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28 July 2015

Social democracy in a cold climate: how can the Welsh government turn around its schools?

The Welsh government will have to do more with less.

By Ross Davies

Like its counterparts across the border – with the curious exception of Harriet Harman – the incumbent Welsh Labour government has been vocal in its opposition to the planned tax credits cuts announced in the budget.

First Minister Carwyn Jones criticised George Osborne’s pledge to limit claims to the first two children per family as “[a] huge amount of targeting of young people by the UK government and indeed people who are in work [for cuts].”

Plaid Cymru has also waded into the debate, warning that proposed changes could plunge up to 120,000 Welsh families – hard up as it is – into in-work poverty.  Beyond the political sphere, charities such as Community Housing Cymru fear, too, that Wales is set to be lashed hardest by the new round of cuts.

“Wales has already been disproportionately affected by previous welfare reforms in comparison to the rest of the UK,” said chief executive Stuart Ropke. “We also have a relatively low wage economy, so there will be greater effects here, in light of today’s budget, than anywhere else in UK.”

It’s something of a cruel irony that a report conducted by the Welsh Assembly’s communities, equality and local government committee – released two weeks before the Chancellor’s speech – identified that 23 per cent of people in Wales are living in poverty. The national average is 17 per cent.

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Worse still are the alarming levels of child poverty across Offa’s Dyke. One in three children are now living below the breadline; beyond certain pockets of London, that’s the highest percentage in the country. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that this epidemic – for that’s what this is – could increase by a third by 2020.

The budget, if unopposed, will undoubtedly intensify the status quo. But the Welsh Government – self-billed protector of the vulnerable in the face of austerity – also needs to holds its hands up and display some sort of accountability for its lack of progress in tackling a key issue.

Why is it that while poverty levels have dropped in other identified areas of deprivation, such as the North East, Wales continues to tread water – despite possessing a governmental department specifically responsible for tackling the issue?

That’s a question Carwyn Jones desperately needs to answer if his government is to prevail at next year’s Assembly election – because people are losing hope. Stories of schools in the Valleys, a traditional Labour heartland, keeping boxes of spare shoes for children without anything appropriate on their feet are sadly not as apocryphal as we would like to think.

On a more positive note, the Welsh Government does appear to have finally woken up to the responsibility its devolved education matrix needs to assume if poverty is to be dealt with accordingly.

The Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) – a fund introduced in 2012 to help Wales’ poorest pupils – was recently credited by market research group Ipsos MORI with playing an important role in breaking the link between poverty and low educational attainment.

Last year, the Welsh Government also recruited Sir Alasdair Macdonald – renowned for turning around the academic performance of Morpeth Secondary School in Tower Hamlets, east London – as its PDG advocate.

But cuts at the hands of Westminster have led to a limited budget; by 2015-16, forecasts suggest the Welsh budget will be nearly £1.7bn less than it was in 2010-11. However, this hasn’t deterred a number of schools from taking matters into their own hands by eschewing top-down bureaucracy to engage with families in Wales’s most deprived areas

In fact, Senedd ministers would do well to follow the lead of head teachers – as opposed to the other way round.

Take the example of Herbert Thompson Primary School. Situated in Cardiff’s Ely area –home to high rates of unemployment and where over 2,000 children live in poverty – it has introduced a number of family and community reach-out initiatives, including a daily hub, which promotes interaction among parents and teachers on the school premises. It also hosts a variety of vocational workshops to help parents enhance their own skills.

The upshot has been a noticeable improvement in the school’s performance and attainment, which was recently deemed “excellent” by Welsh education watchdog Estyn. But, as head teacher Bethan Hocking told me, schools such as hers, which have extended their remit with limited resources beyond the school gate, deserve more recognition – and support.

“It’s challenging working in a school like ours,” she says. “They [the Welsh Government] don’t always appreciate how challenging it is, and how successful schools like ours – in which we play the part of the teacher, the social worker and the councillor – are only successful because we go above and beyond.”

If Hocking had her way – nay the funds – she would have “social workers, councillors and debt management people – all based on the school premises”. Another teacher I spoke to from Merthyr Tydfil’s Gurnos Estate – one of Britain’s most deprived council estates – was in agreement that his school’s own parent hub had “broken down a barrier” in getting families to speak about the levels of poverty they find themselves in.

I recently attended a schools conference concerned with confronting the impact of poverty in the valleys. The 200-strong attendance – comprised of teachers, heads and delegates from the Assembly – serves, I think, as ample proof of a movement that is as much social as it is educational.

It has been fashionable in the past to ridicule the Welsh education system as benighted and inward-looking – perhaps with some reason. But the ongoing efforts of its schools to instil the progressive values of the Gwerin – Wales’ educated working class who rose out of poverty in the last century – should not be overlooked.

As one advisor to the Assembly at the conference correctly stated, “success won’t come overnight”; the Welsh Government is likely to remain hamstrung by budgetary and welfare cuts for some time yet. But for a poverty epidemic continue to fester under its watch would be unforgivable. Wales’s families – and its schools – deserve better.

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