“WHAT the Welsh Government needs to do,” said Simon Thomas, “is stop complaining about what those nasty Conservatives are doing and start setting out proposals of its own on Welsh education.”
The Plaid Education spokesperson and candidate for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire was very clear on that point when he spoke with The Herald.
“Labour always seems to want to set up a Labour/Conservative fight. I would prefer to concentrate on formulating a Welsh policy, saying this is what we want to do; then, if the UK Treasury doesn’t play fair, we can point out what opportunities have been lost because of it. By just complaining, the current Welsh Government is simply not offering an alternative, positive vision.”
And being positive was very important to Simon Thomas.
“We have just launched our policy from Cradle to Career. That sets out a plan from 3-16 and in the post-16 framework gives a clearer balance between tuition fee policy and apprenticeships.”
Of that policy, Leanne Wood, Plaid’s leader has said: “We are investing in the very early years but also making sure people have a range of choices when they get to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen so that the academic route is not the only option but that there are serious vocational options as well.”
That point is clearly close to Simon Thomas’s own heart: “Last month we announced our plans to create 50,000 additional apprenticeships in Wales. Those would be new apprenticeships. Today, Labour has announced 100,000 apprenticeships in total. There are already 44,000 Welsh apprenticeships, so the level of apprenticeships being offered is in the same direction as our policy. We have made a commitment to show what we would do with the UK Government’s Apprenticeship Levy.
“It was a budget deal we made with Labour which stopped the fall in the numbers of Welsh apprenticeships. So I am, and Plaid is, committed to providing more apprenticeships and – importantly – more higher apprenticeships at Level 4 and beyond. By investing in higher skills there is a huge potential for Wales.”
And as for the narrower party point, Simon Thomas did not mince his words: “A clearer framework is vital. There are a lot of missing pieces in Labour’s plans and they have made no announcement on tuition fees at all.”
He continued: “The Welsh Government has kicked the question of tuition fees into the long grass. That is dishonest. After the election there will be a new Education Minister, Huw Lewis is retiring, and it will be up to them to make a decision the Welsh Government knows has to be made on tuition fees for higher education.”
The Welsh Government commissioned a report into higher education funding in Wales and we asked Simon Thomas about what it reported: “The report (by Professor Sir Ian Diamond) could not be clearer. All of those bodies which responded to it agreed that the current tuition fee policy is completely unsustainable.
“The evidence is overwhelming and unanswerable, but the Welsh Government has decided to wait until October and then probably feign surprise when it is told things have to change. As I say, the Welsh Government’s position on tuition fees is dishonest.
“It was Labour that introduced tuition fees. I fought it every step of the way in Parliament to stop it applying to Wales.
But what of Plaid’s policy?
“We’ve kept some flexibility in our plans, because we don’t know what will be the recommendation about the maintenance element of student support. But we have made it clear that continuing to send £100m of the Welsh block grant to English universities is a non-starter. You could argue that it would be tolerable in times of plenty, but these are times of austerity.
“We need to remember that of the tuition fee loan, the student sees not one penny. The students are funding the universities who are charging the maximum possible. 45% of students do not even reach the level of income where they need to repay the loans made to them.”
We asked where that left Plaid’s policy on tuition fee abatement, the ‘Learning Bonds’ it announced recently: “For a Welsh student studying in England, if they return to Wales within five years of graduation we will offset their tuition fee loan repayments for each full year. We want everyone to be able to study any subject and in any university they want to. But the current tuition fee policy means we give more money to universities outside of Wales than we do inside of Wales. This is unsustainable and Plaid Cymru believes that this is wrong. Our plans will enable students from Wales to study anywhere they want, and will ensure that the Welsh economy can benefit from the talent of Welsh students.
“Under Plaid Cymru’s plans, students from Wales who study a three-year degree will have £18,000 of their loans written off.”
Simon continued: “Our plan acknowledges wages in Wales are generally lower; it means that if you are, for example in London in a wellpaid job, a positive incentive exists for you to take your skills back to Wales.”
He smiled: “Significantly, I think, there’s been no attack on our policy from Labour: I think they are probably looking at something similar.”
