Let’s talk tuition fees.

In England the Tories are planning an overhaul in the regulatory framework of Higher Education. They’re are changing the governance of fees. They’re planning fee increases in through an incredibly flawed Teaching Excellence Framework, and they plan on introducing differential fees within Universities. Critique of the new proposals warrants an essay in itself – you can read one here.

In Wales we’ll soon hear the outcome of the long-awaited independent Diamond Review into the funding of Higher Education, which will  now be overseen by Kirsty Williams, who was appointed Education Secretary within the Labour Government.

Since 2010 (don’t mention 2010!) tuition fees have remained largely a taboo issue, with only Labour really campaigning on the issue in the General Election. In the 2016 Welsh Assembly Elections the Welsh Liberal Democrats put forward a comprehensive policy, whereby the party would remove the tuition fee grant – essentially increasing fees to £9k for all students – but investing in large increases in grants for students through a Student Living Grant of up to £2,500 per student.

Now it’s time to re-think Higher Education policy. Our English policy is flawed, blindly accepts the deficit narrative, and isn’t genuinely improving outcomes for students. There are two elements to my argument; 1) it’s having a detrimental impact on students themselves, 2) it’s negatively impacting on the sustainability and the behaviors of the sector.

Undergraduate higher education is not seen by government as a public good, of value to society as a whole beyond those who receive it, and so worthy of public funding.

Claire Callender and Peter Scott, Browne and Beyond

“But more students than ever are applying and being accepted to University?!”

Yes, they are. All the reports since the introduction of higher fees in 2012 have concentrated on this issue and have demonstrated an increase in the number of 18-21 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to go to university. That’s a positive thing, but we’re resting on our laurels if that’s our main rebuttal about how the new fees system isn’t a deterrent for the least well off students.

That’s not good enough, nor is it the whole picture.

The removal of the student numbers cap in England has resulted in more students being accepted onto university courses, coupled with higher number of applicants. The mass expansion of Higher Education hasn’t been met with investment in our universities. This has resulted, in many universities, in capacity issues with courses rapidly expanding without the infrastructure (in the broader sense) to deal with the increases which are often forced on university departments. I’ve spoken to many academics from departments which are being required to take on more students at undergraduate level and they mostly tell you what a detrimental impact it has on the quality of teaching and the students’ learning experience.

We’re getting more students in through the doors, but into what? There’s evidence to show that students from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to complete their degrees, and are less likely to get ‘good’ degrees. What’s more is that they are more likely to leave with higher personal/private debt through loans, payday lenders, credit cards, and overdrafts, which impact on retention and attainment. That’s even before a comparative analysis of women and BME students (in particular) who are more likely, due to their background, to face these barriers.

Why is it that we’re up in arms about academic outcomes in compulsory education and post-16 education, but when we consider higher education the academic outcomes of our most disadvantaged students is rarely mentioned and rarely provokes a response?

Indeed, failure, non-completion, financial hardship and high levels of debt are inversely related to both social class and the risks involved.

Does the fear of debt deter students from higher education (LSERO)

Then let’s look at part-time students in context of the new fees system – students who are likely to be returning to education for a second chance, looking to upskill, those who previously missed out, or students who have caring or employment responsibilities. Students typically from disadvantaged backgrounds. A report published by Bright Blue, Going part-time, found that;

Between 2010-11 and 2013-14, the number of UK and other EU part-time undergraduate entrants fell from 259,000 to 139,000. This was a decline of 46%.

There has also been a significant decline in the number of taught part-time postgraduate entrants, who constitute a majority of all postgraduate entrants. Between 2010–11 and 2013–2014, UK and other EU part-time taught postgraduate entrants fell from 97,000 to 70,000. This was a decline of 28%.

When you look at the purpose of PT study the sharp decline in the number of PT student should be alarm bells for policy makers. All factors point to declining or inadequate financial support as a major reason. Bright Blue conducted some polling, of around 1,600 English adults adults with no experience of part-time HE who had considered but ultimately not pursued part-time HE in the past five years.

