Paul Davies: Closing the education gap

Speech by Shadow Education Minister Paul Davies AM to the Welsh Conservative Party conference 2010.

“It’s a pleasure to be with you here this morning.

Can I first of all thank everyone who has taken part in this debate - their contributions have been excellent.

A friend of mine recently told me that this UK Labour government is very sneaky.

They raise tax on alcohol, and then make sure that the country is in such a mess that you drink more.

Well, it’s absolutely clear that this country is in a terrible mess and I believe that people are certainly looking to us for change and to rid Britain of Gordon Brown and his clapped out, discredited, tired, old Government.

After 11 years of a Labour or Labour led Assembly administrations if you live in Wales you are more likely to be unemployed than if you live in another part of the UK.

You are more likely to leave school with fewer qualifications.

You are more likely to wait longer on an NHS waiting list for treatment.

And you are more likely to wait longer for an affordable home.

That is the record of this Labour/Plaid Assembly Government – it is a disgrace.

Taking on the Education portfolio in the last 12 months and being responsible for the Welsh Language on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives has been a privilege.

As has continuing to work along side my colleague Stephen Crabb MP in Preseli Pembrokeshire – one of the hardest working MPs in Westminster – he deserves to be re-elected with a huge majority!

Ensuring that Wales has a first-class education system has always been a top priority of the Welsh Conservatives.

The new First Minister during the Labour leadership campaign promised to make education his number one priority.

He’s promised to increase spending on education here in Wales.

Well, we’ve heard this rhetoric before from previous Labour leaders.

We all remember “Education, education education.”

But the new First Minister has been a member of an Assembly Government which, from the outset, has underinvested in schools, colleges and universities across the country.

Devolution of most of education to Wales should have allowed us to develop innovative ways of delivering education to our citizens.

But under the Labour-Plaid coalition, our education system is going backwards and the sector is facing an uphill struggle.

Learning institutions across the board are under incredible pressure.

Pressure which will undoubtedly take its toll on the ability of our hardworking teaching professionals to improve attainment standards in Wales.

And let’s look at those standards.

Last year just 57% of students in Wales gained 5 or more A* to C grades at GCSE.

Compare that to 70% in England.

A 13% gap!!!!

And if that wasn’t bad enough – the gap has more than doubled in the last 2 years – a shameful reflection on Labour and Plaid!

Ladies and Gentlemen, it gets worse when you look at achievement within Wales.

If you live and study in Powys, for example, you are 65% likely to secure the 5 good grades you’ll need for a positive start to life.

But if you happen to be brought up in Blaenau Gwent, you’ll have just a 45% likelihood of gaining 5 or more good grades.

This gap in attainment mirrors the gap in investment.

On average, pupils in England had £527 more spent on them last year than here in Wales and the gap is widening.

This gap leaves children in Wales disadvantaged in what is fast becoming a global marketplace.

It’s no wonder that 1 in 8 of our 16 - 18 year olds in Wales are not in education, employment or training.

We now have a lost generation of wasted talent which has developed under Labour and Plaid Cymru.

It is clear - Labour and Plaid are letting down the young people of Wales!!!

When we rattle off facts like this, our opponents accuse us of talking down Wales.

We’re not – we are talking down the Labour-Plaid Government that’s running Wales for its failures.

That is something that I will never apologise for!!!

While billions of pounds may have been spent on education – a vast amount of this money has not actually been spent on educating our children.

Instead, this Labour-Plaid Assembly Government has frittered public money away on gimmicks and giveaways.

Money they should’ve spent on educating schoolchildren – on more teachers, books and repairing crumbling classrooms – has been spent on cornflakes and coco pops and subsidising pre-school care for the middle classes via the free school breakfast scheme.

Make no mistake about it – no matter how much they snap, crackle and pop about it……

Labour’s flagship free school breakfast policy, at a cost of £8.3 Million a year and rising, has been an unmitigated failure.

An independent review by Cardiff University – commissioned by the Assembly Government itself – concluded that there was no improvement in attention, concentration or behaviour amongst any of the children participating in the scheme.