Regarding postgraduate funding, Simon Thomas returned to his core grievance about the existing Welsh Government’s approach: “This is an example of where Labour is simply complaining instead of putting forward a positive alternative itself. The Welsh Government should be saying this is what we are going to do and challenging Osborne to allow Welsh students access to the loans system English students will have.
“It’s the usual thing: the Treasury has not considered the Welsh aspect: it is not devolution-aware when it comes to this sort of policy. But the lack of challenge from the Welsh Government, the lack of an alternative policy: that is letting Wales down.”
He continued: “We want to see similar scheme as in England, where from September people studying for postgraduate degrees will have access to loan funding for their studies. What this means is that English students will have tuition fee support for studying in Wales, whereas Welsh students are not eligible for any support to study anywhere.
“Our tuition fee policy will release money back to Hefcw to support part time study, Coleg Cymraeg and postgraduate study for Welsh students. The problem now is that, if we are in government after May it will already be too late to do something this year. There’s simply no headroom in the budget.”
On the deep cuts to the further education sector, Simon Thomas was cautious: “I don’t want to make a firm commitment before seeing the books, I have talked already about £100m being released back through changing the tuition fee policy. £70m of that was taken from HEFCW’s budget, the rest was robbed out of the Further Education budget. So, our higher education policy will release significant money back to FE and enable us to strike a fairer balance.
“A University education is not the be all and end all of education. We have to realise that. Young people need to have more and better choices: at the moment they are all being pointed in one direction – towards Higher Education. We are committed to looking from starting from the position that there is more than one option and that it is possible for young people to develop graduate level skills through further education and higher skills apprenticeships. The benefit for those young people is that they will not have student debt and will have the sort of higher skills that will be an advantage to them and an advantage for Wales.”
Simon reflected: “The problem is around tuition fees. If you want to pack the maximum number of people in for 9K a year, then the cheapest way is humanities but not at a high level. Not with the rigour associated with it. We’re in danger, and unis have said this, of a race to the bottom to feed the machine because everyone comes with 9K a year on their head.
“We have to change that. We have to provide a better infrastructure for young people, not simply churn them through a factory to produce graduates without the skills the economy needs.”
On Welsh Medium Education, Simon Thomas acknowledged: “There is a weakness in College education in Welsh. In sixth forms, there is some provision but that is centred about academic subjects, not things like Gofal Plant and other vocational skills.”
What about locally: “What Pembrokeshire County Council is clearly seeking to do is to scrap sixth forms through a partnership with Pembrokeshire College and then place the onus for post-16 Welsh Medium Education on Ysgol Preseli. I do not see how that can deliver vocational post-16 training in Welsh. There is an extent to which I share the view of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, that post-16 there is an issue about continuing Welsh Medium education post-16.”
He continued: “The important thing about the legislation about reorganisation is that decisions are made locally and not nationally. Local decision-making must come first. I can see people fighting for their schools’ sixth forms, but education has changed enormously. In rural areas, it is sometimes not going to be possible to retain sixth forms that can provide the range of courses needed.”
A wintry smile: “That said, when we’re out and about knocking on doors, Pembrokeshire County Council comes up and has a poor reputation on the doorstep.”
We concluded by asking Simon Thomas about a recent remark made by Carmarthenshire Councillor Meryl Gravell. Ms Gravell opined at a recent Executive Board meeting that the standard of teachers coming out of Wales’s training centres was substandard.
“Let’s put it this way, I don’t think she worded it correctly, or described the problem correctly. The issue is one of the training we give our teachers. It’s not the quality of the individuals, we are not delivering them with the skills they need. There has been a number of failed reorganisations. The problem has been that changes have aimed to provide a little bit for everyone.”
Simon Thomas was generous to Huw Lewis, the outgoing Education Minister: “I believe he is sincere in wanting to put things right with the way teacher training is delivered. We have to focus on preparing teachers for their careers and retaining them. Huw Lewis seems genuinely committed to raising the bar on teacher training.”
And Plaid’s policy: “As part of our Cradle to Career policy, we want teachers in Wales to get to the level of Masters in Education; providing CPD for two years and then a premium for teachers to reach higher standard.