The reoccurring reason among participants for not pursuing part-time HE was affordability with 24% of participants reporting this. They then split the various reasons reported for not pursuing part-time HE into three broader categories: financial, practical and informational. Results included;

  • 54% did not pursue their interest in part-time HE primarily because of financial barriers.
  • 34% did not pursue their interest because of practical barriers, and
  • 7% because of informational barriers.

I’ll come on to debt aversion and the impact that has on student choice and disadvantaged students later, however when only 31% of all part-time students are eligible for HE loans under the new funding regime, we have to ask ourselves whether Higher Education is a public good or a commodity, and where the impetus for these funding reforms came from.

NUS has also found that;

  • Half of 2015 graduates thought their degree was not worth the fees they paid.
  • 6% would not have gone into higher education at all if they could go back.
  • 71% of graduates remained concerned about their level of student debt.

“But it’s not even a real debt?!”

You know that, I know that. Most students know that. However you only have to look at the research into debt aversion to begin to understand the complications that this poses, and the broader context of taking on additional debts to meet living costs. Additionally some demographics are still unaware of the repayment terms of their student loans, causing greater concern among some student populations.

Research into debt aversion and higher education concluded that;

Hence, contrary to the government’s stance, it could be argued that the fear of debt exhibited by the low-income prospective students in our study was rational. Indeed, we are now asking them to borrow more money than their parents may earn in a year.

It is a ‘real deterrent’, and is just as real as students’ attainment and aspirations.

Does the fear of debt deter students from higher education (LSERO)

The same report draws on research from the United States which demonstrates the impact that student loans have on low, middle and high-income groups, concluding that that student loans have a negative/disincentive impact on low-income groups, but a neutral one on mid to high-income groups.

Then we come onto the cost of living and private debt.

NUS has published detailed findings into the cost of living for students, with more student taking on additional debt through credit or payday loans, to afford the basics such as rent and utilities. NUS’ reports found that a growing number of respondents had taken on a payday loan, who are increasingly targeting students. Student maintenance support has always been there to supplement other ‘income’. However, more and more students are taking on paid work in order to be able to fund their studies, which undoubtedly has a direct impact on attainment and mental health; and looking at reporting from University Student Services and Counselling departments to recognise the upward trend in stress and anxiety among students.

NUS has also found that;

  • 60% of graduates still had existing non-student consumer debt left over from their degree, the average amount being £2,600.
  • 46% of graduates had accumulated further debt since leaving their study.

Whilst tuition fee loans and maintenance loans will not affect a graduate’s credit score, the private debt incurred by students will affect the ability of those graduates to save, take out pensions, and get mortgages, particularly for those graduate on low and medium incomes. So when we’re talking about whether it’s a real debt, we have to consider it within the broader context of the total cost of higher education to the individual.

The underlying problem with the policy is that it overlooks the relationship between poverty and ability to access higher education (Hillman 2015).

Not only that but despite overwhelming opposition to a government consultation on changing student grants to loans, the Conservative government pressed on with it regardless. Coupled with the freezing of the repayment threshold for tuition fee loans, meaning that low and middle-income graduates will be hit the hardest. Couple that with labour market forces which have a largely negative impact on women and BME people and you can see why some would argue that the current funding model is unfair and entrenches social inequalities.

The IFS also found that graduates from richer family backgrounds earn more than other graduates studying the same course. The average earnings gap between those from a higher-income background and their counterparts is around 30% for males and 24% females. Even when you take into account the subject and the characteristic of the institution, the average student from a higher-income background earns 10 percent more than other students.

So taking on debt (however actual or real) without the same guaranteed financial return is a risk and a debt many are not willing to take on.

But working class kids shouldn’t pay for middle class kids’ education!

The issue of students paying for their higher education arises precisely because of the high financial returns said to result from education and the changes in the tax system to benefit the better off. At the same time, deregulation of labour markets has undermined the returns on semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. This can make it seem that those in such jobs have no interest in the future of higher education and neither the means, nor, the Government believes, the incentive, to help pay for it. A shift from government paying the bulk of the costs of higher education, to individual students (and often, in effect, their families), is a shift from all people in Britain having an interest in higher education, towards it becoming something that is only sensibly embarked upon if it is in the private interest of an individual or their family.

