Burns: Minister’s 902 wasted days

Speaking in a Welsh Conservative debate on Labour’s failings in education policy, Angela Burns AM, Shadow Minister for Education, said:

I wish to propose to the National Assembly the motion before us today tabled in the name of William Graham.

And it is I admit a lengthy motion however the problems that beset education in Wales are also lengthy and have been apparent for a lengthy time. For the past 15 years in fact ever since a succession of Labour ministers took the helm and laid waste to education.

There has been a tremendous waste of leadership effort, of process, of thought.
A waste of monies whether revenue or capital, there’s been a wasteful misspent grants culture.

A waste of time by poor management, lack of monitoring and a suffocation of red tape, ideology and diktat.

Above all there has been a waste of opportunity for teachers, for students, for the country.  We have a decade of wasted souls, of children who have not fulfilled their potential, of teachers who are disenchanted & demoralised, of Local Education Authorities always seeming to fail, always being castigated.

And before the apologists here start to leap up and say but we are stopping this waste, things are changing, we are trying, look at the new programmes, and this Minister is different…

Perhaps, maybe, I don’t deny there is an intellectual effort going into reviewing the situation that has been missing in education for years.

However it’s been 2½ years of this Minister and 15 years of Labour with a bit of tinkering around the edges from the Liberal Democrats and more recently Plaid Cymru and we must remind ourselves that not only has not a lot changed but this Government has effectively washed its hands of the current cohort of teenagers whilst they work out how to get into the top 20 PISA results by 2015.

It’s a terrible time to be a teenager.

Now that really is a waste, and a shame and a national disgrace. So our motion today very carefully challenges the Assembly to accept the hard cold facts. That 40% of pupils cannot read as well as they should by the time they enter secondary school.

That the 2009 PISA results were worse than our 2006 results and very poor compared to other similar countries.

That the number of A ‘Level students getting top grades is worsening
That we are worse than England, the country that we seem to hate being compared with, in terms of GCSE & A level exam performances and there are No, none, zip, zero welsh universities in the World Top 200 Times Higher Education Rankings. And that matters. Scotland is just over twice our size. We have zero. They have five.

Llwydd, we do ask the Assembly to regret the Welsh Government has not effectively utilised the education budgets to drive up standards.

We are all aware of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the costs of administering education in Wales published in May 2010. This report highlighted how “significant potential exists to release support costs.”

A delivery plan was developed to push resources to the front line. PwC found that a “cost shift in the range of £104 – £192 million from support services to front line delivery might be achievable.”

Given the economic climate and changing world, PwC found that “that it is not possible to continue on the current basis and secure front line education” They were of the opinion that the “pain of inaction is real and worse than the pain of action.”
That comment would chime with any half decent business manager, if you are in the fire, it might hurt to move but you sure as hell need to get out. The PwC view surely demonstrates the importance of the Welsh Government utilising education spending far more effectively to ensure that resources, where possible, are delivering services to learners directly.

And yet delivery is painfully slow. For example, The Minister is seeking to rationalise education grants and does have a grants management project and yet officials are still working to streamline & standardise grant processes. The 2009 Finance Committee report into the Grants process in education was crystal clear as to what should be done and put forward a concise set of recommendations. I will never forget the testimony from the Principal of an FE College who said he was given millions to run the organisation yet had to jump through hoops and fill forms in triplicate for an extra £3,000 for a one off project.

What a waste of his time and what a waste of money having all these civil servants administering a complex web of grants that should be swept away. How can this be so difficult to do and why does it take over 3 years. Or is the reality that it’s more tinkering around the edges. The bold move, the original thought is a leap too far?

Ineffective spending to the frontline must also be stamped out. There’s an old saying, look after the pennies…. well it applies to the thousands and the hundred thousand. Assembly Members the Welsh Government spent £40,000 producing the Skills Framework, and significant resources seeking to implement the document but in February last year the Minister said that implementing this document on a non-statutory basis was a “weakness” in his department – and large parts of it are to be replaced.

£662,364 on free laptops scheme for schools, with 943 laptops purchased. The scheme was scrapped, I thought it was a daft scheme anyway but what really gets me is that each laptop cost over £700. Has no-one been to PC World recently?