A follow up report noted the scheme was not reaching “those children most in need.”

So, more than £8 million a year has been spent for no apparent benefit.

This sort of spending was frivolous in the good times. It is immoral in the bad.

As result of Gordon Brown’s mismanagement of the UK economy £416million is being chopped from the Assembly’s budget next year.

Gimmicks like free school breakfasts are unaffordable.

This money could - and should - have been spent elsewhere.

How about tackling the £818 Million backlog in school building repairs, for example?

There is no such thing as a free breakfast.

They have cost thousands of schoolchildren proper classrooms with heating, lighting and computers and other modern facilities.

Now you can call me old fashioned, but I believe that parents – not teachers- should be giving their children breakfast.

Our opponents have accused us of wanting to take food from the mouths of children.

I’ve even been compared to Margaret Thatcher the so called milk-snatcher.

Well, let me tell you this - I’m proud to be compared to one of the greatest Prime Ministers our country has ever seen!!!

Gimme Maggie instead of Gordon any day!

She knew how to manage a budget!!!

Now let me take some time to talk about school closures.

Labour and Plaid have made it clear that they expect 170 schools to close across Wales to tackle surplus school places.

As a result, school reorganisations are causing huge concerns to parents in some parts of the country – including here in north Wales.

Plaid’s disastrous proposals to close schools in Gwynedd were rightly rejected by the people.

And here in Conwy, under a Plaid leader, schools are under threat.

Let’s be clear on our position on this issue.

Schools are at the heart of our communities, particularly in rural areas.

We recognise them as a valuable community resource – especially where public services such as post offices and libraries have been removed.

Closing good schools must be unacceptable.

Closing schools without a community impact assessment is unacceptable.

And no school that is able to deliver the national curriculum should be forced to close without the agreement of parents, teachers and governors.

That is our commitment to the people of Wales!

Labour and Plaid need to think outside the box.

School buildings can be used to house libraries, re-establish post offices, host community meetings, concerts and other community purposes.

Instead, most are redundant after 3.30pm Monday to Friday and closed for the weekends and the holidays!

Time after time, as I travel around Wales, I’m told that schools are earmarked for closure by councils with no regard for planned housing developments which could improve their viability.

And that consultation processes on closures are futile, doing nothing more than going through the motions before presenting a fait accomplit.

We need joined up thinking and consultation processes that force education authorities to listen to the voice of the communities they serve.

So what’s our vision for education in Wales?

Well, a future Welsh Conservative Assembly Government would take education seriously.

We would renew the focus on long-term development and begin to re-engage children in learning.

Boosting their levels of attendance and attainment, and equipping them for the workplace and with the life-skills they need.

We believe the best way to help people improve their prospects is through education and employment, not welfare and hand-outs.

In this respect, we are unique as a party in Wales.

That’s why I was proud to announce our new Free Schools policy last year – which will award academy-like freedoms to Head teachers and their staff, and allow them to get on with the job that they do best – teaching our children.

Freeing up schools to make their own decisions leads to a wide range of benefits.

We would entrust the running of schools to the very people who know best – parents, teachers and governors.

And we would honour that freedom when it came to decisions concerning maintenance, teaching, parts of the curriculum, and administration.

Free Schools will be just that – free.

But friends, we Conservatives know that if you are to get on in this world you need more than formal qualifications.

To succeed in life you also need the know how to manage your home, time and finances.

Manage the roof over your head.

The opportunity to spend time with the people we care about.

And the confidence to know what we can afford - and more importantly, what we can't afford! – these is key to ensuring a decent quality of life.

Under Labour, and now Labour and Plaid, many of our young people are leaving school totally unprepared and ill-equipped for the world outside.

Unable to cook a fresh meal or manage a household budget. 

It's no wonder that we have an obesity crisis and unprecedented levels of personal debt.

It can't go on.

That's why today, I am proud to announce that a Wales run by the Welsh Conservatives would put Home Economics back onto the curriculum of every Secondary School in the country!!!

Maggie's good housekeeping for the next generation!

Universities and colleges add enormous value to the Welsh economy by up-skilling the workforce.