The shift to the loan model of funding higher education had an direct impact on the reduction of public debt for current taxpayers, but at the expense of increased spending on loans, driving up public debt. It’s a form of generational injustice and everyone will bare the burden of increased public debt in the future.

Future generations will be required to pay back their own student loans and also be the taxpayers who will pay the costs of an unsustainable system, bearing the burden of the debts that will be written off after 30 years. The Alternative White Paper argues – as do others – that;

there is no lasting financial saving to the country (only a temporary saving to current taxpayers, which must be recouped from future taxpayers). This suggests that the sole motive for the scheme is the misguided ideological belief that the extension of market principles into the provision of university education is itself sufficient justification.

The argument about the poor paying for the rich is not only in my opinion lazy, but implies that the only purpose of higher education is to gain employment which is only of personal benefit to the individual. However, there is ample research illustrating the broader social impact of higher education from which everyone benefits. There is ample research which demonstrates that communities with higher levels of education are generally healthier, more economically productive, are more socially cohesive, are actively engaged citizens, lower crime and so on. It also ignores (and contrasts the narrative) the impact of the new policy on public debt, although there are varying figures on this. The below are quoted from different publications;

  1. The outstanding debt created by student loans is set to spiral upwards to a predicted peak of £330bn by 2044, nearly 10 per cent of the country’s GDP, mainly because of the increased lending to cover higher tuition fees.
  2. Estimates from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), established by the Coalition, suggest that that the reforms have made a modest annual saving to the taxpayer of £700 per student for the 2012-13 cohort. Equating to an aggregate annual saving of around £0.8billion in 2014-15, after three cohorts of students had entered university under the new fee system system.
  3. A similar analysis conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated the savings at £1254 per student over the full length of their course (thus an average of £418 per year for comparison). This puts the aggregate public savings at less than £0.5billion for 2014-15.
  4. On the most recent projections, annual loan outlay is expected to hit £18 billion by 2020 for English HE. Repayments are only expected to rise to significant levels sometime after 2030 – they currently hover around £1.5bn annually and might reach £3bn by 2020. The Government covers the shortfall between annual outlay and annual repayments received by borrowing. Over the next parliament, close to £90bn will be added to the national balance sheet as a result of student loans. This is over and above the additional borrowing needed to finance each year’s ‘deficit’.

Changing the narrative

Success of a higher education policy should be based on more than the  number of students gaining access to university and the current measure of the number of graduates in employment. Higher Education is not just about getting a job it is a;

process of inclusion and reconstruction – albeit unfinished – around issues of gender and social class, a process that has involved addressing its own structures and processes as well as shedding light outwards. The globalisation of higher education also means addressing the legacy of colonialism and postcolonialism within the curriculum.

There is something fundamentally out of place in turning education into a commodity. Higher fees has been resulted in institutions cutting corners and spending money on gimmicks instead of frontline services, and has ultimately reduced students to passive consumers, with no real choice, no real market power, rather than active participants in learning and becoming critical global citizens.

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Save Hardship Funding in Wales

Speech prepared for Save Hardship Funding motion for the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ 2015 Autumn Conference.

Conference,

The purpose of this motion is to say clearly that the Welsh Liberal Democrats want to ensure that everyone can not only gain access to University, but are supported to succeed in University, too.

As a party we agree that access to higher education should not be determined by your ability to pay, we can’t deliver a truly accessible Higher Education system when academic success is all too often determined by your bank balance.

The Welsh Labour Government has made widening access to disadvantaged groups and student success and learning gain priorities, but at the same time is pulling the carpet from under the feet of the most vulnerable students in Wales – allowing Universities to pick and choose who’s more disadvantaged.

The Welsh Labour Government has cut the £2.1m Financial Contingency Fund – a fund that provides Universities with funding to support the most vulnerable – a small budget for the Government, but a lifeline for students in Wales.