The real kicker in the PwC report is that 32% of the £4.162billion of expenditure analysed by PwC is spent on support costs representing the ‘back office’ and other administrative functions  The report broadly defined administration costs as a “set of support activities that do not deliver services to learners directly.”

Recommendations were made to the Welsh Government that suggested shifting the balance of cost around the two themes of simplifying governance and standardising and sharing provision.

Again I know the Minister is signed up to this Governments collaboration agenda but let’s be clear. A world renowned external organisation has said that ONE THIRD of the entire education budget is spent on admin & back office functions. One third! That’s tough on the schools who would love that extra teacher, or the trip to the museum, or who have to sacrifice just so they can pay the exorbitant costs of re-sits.

That’s tough on the Heads who are deeply unhappy about the banding system, who feel, as the NASUWT do, that the plans for school improvement were “in crisis.”

I welcome some of the work done by the Minister in the Front Line Resources Review. I do welcome the Government’s estimates that by 2013/14 some £120 to £198 million of net expenditure will have been shifted to front line services – but that’s years on from the report and more could still be done. I also wonder how much has been factored in as to the costs of the new regional consortia.

And talking of the regional consortia, I know the Minister is keen on governance as am I. However functions of system governance have been pushing up costs in education. The PwC report found a “strong perception that the functions of system governance are unnecessarily driving cost.

It found £117million was spent on strategic support and at least 60 institutions outside of schools in Wales are involved with the delivery of education in Wales. PwC found that each of these institutions delivers “its own strategic and support services and has distinct arrangements for managing access and education support services.

£117 million and 60 non schools? Minister can you assure us that this is NOT a waste? I don’t think PwC were convinced and I most certainly am not. And can you assure us that the regional consortia will not add to this waste and be yet another level of red tape between Schools and the funding?

And this is even more important in the context of the Welsh Government’s Managing with Less programme. For those who are not clear on this let me recap for you. The Welsh Government says they are facing HUGE financial challenges. No doubt some labour backbencher at some point in this debate will leap to their feet and bemoan the “cuts from England” The Welsh Government says that they need to deliver a reduction of £42 million over 3 years and yet with a THIRD of the education budget poorly targeted, with a funding gap that keeps growing, with school buildings leaking, paint peeling and children thinking demountables are the norm I say to the Government.

What on earth have you been spending all the money of the past 15 years on? All we see is waste and there is simply no point in trying to blame the failings of the past 15 years on the reduction in the Welsh block grant given the inheritance left to the Coalition Government. A decade of poor financial management by the UK Labour administration and a spine chilling world meltdown.

Llwydd, we would like the Welsh Government to outline exactly how they intend to monitor outcomes against the resources deployed, we do urge them to ensure that resources are delivered directly to learners which is why we cannot support the amendments by the Liberal Democrats. Partly, as a principle. The Pupil Deprivation Grant is a cheap price for propping up a lacklustre budget but mostly because there is no sustainability built into the grant and no real definition of what the outcomes should be for that particular pupil. Not his or her school but for that individual.

And I think the PwC report clearly makes the case for less grants, more frontline, more outcome monitoring.

Finally Llwydd we call upon the Government to re-prioritise education spending effectively in order to deliver improvements in educational attainment in Wales. This is why I am surprised and disappointed by the amendment proposed by Plaid Cymru.
Do you really think Labour is spending the money the best way possible?

You may not like our ideas but at least we have them and we are more than happy to debate them whereas the Government are mired in waste and exhausted with trying to find a way out that makes sure everyone, especially teachers, are blamed bar themselves.

Minister 15 years of Labour fiddling with welsh education. We still have slipping standards, disenfranchised stakeholders, and layers of bureaucracy. We have to brace ourselves for the majority of Estyn reports.

You called it a systemic failure I call it a waste. It’s poor management, a lack of inspirational leadership, a culture of blaming the profession, woefully slow implementation by civil servants, local education authorities that seem more & more pointless as central government & consortia swallow up their responsibilities and a lost generation of kids.

The Government’s in a quagmire over this, you have been in post 902 days and yet still feel that it would be unrealistic to set targets for this November.

Have your 902 days been a waste?