“Teaching is the most important factor in raising schools standards and raising pupils’ attainment. That’s why Plaid Cymru wants to invest in our teachers, helping them remain on the cutting edge of best practice in order to drive up standards and raise attainment levels.
“We will offer teachers and teaching assistants a premium of up to 10% on their pay in return for developing additional skills. Plaid Cymru will reward upskilling and best practice, and will work with the sector to develop a system of accreditation, aiming for 25% of teachers to gain this premium.”
Simon Thomas concluded: “Education is the bedrock of a strong economy, and our plans are aimed at raising children’s attainment and delivering tangible economic benefits.”
Major prize for UWTSD lecturer
A UWTSD academic has been awarded the prestigious Henry Stopes Memorial Medal.
Based at the University’s Lampeter campus, Dr Martin Bates accepted the outstanding contribution award from the Geologists’ Association during an online ceremony on Friday 7 May. This prize is awarded just once every three years for exceptional work in the archaeological field and specifically ‘on the Prehistory of Man and his geological environment.’
During his career, Dr. Bates has been involved in several major discoveries within the UK archaeological field including the Dover Bronze Age Boat, the Clactonian Elephant butchery site in Ebbsfleet, the Harnham terminal Lower Palaeolithic site near Salisbury.
He discovered the Happisburgh human footprints in Norfolk (the oldest presently know in the world outside Africa).
It was noted during the presentation that the Henry Stopes Medal had been awarded to Dr Bates for his “significant contributions to understanding the geological environment of prehistoric human occupation of Britain and elsewhere over the last 40 years.”
It was also noted that in the spirit of the Geologists’ Association he was “generous with his time and expertise to colleagues, students and members of the public alike.”
Following the awards ceremony, Dr Martin Bates commented: “It is incredible to be recognised in this way and I’d like to thank the Geologists’ Association for this honour.
“However, this award really reflects the support I have received through my career from a whole range of specialists who have provided me with the data I have used in my research. Without them I would not have been able to do what I have done”
“I think this all goes back to my very early days spent on the beaches of West Wales being dragged along on Saturday fieldtrips led by my father for students studying geology at Aberystwyth. He has a lot to answer for!”
Students relying on free school meals fell further behind
THE ATTAINMENT gap between disadvantaged primary school pupils and their classmates has grown in mathematics by one month since the onset of the pandemic, according to interim findings published this week by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
The findings are drawn from an ongoing EEF-funded study that aims to understand changes to the gap which might have occurred due to the periods of partial school closure resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
While disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes in mathematics seem to have been hit hardest by the first national lockdown, the attainment gap did not widen (or shrink) during the Autumn 2020 term.
Thar suggests that gaps caused by Covid are unlikely to close without intervention.
The research is based on assessment data collected by FFT Education from 132 primary schools prior to and after the first national lockdown.
The report did not measure the impact of school closures on overall learning progress (sometimes referred to as learning loss) but, instead, looked at the differences in progress between pupils eligible for free school meals and those that are not.
Data from reading and maths assessments (PIRA and PUMA tests) taken in Autumn 2019 was used as a baseline to track the trajectory of the attainment gap.
Pupils whose data was included in the sample were all in Years 1 to 5 (5-to-10-year-olds) during the academic year 2019-2020.
Reading and maths tests were administered to these same pupils on their return to the classroom in September 2020, and then again towards the end of the Autumn term 2020.
Disadvantaged pupils’ performance in the tests was compared to that of their classmates to examine changes to the attainment gap which might have resulted from the first period of partial school closures.
The analysis of these results indicates that pupils from socio-economically deprived backgrounds have fallen further behind in maths since the onset of the pandemic.
Contrary to previous estimates, this study found no discernible change to the disadvantage gap in reading.
The findings also highlight the difficulty of combatting educational inequality in classrooms.
Data collected from PIRA and PUMA assessments taken at the end of the Autumn term 2020 indicate the return of all pupils to school in September has not been sufficient in narrowing the gap.
Further analysis is currently underway.
A final data set will be collected in June 2021 to examine whether the disadvantage gap narrows, widens, or remains stable.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Today’s research gives us more evidence of the enormous impact school closures have had on young people, especially those from low-income homes.
“The research indicates the need for long-term, sustained support for schools as they work to accelerate the progress of their disadvantaged pupils.