NUS Wales’ study, Pound in Your Pocket, found that more than 50% of students regularly worried about meeting basic living costs, which they felt affected their studies. This will have an even greater impact on students from low socio-economic backgrounds and BME students who typically are awarded fewer ‘good degrees’ (2:1 and 1st degrees) than their white counterparts

We also know that most students struggle to pay their rent with the maintenance loans on offer. Maintenance loans have stayed the same at a time when the the cost of living has gone up and financial support like the Disabled Students’ Allowance has been cut.

And now the Tories want to replace grants with loans for the most vulnerable in England, too!

The future of higher education funding in Wales (and England) is uncertain and we should be reiterating at this key point in the discussion that we want to ensure that Higher Education is accessible to all and that everyone should be supported to succeed at University, not just get through the doors.

We also need to remind everyone of Assembly’s promise during the 2011 elections that this fund would be protected – let’s make sure that that promise is kept. Please support this motion.

Welsh Liberal Democrats deliver for Wales’ poorest children.

we-re-investing-282m-in-our-poorest-pupils

Even though we’re not part of the Welsh Government, we’ve managed to secure our flagship Pupil Deprivation Grant to support pupils from deprived backgrounds with reading and numeracy skills.

Since we first secured this money, teachers have told us just how much of a difference it makes to the children who need it most. Higher reading levels, fewer children skipping school, a narrower attainment gap – all because of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Next year, all schools in Wales will receive £1,050 per child on free school meals – rising to £1,150 the year afterwards. For the first time, we’re also extending this Grant to under 5s to make sure our children get the best possible start in life.

For Bangor, this money means an additional £272,500 for our school pupils.

“The Welsh Liberal Democrats secured this extra money in 2012 to give less well-off pupils a fair start and I am delighted that we have managed to increase it once again,” said North Wales Liberal Democrat AM Aled Roberts.

“Schools in Gwynedd will now receive over £3.7 million extra in the next two years thanks to the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

“I’m also pleased that 12,500 nursery children under the age of 5 will now benefit.  The aim is to make sure that every child has a fair start when they begin their formal education.

Too often children from poorer backgrounds fall behind in school even at an early age so this Welsh Liberal Democrat policy is designed to tackle inequalities in our education system.

Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru yn cyflawni dros ddisgyblion tlotaf Cymru.

pdg-graphic-2-cy

Er ein bod ni ddim yn rhan o Lywodraeth Cymru, rydym ni wedi sicrhau Grant Amddifadedd Disgyblion i gefnogi disgyblion o gefndiroedd amddifadus gyda’u sgiliau darllen a rhifedd.

Ers i ni ennill yr arian hwn gyntaf, mae athrawon wedi dweud wrthym bod yr arian ychwanegol yn gwneud gwahaniaeth i’r plant sydd fwyaf angen cefnogaeth. Lefelau darllen uwch, llai o blant yn colli ysgol, bwlch cyrhaeddiad llai – a hyn oll oherwydd Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru.

Blwyddyn nesaf, fydd pob ysgol yng Nghymru yn derbyn £1,050 ar gyfer pob plentyn yn derbyn prydau ysgol am ddim – fydd hyn yn codi i £1,150 y flwyddyn wedyn. Am y tro gyntaf, rydym ni hefyd yn ymestyn y Grant i blant dan 5 mlwydd oed i sicrhau bod ein plant yn cael y cychwyniad gorau mewn bywyd.

Mae hyn yn golygu hyd at £272,500 ar gyfer disgyblion ac ysgolion Bangor.

“Gwnaeth Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru llwyddo i gael yr arian yma wedi’i benodi yn 2012 i roi cyfle i ddisgyblion o gefndiroedd difreintiedig cyfle teg, ac rydw i’n falch iawn ein bod ni wedi llwyddo cynyddu’r cyllideb unwaith eto,” dywedodd Aelod Cynulliad dros Ogledd Cymru Aled Roberts AC.

