience of teachers’ union representatives she was having to battle fellow ministers for cash to fund her own proposals.

And she pleaded with the teachers for their help wringing the cash needed for the Assembly’s flagship teaching shake-up from her Cabinet colleagues.

Vale of Glamorgan AM Ms Hutt told the meeting at a plush Cardiff hotel: “I know that we haven’t got enough.

“The budget planning exercise for 2009-10 is now with us and we need to have reliable projections to present to the Finance Minister.

“I need your backing and I have to make sure that we have got the reliable evidence to ensure that I get adequate funding from 2009 to 2010.”

She added: “I’m living, sleeping, working the Foundation Phase. It is so critical that we take this forward.”

Her comments came almost a month to the day after she announced an extra £5m funding for the “learning through play” teaching proposals for three to five-year-olds saying it would “make sure that all children in Wales get to benefit from what it has to offer.”

But yesterday’s remarks appeared to accept she knew the extra £5m – which takes the total funding pot for the scheme to £30m – was well short of the sum needed.

Some teachers estimate that the cash shortfall will mean there are almost twice as many pupils per teacher in some Welsh classrooms as envisaged in the plans for the shake-up, which is dubbed the Foundation Phase. They say the shortfall for next year alone is up to £15m.

Although, we need to acknowledge that there has been a tight budget settlement for the Welsh Assembly Government that was hardly unexpected. In fact it was being predicted well before the Assembly elections and we were constantly being reassured that the Government was planning for it.

Where things seem to have gone wrong are the One Wales Agreement, which led the Government to assume a wide range of spending commitments including the controversial freebies. What is missing is any sense of priority. Indeed when I tabled a question not so long ago to ask what the Government's spending priorities were I was referred to this ambitious and largely unfunded programme document.

In the last year Labour and Plaid have dropped previous commitments to narrow the funding gap between Welsh Universities and their English counterparts, they have continued to starve the FE sector of much needed funds and they have imposed a harsh settlement on local councils that will mean many more schools going into budget deficit. They have also failed to find any more money for school buildings and they have left the widely supported foundation phase underfunded.

If there are priorities in the One Wales document it is clear that education is not amongst them. This government is floundering beneath the weight of its own financial commitments and it is the future of our education system and our economy that is suffering.
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