Yet higher education has also been facing an alarming funding crisis with a shortfall of almost £100 million compared to institutions in England.

Here in Wales we have some of the best educational institutions in the world.

Yet the shortfall is affecting our ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

In spite of this, Labour and Plaid continue to bury their heads in the sand.

A report by an Assembly Committee last year highlighted the importance of higher education to the Welsh economy.

It said that for every £1 million invested, higher education contributes approximately £5 million to the Welsh economy.

Universities and colleges, play a vital role in supporting Wales’ economy – especially during these difficult times.

That’s why it’s all the more astonishing that the Labour-Plaid Coalition is requiring the HE and FE sectors to find efficiency savings of 5 per cent in the next financial year, when all other Government sectors are only required to find savings of 1.6 per cent.

This comes at the time when training and skills are needed most.

This has caused widespread concern among key stakeholders about the ability of FE providers to deliver courses.

The priorities are all wrong.

These cuts will leave Wales lacking the knowledge and skills it needs to bounce back from the recession.

We have already seen a number of demonstrations by students and lecturers against cuts in jobs and in courses.

Highlighting the devastating impact of Labour and Plaid’s cuts in funding across Wales.

Cuts which will hit our young people more than any other part of society.

We want to ensure that as many young people as possible choose to stay in education or go into good quality employment at the age of 16.

We cannot hope to achieve such an objective if our FE sector is not given the support it needs.

We believe education is a good in itself, the key not just to economic well-being but to a richer inner life and a more civilized society.

Mae’r iaith Gymraeg yn chwarae rhan hynod o bwysig yn hybu ein diwylliant ac yn chwarae rhan pwysig yn ein cymunedau.

Dyna pam mae’n hanfodol fod y Llywodraeth yn sicrhau bod y iaith yn ffynnu a fod pobol yn cael y cyfle i ddysgu’r Gymraeg.

Yn y blynyddoedd diwethaf rydyn ni fel Ceidwadwyr wedi cefnogi trosglwyddo pwerau dros yr iaith Gymraeg i’r Cynulliad oherwydd bod hi’n neud synnwyr i’r sefydliad ddemocrataidd yng Nghymru i ddelio gyda’r mater yma.

Mae’r Mesur rydyn ni wedi gweld yn cael ei chyoeddi gan y Llywodraeth yr wythnos hon yn un o’r mesurau mwyaf rydyn ni wedi gweld gyda 136 o dudalennau.

Fe fyddwn ni yn scrwteneiddio y mesur yma yn y misoedd nesaf i neud yn siwr fod Cymru yn datblygu i fod yn Gymru wir ddwyiethog a fod siaradwyr Cymraeg a Saesneg yn cael ei thrin a’r gyfartaledd.

Byddwn ni yn y Cynulliad Cenedlaethol yn dadlau am synnwyr cyffredin yn y maes yma bob amser.

We Welsh Conservatives will always be champions of the Welsh Language and culture.

We have always supported sensible measures to protect, promote and increase the use of the Welsh Language.

But let me make this absolutely clear:

Welsh and English speakers should always be treated on an equal basis – anything else is unacceptable.

There will be no second class citizens under a Welsh Conservative Assembly Government.

We will fight to ensure that the rights of Welsh and English speakers are protected. 

Friends, in just over 4 years David Cameron has changed the Conservative Party.

He has not, as some have suggested, changed our values or ditched our principles – he has adapted them to suit the needs of the 21st Century.

The Conservative Party is the most successful election winning machine in the world – because it has been able to adapt itself and its values to suit the times it has found itself in.

David has reached out to people who would never have dreamed of supporting the Conservative Party before.

The next few weeks will be crucial for our country.

People are looking for strong leadership and commitment.

They value our values. 

A strong family, personal responsibility, opportunity and freedom for all.

The choice at this election is clear.

State control from Labour.

A separatist agenda from Plaid.

Those cheeky, but irrelevant, Lib Dems!

Or real change under David Cameron.

It has been a brilliant few years for us. But our best years are ahead.

So let’s get out there and win for Wales!!!”