“Bydd ysgolion yng Ngwynedd yn derbyn hyd at £3.7m dros y ddwy flynedd nesaf diolch i Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru.”

“Rydw i hefyd yn ymflachio y bydd 12,500 plant meithrin o dan 5 mlwydd oed hefyd yn buddio o’r cyllid. Y bwriad yw sicrhau bod gan bob blentyn dechrau teg pan maent yn dechrau addysg.”

“Yn aml iawn mae plant o gefndiroedd difreintiedig yn cwympo yn nol yn yr ysgol ac mae polisi’r Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru wedi’i gynllunio i ddatrys anghydraddoldebau ein ein system addysg.” 

Plaid’s promise of ‘local solutions’ on school closures broken.

The top line of Plaid Cymru’s 2012 manifesto read as follows;

“Plaid Cymru councillors are a crucial part of the team of Plaid Cymru representatives at all levels of government who are listening to what everyone in our community has to say and are working hard to make people’s lives better.”

In a recent meeting of Full Council in Gwynedd, Councillors from across the region were asked to vote on how school closures should be decided upon. An ongoing problem across the county for many years. Plaid Cymru Councillors voted, en bloc, in favour of giving the Cabinet the power to decide on school closures.

A council without strong opposition has just pulled the carpet from underneath Councillor’s feet – Full Council has even fewer powers. Another nail in the coffin for democracy in Gwynedd.

In 2012 Plaid Cymru launched its manifesto, setting out its vision for a Plaid Cymru governed Gwynedd Council. In that manifesto, Plaid Cymru said;

“Plaid Cymru councillors will continue to lead the discussions resulting from a reduction in the numbers of children and the need for fewer buildings by negotiation in order to find local solutions.”

In a letter to local press another resident said they could not believe that Plaid Cymru “the champion of small rural communities, the bastion of Welshness” was pursuing a plan of school closures.

School closures has massive impact on local communities, the future of local rural communities, and on pupil’s and individual’s sense of belonging, and those who live, work and represent those communities now have very little influence over the decision to close or keep schools open.

Plaid also promised the following to the electorate;

  • Our aim is to create an education system that produces rounded individuals with a strong sense of belonging
  • Plaid Cymru will introduce an innovative scheme in the world of education that concentrates on children who are not at present achieving their full potential
  • Plaid Cymru believes in developing viable rural education for the future
  • Our ambition is to create an education system that will thrive in the future with an emphasis on enabling strong headteachers to lead in their communities
  • Plaid Cymru believes that federalisation, lifelong schools, co-operation, building new area schools are options to be considered in different circumstances.

In April 2012 Llais Gwynedd Leader, Councillor Owain Williams said: “The school closures have no educational, economical or environmental basis and is nothing more than the Plaid Cymru-run Council’s blinkered campaign to destroy the county’s most  fragile communities both socially and culturally.”

Plaid should remember that democracy isn’t something for at the ballot box – it happens every day, yet local people are becoming less able to hold their council to account and influence decisions made.

Whilst politics should remain separate to education, communities are an integral part of education and it’s important that communities remain at the heart of schools and education across Gwynedd and across Wales. This is another example of how Plaid Cymru controlled Gwynedd Council is not acting in the best interests of local people, fail to hear what local communities have to say, and are failing to recognise the collective power of individuals to shape decisions about their communities.

Why extending the Pupil Premium to HE is one good step in the right direction.

I recently came across a short excerpt of Tim Farron’s article on extending the Pupil Premium to HE students.

The Pupil a Premium, a Liberal Democrat flagship policy, currently gives schools new, additional money to provide additional support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (pupils receiving Free School Meals).

In England the Pupil Premium in 2013/14 is worth £953 per eligible child in primary schools and £900 per eligible child in secondary schools. In 2014/15 the value of the Pupil Premium will increase to £1,300 per pupil for primary school children and £935 per pupil for secondary school children.

In Wales in 2013/14 the Pupil Premium, or Pupil Deprivation Grant, will give pupils in receipt of FSM an additional £918, an increase from £450. (All in opposition in Cardiff Bay, by the way!).