“To mitigate against the long-term impact of lost learning, large government funding is required. The cost of failing to act now will be a catastrophe for young people from low-income homes.”
Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The pandemic has brought the significance of social and educational inequality into sharp focus.
“Research studies like this one are providing clear evidence that substantial existing gaps have grown further due to the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic.
“In strategizing an approach to recovery, we are presented with the opportunity to go beyond restoring the learning lost during partial school closures, and work towards rebalancing the scales for disadvantaged pupils.”
Researchers from FFT Education said: “Our study makes a fresh contribution to the research on the effects of COVID.
“We find that attainment gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers have widened slightly in maths, but not reading.
“We also find that there were surprisingly weak associations between school responses to COVID – for example, phoning students during the lockdown – and attainment.”
Skills competition beats Covid restrictions
THE ADVANCED Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) recently hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales.
Entrants visited the Academy on April 21 and 22 to complete challenges as part of the CNC section of the competition, which focuses on cutting metal using a computer-controlled machine.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the entrants completed their challenges two at a time in a controlled environment using machines that are well spaced apart.
Some of the entrants are apprentices at the Academy, which opened its doors last year with the aim of building the skills needed to deliver technologies that keep Wales’ manufacturing industry globally competitive.
It provides students with technical training to degree level, all within one facility in the IQ building in SA1, Swansea.
Working in partnership with three leading manufacturers – Mazak (machine tool supplier) Renishaw (measuring/inspection equipment) and Sandvik Coromant (material cutting tools supplier) the Academy is fully equipped to cater for the needs of a multitude of industry sectors.
The apprentices at the Academy are all currently employed trainee mechanical engineers who have been given the opportunity to study at the Academy as part of their apprenticeship programme to further enhance their technical skills using modern, high-end industry-standard equipment.
“We are able to provide them with full exposure to the technology and allow them to have valuable machine time without the added pressure often found within a manufacturing environment,” says Lee Pratt, manager of the Academy at UWTSD.
“To say I’m proud of these young engineers is an understatement!
“Given the limited amount of time to prepare for the skills competition due to COVID restrictions, they have gone above and beyond and are a credit to their employers.
“A big thanks to Adam Youens and the team for organising such a great competition, Mark Aspinall from competition sponsors Quickgrind and our 3 judges Steve Franklin, Steve Cope and Andrew John. I’m sure next year will be even bigger and better. On to the next competition now!”
Lee said hosting Skills Competition Wales was an important step in highlighting the work of the Academy as well as creating opportunities for its apprentices.
“This competition was an exciting opportunity to raise the profile of the Academy within the industry sector and hopefully attract further business,” said Lee. “We entered the apprentices into the competition to not only give them a platform to display their talents nationwide but also enhance their training with us.
“We believe that by taking them out of their comfort zone and placing them in a competition environment will expose them to some of the demands and pressures found daily in a modern manufacturing environment.”
The competition was held over a two-day period, during which competitors had seven hours to produce a component from a 2D drawing and 3D CAD (computer-aided design) model with the use of CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software and a CNC (computer numerical control) machining centre.
If the Academy’s apprentices are successful in the competition, they will be invited to attend the awards ceremony, which is usually held in Cardiff but is likely to be online this year due to Covid-19.
“We will then be putting them forward to compete in the World Skills Competition and hopefully gain squad selection,” said Lee. “They will then undertake a two-year training programme building up to the global competition due to take place in France 2023.”
The Advanced Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales
The competition comes at the end of a very positive first year for the Academy. It has run a highly successful pilot course with its first cohort of apprentices and has received some excellent feedback from industry, with employers reporting a significant rise in both ability and confidence amongst their apprentices.
“We are looking to further expand this training to upskill the existing workforce through a suite of bite size training modules in various disciplines,” said Lee.
This comes at a time when the impact of Covid-19 has heightened the need for these skills within the various industries served by the Academy.
Graduates equipped with high-level skills have a vital role to play in helping to stimulate economic growth during these uncertain times and beyond, and UWTSD has been working closely with Welsh Government, local authorities, and industry partners to deliver the skills and opportunities that will help rebuild the fabric of communities in Wales.
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