“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.”
Welsh charities shortlisted for educational awards
TWO Welsh charities are among those competing for prize funds of up to £5,000 as part of this year’s ScottishPower Foundation Awards, which celebrate benevolent work in local communities throughout the country.
Bangor University Reaching Wider North and Mid Wales Partnership has been shortlisted for its ‘Bright Sparks’ project which inspires school pupils across Wales to take an interest in STEM subjects and ultimately seek a career using the skills they pick up, as well as for its work to develop educational home-schooling packs enable young people to continue learning during lockdown.
Size of Wales, a climate change charity, has been shortlisted for its work to inspire the next generation to take more care of the planet and learn about the ways in which to tackle the climate emergency through its MockCOP programme.
In total, 14 charities from across the UK make up the shortlist of recipients of this year’s ScottishPower Foundation funding, which saw £1.2m awarded to 21 charities across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The annual awards, which are now in their seventh year, are an opportunity for projects to apply for additional funding with each category winner receiving £5,000 and the runners up awarded £2,500.
Due to social distancing restrictions, the winners will be announced on ScottishPower’s Twitter channel – @ScottishPower – over the course of Awards Day at the beginning of December.
Nominated projects are judged in four categories: the Innovation Award, the Education Award and the Community Engagement Award, as well as the Charity Champion Award, which gives special recognition to the outstanding contribution made by an exceptional employee or volunteer who exemplifies what their organisation stands for.
This year’s judging panel is made up of a host of experts from ScottishPower, the third sector, education and communications including Arthur McIvor, Senior Client Manager for Energy & Utility Skills; Juliet Simpson, Founder and CEO of Stripe Communications; Sheila Duncan, Human Resources Director for ScottishPower; and Melanie Hill, Executive Officer and Trustee of the ScottishPower Foundation.
Melanie said: “2020 has undoubtedly been an incredibly challenging period for many of the organisations that we work with. However – in the face of adversity – each and every charity on our awards shortlist has continued to support, educate and inspire those who rely on them, using the Foundation funding to make a real difference. We’re very proud to build on this and further recognise their achievements through the ScottishPower Foundation Awards.
“All our shortlisted finalists are fantastic examples of the amazing charitable work that goes on across the country every day, with people devoting themselves to others, pushing the boundaries for change and transforming lives in the process. I wish everyone on the shortlist the very best of luck for Awards Day and encourage everyone to follow our Twitter channel where we will be announcing the winners on 1st December.”
The ScottishPower Foundation was established in 2013 to make a significant and lasting contribution to society, enhancing the lives of people living in communities throughout the UK. It provides funding to help support the advancement of education, environmental protection, arts and culture and citizenship. It also supports charities who aim to provide relief from poverty, disability, or other disadvantages.
The charities across Wales shortlisted are:
Bangor University (Reaching Wider North and Mid Wales Partnership)
Bangor University (Reaching Wider North and Mid Wales Partnership) works alongside primary and secondary school pupils as well as adults with no formal qualifications to increase higher education participation among lower socio-economic groups.
Size of Wales
Size of Wales is a climate change charity with the aim of conserving an area of tropical rainforest twice the size of Wales. The organisation encourages the people of Wales to help tackle climate change by taking simple positive action, working with schools and businesses to raise funds for forests and raising awareness of the importance of forests in tackling climate change.
Tir Coed build outdoor classroom for Cross Hands Primary
The local charity Tir Coed teamed up with Cross Hands Primary School to design and install a locally grown woodland shelter to enable primary school pupils to benefit from outdoor lessons-even when
the rain pours!
Last year Cross Hands Primary School received funding from Carmarthenshire is Kind for their intergenerational project. The project brought the schoolchildren together with older people in the community. Through intergenerational activities, everyone involved increases social connectedness, reduces social isolation, learns from one another and has a great time!
Before the lockdown, Tir Coed was contracted to lead a group mainly made up of parents from the school on a shelter-building course. The attendees would gain knowledge and skills and the children and the older people would be able to use the shelter, a third generation now included in this
fantastic project. The plans, however, had to change due to restrictions and in an effort to have it ready for the children when they returned to school, three intrepid Activity Leaders braved the wet August weather to build the beautiful shelter .
Studies have shown that being in the outdoors significantly reduces the risk of spreading the Corona Virus. With this addition to their already impressive outdoor area, it is hoped that more learning can
take place outside the classroom. Deputy Head, Emma Walters said, “It looks amazing! I am very impressed with the shelter and I cannot thank Tir Coed enough for organising this. Additional covered space in the outdoors will mean that we can take more learning into our lovely nature
If you would like to find out more about the work of Tir Coed or have a project you would like our help with you can contact Nancy, the Carmarthenshire Coordinator: email@example.com
Vital support for job seekers and employers in West Wales
TO MATCH job seekers with employers and career agencies across West Wales, a virtual jobs fair is taking place on Wednesday 9 September.
The free online event will be hosted by Working Wales, which is delivered by Careers Wales, and is in partnership with Job Centre Plus teams across West Wales and the south west and mid Wales Regional Learning and Skills Partnership.
Now, more than ever, job seekers and employers are relying on online support to find jobs and fill vacancies.
The event will run through Working Wales’ Facebook channels and will be split into two regional events covering West Wales mid and south. 10am-11amis for job seekers and employers in Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Powys and Neath Port Talbot. 2pm-3pm will focus on Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Swansea.
Attendees for the free event will have access to a wide variety of job vacancies from many sectors across West Wales as well as expert careers advice to support with job applications.
Working Wales isfunded by the Welsh Government and the European Social Fund and was launched by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, Ken Skatesin May 2019.
Within the first year the service has directly assisted over 37,000 people across Wales. Careers Wales chief executive, Nikki Lawrence said “We are delighted to be working with our partners in the west to deliver a virtual jobs fair. Our careers advice and guidance is a vital part of supporting the economy during this pandemic, and these online events allow us to effectively and safely continue reaching and supporting our customers during these challenging times.”
To register your interest in these events, follow Working Wales on Facebook @WorkingWales. If you are an employer with vacancies to fill please also get in touch.
Available to anyone over the age of 16,Working Wales provides a one-to-one, tailored employability advice and guidance service, supporting people across Wales with job searching, CV writing, interview preparation, training and upskilling as well as with redundancy support.
For more information on Working Wales visit: www.workingwales.gov.wales or call 0800 028 4844
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