Research shows that one of the key measures that can be taken to address poor attainment and the fact that pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales, is addressing inequalities in education.

I’ll come back to addressing inequality as a means to improving the standard of living in another blog soon!

Finance is only one part of addressing those inequalities through providing additional support for pupils through smaller classes, additional support, additional time or new resources.

However, it is just one step. We have to go further. We have to do more than tweak the edges of the current settlement.

The same exists in HE however in terms of access in addition to attainment. The cost of education, day to day living, resources, travel is perhaps more of a barrier to accessing HE than fees, an argument that many have pursued since 2010 when the coalition government raised fees from £3,564 to £9,000 per year.

Extending additional financial support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be a welcome step in addressing barriers to accessing HE and widening access to HE. However the cost of living is an issue for the majority of students. 2/3 of students surveyed in Bangor (around 2000 students) told us that their student loan didn’t cover or barely covered the cost of their accommodation alone. That’s without food, travel, clothes, resources and general day to day living.

Listening to students, day to day living costs are more of a concern than tuition fees.

More needs to be done to address the underfunding of students, which impacts on access, retention, and success in education, and that’s without considering the impact of financial pressure on students’ health and mental health, which many institutions are becoming less equipped to deal with following funding changes in 2012.

But whilst this article and the majority of people talk HE we miss out on talking FE.

The financial pressures that FE students are just as great if not greater in some cases. FE students have far less financial support, are far more diverse in some cases than FE students, and FE institutions are facing more and more difficult situations.

Some local authorities are cutting travel arrangements for FE colleges, which will impact on students even further, adding more to the already high costs of studying.

In Wales we passed a policy with a new vision for FE in Wales, from structuring to the delivery and flexibility of education for institutions and learners. As a party we have long called for parity between HE, FE, and apprenticeships and other forms of education, and rightfully so. But we need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, and we need a wholesale review of student funding, access, widening participation, retention, and FE in it’s entirety.

The Pupil Premium is something to be proud of, breaking down the links between someone’s background and attainment, however we have to do more, we have to go further, and we have to persuade the wider public of education as a public good and a right.

Arfon Lib Dem call for more support for local businesses through Bangor Pride project.

10x7cm300dpi_000Arfon Liberal Democrats were pleased to hear that in a report which scrutinised the Bangor Pride project, the project was praised for its successes.

The project which was set up by Gwynedd and Bangor Councils, the Police, Keep Wales Tidy, and the Environment Agency with the aim of improving the city for residents and visitors alike, received praise for its work in addressing environmental issues and in sharing best practice across the country.

Promoting civic pride amongst those living, studying or working in Bangor was described as “very commendable and challenging.”

However Arfon Liberal Democrats are calling for Bangor Pride to do more for local businesses in the area.

Cllr Rhys Taylor said, “It’s great to see that the Bangor Pride project is meeting its goals of creating a sense of civic pride and addressing environmental problems, but more needs to be done. Times are tough for businesses across Wales and the UK, and Gwynedd Council’s Business Rates have come under fire in recent months. The Bangor Pride project now needs to do more to give the local economy and our local businesses a boost, to ensure that Bangor is able to compete with shopping destinations across the region, attract new business developments, and draw people into the area to live, work, and study.”

The scrutiny report said that “there was no clear evidence of activity by the Business Group except for the successful scheme to celebrate the visit of the Olympic Torch during May 2012.”

Education should be exciting

What education means to young people is a difficult grey area, which many attempt to claim ownership. This debate has formed the rhetoric around the meaning and purpose of education, a view that has become commonplace within our education system across the UK.

Some will describe education as a transformative and liberating experience, allowing young people to make their own life choices; follow a route that may not have been available to their parents.

Others see education as a means to an end, an assembly line culminating in an end salary pension and taxable income.

These perceptions should be rejected as concepts that stand independently of one another. Young people should not accept these concepts as the main and only purpose of education. Education should be liberating, education should be transformative, and education includes an end salary pension, and taxable income.

