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Plaid Cymru aiming higher for education

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University: ‘Not the be all and end all’

University: ‘Not the be all and end all’

“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.”

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Education

Teacher’s gruelling challenge to help visually impaired child

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TEACHER Sion Jenkins is running 100 laps around a famous Pembrokeshire landmark to raise money to help a visually impaired child in his class.

He is aiming to raise £2,000 on crowd funder platform Go Fund Me by doing laps of Carew Castle and Mill in just 24 hours, about one hundred miles in total.

Sion said: “I decided that I wanted to raise money to help purchase a trike/adapted bike to help a visually impaired child in my class.

“Due to his sight, he isn’t able to ride a bike – and is desperate to gain some independence/confidence and ride a bike like every other child.

“On the back of a challenge set by school, to complete the ‘100 challenge’ as a tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore, I decided to tie the two together and have a go at completing this gruelling challenge.

“100 laps of Carew Castle and Mill will total just under 100 miles – in less than 24 hours.”

If you would like to contribute to this epic challenge this is the link:

https://uk.gofundme.com/f/carew-mill-100-laps-in-24-hours?

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Education

Schools partnership promotes the benefits of outdoor learning

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OUTDOOR learning across the county has received a welcome boost over the past 12 months as a result of additional funding secured by the Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools (PODS) project, which has covered the cost of a Co-ordinator working directly with schools.

Thanks to financial backing from the People’s Postcode Local Trust and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Trust, the PODS Co-ordinator has been able to help with the delivery of high quality, curriculum-linked learning experiences in school grounds and local outdoor spaces.

Part of the Co-ordinator’s role is also to bring together local and national organisations, including Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Discovery team, teachers and head teachers. Pooling their diverse knowledge and expertise, the partnership seeks to share good practice and promote the benefits of taking lessons outdoors.

Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Co-ordinator Bryony Rees said: “Last summer, the Welsh Government recognised the importance of outdoor learning in the post-lockdown return to school. We have been working hard to support this by giving children and teachers increased opportunities to take their learning outdoors.

“We have already engaged with a number of schools across Pembrokeshire and produced some live webinars. Supporting resources for these can be found on HWB. This has made it possible to reach out to even more schools with practical information, inspiration and advice on delivering outdoor learning programmes.

“Several schools have taken the opportunity to develop their school grounds to support outdoor learning and more recently, Neyland Community School has introduced outdoor lessons every Friday.”

During the most recent lockdown, work has continued online and the PODS website has been developed to provide teachers with some learning resources. Outdoor learning ideas and inspiration for teachers and parents are also shared on the PODS Facebook page (Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools) and on Twitter @PembsOutdoorSch.

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Education

Education announcement welcomed by Pembrokeshire County Council

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THE LOCAL AUTHORITY has said that it welcomes the Welsh Government’s announcement today (Friday, 29th January) that schools will be the first to reopen when Wales’ current lockdown restrictions are lifted.

First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced that the ‘alert level four’ restrictions will remain in Wales for three more weeks but following that period, there would be a ‘phased and flexible back-to-school approach if coronavirus cases continue to fall’.

He said primary school children would be the first to return, if the public health situation continues to improve, and that students studying vocational qualifications would also be among those prioritised for the phased return to colleges.

Mr Drakeford said: “We’ve seen a really welcome fall in cases of the virus all over Wales, but they are still too high and the NHS continues to be under intense pressure.

“We need to keep the lockdown restrictions in place for a little while longer to help us bring rates of the virus down further. If we can do this, we will create the headroom we need to get children back to school after half term – starting with the youngest at primary schools.

“We will work with teachers, colleges, local authorities to plan for the safe return of children to school over the next couple of weeks and keep parents updated.”

Pembrokeshire’s Director of Education, Steven Richards-Downes, will be meeting virtually with Welsh Government ministers today together with other Education Directors.

Mr Richards-Downes said: “We welcome the Welsh Government’s statement that schools will be the first to reopen, whenever that may be.

“We will continue to work directly with unions, headteachers, governing bodies and other Council services to ensure that schools are Covid-safe when they are re-opened.

“Distance learning will continue for now and parents should contact their schools directly if they have any queries regarding this.”

He added: “Any parent experiencing difficulties with digital exclusion should contact their school directly.

Free school meals payments will continue to be paid to families who have applied for them, as planned. The next payments will be made on Thursday, 4th February.

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