However, something that many people seem to forget in the employment-tinted view of education is that education should ultimately be exciting.

Young people still see education in itself as an exciting experience. Beyond assessment and examination, education is an exciting opportunity to learn and to share. It’s an experience that allows young people to share and to be inspired, but too many young people increasingly see, and are increasingly told, that education is simply a means to an end.

This is a perception held by many young people, which follows as the result of years of placing education within the sphere of employment and employability, requiring young people and children to make educational choices based on a long-term view of make or break in employment markets.

Higher education, before employability dominated education, was intended to be exciting, an opportunity to develop knowledge, to engage in debate and research – both liberating and transformative. However higher education for many young people is now seen as simply a route to employment, an opportunity to climb the employment ladder.

The £9k generation are increasingly told that in order for their higher education experience to be meaningful, they must pursue core subjects such as science and mathematics. No longer are languages, history, politics, and social sciences seen as worth the ‘financial investment’. No longer are traditional subjects perceived as worth studying because they will not secure you employment in a fragile and increasingly competitive graduate employment market.

Education has become engulfed and obsessed with assessment, evaluation, grading, and as a route to employment; a disincentive for many young people to engage and be excited by their educational experience.

It almost alienates those who are interested and excited by education, and it separates education as a means of personal development.

For me, and for many other young people, education was a means to employment, but it was a means to employment in an exciting field of research and policy development. It was exciting to be taught by academics that are established researchers in areas of study. Education was an exciting opportunity to be inspired and expand my knowledge of social policy and devolution politics – assessment was often an interesting and thought provoking experience.

However this isn’t a common case for many young people in the UK. It could be argued that beyond the age of 14, education can be one of two things for young people, an opportunity to learn, or an opportunity to tick the employability checklist.

Again, both should be rejected as stand alone concepts.

Education is liberating as it allows young people to envisage an exciting future of employment, transforming future prospects beyond that of their local area or their parents. However we should not allow education to be simply a means to employment. Education must be exciting, it must be engaging, and should be about developing skills that are suitable for further education and employment.

The meaning of education for individuals is impossible to generalise, particularly when discussing further and higher education; everyone has their own motives. We need to ensure is that future generations are excited by their learning experience, and ensure that those who are immersed in their educational experience are able to do more than be assessed and tick-boxed to ‘employable’ status. Young people recognise the importance of being employable and the natural progression from education to employment, however we cannot allow young people to perceive education as such a black and white landscape.

Education is so much more than employment, and we must encourage future generations to realise all the exciting possibilities that education offers us.

Education in Wales needs more than ‘structural change’

A  reorganisation of school services in Wales is “unlikely” before the end of the Assembly term, according to Education Minister Huw Lewis, with regional consortia currently recommended as the best way forward.

Education in Wales however needs more than structural change to address the fact that a Labour-led Welsh Government since 1999 has failed young people in Wales as school standards have fallen year on year.

In an assessment of Welsh schools by the OECD Wales came 36th for science, 41st for reading and 43rd for maths in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study.

The results were a serious, yet not unexpected blow for the Welsh Government, with another target set by the Welsh Government that is unlikely to be met. Teenagers were revealed to have scored lower in reading, maths and science than their contemporaries in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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So whilst the structure or organisation of education in Wales is highly important, structure is unlikely to boost Pisa scores, teacher morale, or the attainment gap between Wales and the rest of the UK.

The Welsh Labour Government cannot expect a structural reorganisation to act as a magic silver bullet to solve all our problems. As with the school banding system, one solution was expected to improve standards in schools across Wales, yet year on year a fixed number of schools will appear in each band, a crude and simplistic means to improving standards across Welsh schools, a process that has so far failed to do so.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have echoed Estyn’s calls for a system that track’s an individual pupil’s progress, a far more effective way to raise standards, which would also identify children who were not achieving their potential. Schools would therefore be monitored on the basis of their individual targets, rather than government-set targets, which create a far-removed system from local education.

Whilst the Hill Review discusses improving classroom teaching and learning, improving school leadership, the Welsh Government seems hung on regional consortia and the organisation of services.

Education Minister Huw Lewis said,

“We’ve made a clear commitment to drive up standards and performance across the board in Wales.

“Local authorities have a crucial part to play in this, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned about their commitment to consortia working. We’ve given them plenty of time to get their act together but today I am taking action to put in place a national model of regional working. I am minded to support this via a transfer out of the 2014-15 RSG settlement and we are pursuing this through the usual consultative process.

“By doing this we can ensure the consortia operating in Wales will have access to the funding they need to deliver our ambitious school improvement agenda.”

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Whilst regional consortia will provide schools with the funding required and supportive regional collaboration, more must be done to look at individual student attainment, and equipping pupils with the skills that they need to get on in life.

Even Plaid Cymru are hooked on the idea of accountability and organisation of services,

“This is cherry-picking from the recommendations that the Minister’s friends in Welsh Local Government can live with and a complete volte face on the previous Minister’s attitude.

“The delivery of education services in Wales will continue to be a mess, unless other issues around governance, accountability, data sharing, targets, structures and appointments are sorted out first.”

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Welsh Liberal Democrats are championing the debate on supporting pupils, rather than government or organisations, to achieve their best. Through the Pupil Premium, or Pupil Deprivation Grant, we are beginning to break the link between attainment and poverty, and calling for a review of the school banding system to establish a system which supports individual pupils’ progress and individual schools in meeting their own targets, a progressive and far more supportive system to not only boost standards in Wales but to give children the best possible start in life to achieve their best.

Use it, or lose it.

Welsh Education Minister Huw Lewis has issued a strong reminder to Local Authorities that the pupil deprivation grant, a major education grant, must be used for its intended purposes.

Since 2011, the Welsh Labour Government has required support from opposition parties to ensure the passing of the Budget in the Assembly. Two years ago Welsh Liberal Democrats agreed to support a budget that met Welsh Liberal Democrat aims, being giving our children the best start in life, and beginning to break the link between attainment and poverty.

Our flagship policy as already introduced in England, the Pupil Premium (or Pupil Deprivation Grant) would give schools a sum of £450 for each pupil on free school meals.

Opposition parties, including the Welsh Liberal Democrats, again refused to back the Labour Government’s budget without further investment into key priorities. As a result of the 2013 budget negotiations, the grant will rise to £918 per pupil on free schools meals.

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Concerns have been expressed that the money may be seen by some schools and indeed by some education authorities, as an additional fund to be used to meet local priorities. Education Minister Huw Lewis has recently asserted that the PDG (Pupil Deprivation Grant) must be used for its core purposes, to support pupils and to tackle the link between poor attainment and poverty.

Cllr Rhys Taylor said,

“The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been consistent in calling for more support for Wales’ poorest children, including tacking the link between attainment and poverty.

We can be in no doubt that this extra money for schools would not exist if it were not for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Our recent schools survey showed how students from poorer backgrounds are benefiting from this important Welsh Liberal Democrat policy.

Alan Milburn, a former Labour UK cabinet minister, recently published a report showing that pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales. That is wholly unacceptable and  the Welsh Liberal Democrats are ensuring that poorer students in Wales are now getting the extra support that they need.

Arfon Liberal Democrats are urging Gwynedd LEA to ensure that Pupil Deprivation Grant funding is used for its intended purpose. ”

 

Gwynedd received £904,050 of the £32.4m grant in 2013-14 (2009 Free School Meals Pupils), and is estimated to receive £1,947,996 of the £71.8m available in 2014/15. Some example funding outcomes of the PDG;

Ysgol Glancegin received £27,900 in 2013-14 and will receive £57,834 in 2014/15.

Ysgol Cae Top received £10,350 in 2013-14 and will receive £22,032 in 2014/15.

Ysgol Gynradd Hirael received £16,650 in 2013-14 and will receive £33,996 in 2014/15.

Ysgol Gynradd Llanllechid received £12,600 in 2013-14 and will receive 24 £22,032 in 2014/15.