4. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education: Consultation on the School Year

– in the Senedd at 3:54 pm on 4 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:54, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 4 is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education: a consultation on the school year. I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Lynne Neagle. 

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Three weeks ago I was pleased to come to this Chamber and to talk to Members about my priorities for the education system in Wales. I have always championed the rights of children and young people, and in that statement I made clear my commitment to raising attainment, to being ambitious for every learner in Wales and to supporting our most disadvantaged learners and closing the attainment gap. To me, these are central ambitions and, as I said, ones I want and expect the whole education system to work together to achieve.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 3:55, 4 June 2024

As Members know, the Government committed in the programme for government to explore reform of the school year, and I would like to thank my predecessor, Jeremy Miles, for all of his efforts in that work. I would also like to thank Siân Gwenllian for her efforts and support in taking this forward.

With learner outcomes at its core, we have looked at the system as a whole to see how the way we structure the school calendar could better support school staff to improve the educational experiences of our young people, particularly our most disadvantaged, while aligning more effectively with how people and families live and work.

On 13 November last year we announced the launch of the consultation on the school year. Today I am publishing the findings of that consultation, which closed on 12 February. Having received over 16,000 responses, it is clearly one of the Welsh Government's widest reaching consultations, and it is fair to say that the issue of the school year is one that reaches across society, with views on all sides. This is reflected in the responses, where views were split almost evenly on every question posed and every option put forward.

The consultation set out three core proposals. They were, first, to maintain the status quo; the second would see a five-week summer, a two-week break in the autumn, and the flexibility to decouple the Easter end-of-term break from the Easter festival; the third and final option built on this, and would look to move to a four-week summer, introduce a two-week break in May, and arrange for AS, A-level and GCSE results to issue on the same day.

Members will see that while the results indicate there is support for changes to the pattern of the school year, there was no strong preference for any of the options put forward. In this context, I have returned to the evidence base for change, and again, as Members will be aware, this is not clear-cut. 

There is evidence that suggests the summer period contributes to learning loss, and there are obvious concerns around how we support those children for whom school is safer than home. But there is also evidence that shows the benefit of an extended break for the well-being of both children and the workforce, and how that contributes positively to family life. This is just one example of many, and Members can see more detail in the information previously published on our website.

In my statement last week I said I would listen to the views of those working within the education system, and to the views of children, young people and parents, and I have taken time to consider the comments made in response to the consultation and to listen to the differing views and opinions. As a result, I have taken the decision that we will not implement any changes to the pattern of the school year within this Senedd term. It is important to be clear about this, and so I am also confirming today that I have asked local authorities and other relevant bodies to publish term dates for 2025-26. I do, however, want to continue to look at what more can be done to support our children and young people, their learning and the all-important actions needed to raise attainment, standards and aspirations.

Over the remainder of this Senedd term, I intend to continue exploring the proposals set out in our second option in the consultation: a five-week summer, a two-week break in the autumn, and the flexibility to decouple the Easter end-of-term break from the Easter festival. However, getting reform right means ensuring it is properly planned out and has the time and space to succeed. I want to take this time to discuss with children and young people, parents, the workforce and other partners both what these changes might mean and when would be the right time for them. No final decisions will be taken in this Senedd term, as I feel strongly that we need to remain focused on our existing and ambitious programme of reform over this period, and I am acutely aware we are already asking a lot of teachers and schools.

In the coming months, I will prioritise support on curriculum design, progression and assessment. I will work with teachers to ensure the right support reaches their classrooms and that they have the knowledge, resources and confidence to ensure every learner and every part of Wales feel the benefit of the curriculum.

As I set out before recess, I will also focus on ALN reform. I want to ensure firm legislative foundations are in place, and I want to strengthen implementation by improving the consistency of the approach being taken. That certainly does not mean we won’t be doing anything to address the impact of the long summer break here and now. Our immediate priority will be to maximise the support available to learners during the summer holidays, including doing more to target that provision towards the poorest communities and increasing the educational value of that provision.

We will look to increase the impact of the school holiday enrichment programme and enhance our community-focused schools programme, including through the work being undertaken by the school improvement partnership programme. I am pleased Julie Morgan MS has agreed to lead a review of SHEP for the Welsh Government on how provisions can be maximised during the summer holidays to ensure they are reaching those children and young people who need it most. I look forward to working with her on this important piece of work.

The issues raised in the consultation show that this is an area where there are lots of interests, including from sectors and organisations not involved in the education of our children and young people. And so I do need to be clear that, as Cabinet Secretary, my priority is the well-being and learning of our children and young people. That will be the driving force behind my actions and will be central to the further exploration of the proposals.

To conclude, I am fully committed to ensuring our education system supports all children and their ambitions. I will continue to explore changes to the pattern of the school year where these can support attainment, ambition and well-being, particularly for those who are most disadvantaged, to give them the best opportunities in learning and life. And I will do this over the remainder of this Senedd term, working in partnership with the education sector, children, young people and parents to ensure that we make the right changes at the right time. Diolch.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative 4:02, 4 June 2024

Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for her statement today and for meeting with me earlier this afternoon to discuss the contents of the statement? I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has kicked into the long grass its latest plans for changes to the school year. But we should be very clear that these plans haven't gone away for good, and they appear as though they might be back with a vengeance in two years' time, should this complacent Welsh Labour Government remain in power by then.

We know that it was a hugely unpopular policy across a range of sectors in Wales and, back in January, 11 different bodies came together, including teaching unions, farming unions and representatives from the tourism sector and many more, and wrote to the education Minister at the time to warn about the damage that these plans could cause right across Wales. The letter said, and I quote:

'This proposal runs the risk of fixing a problem that does not exist, when there is also little public appetite for such a change.'

End quote. And they're right. The evidence base for bringing forward the change is weak at best. These ideas about lost learning over the summer months are flawed to begin with. We know that this evidence is often based on countries like the USA, which have a much have a much longer summer break than we do. In fact, our summer break is already amongst the shortest in Europe, and these plans would have seen it reduced further. And countries above us in the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings—and there are many of them—have significantly longer summer breaks than we do.

But even recent research from the USA shows that Welsh Government's core assumption that poorer pupils are disproportionately impacted by the summer break is flawed in the first place. Research conducted just before the pandemic by American academics Megan Kuhfeld and Karyn Lewis said, and I again quote,

'recent data does not show that summer test score drops are concentrated among students in poverty'.

End quote. So, does the Welsh Government now accept that the academic evidence about the impact a summer holiday has on lower income earners has changed, or is the Cabinet Secretary still clinging onto outdated assumptions about the issue?

But let me return to that earlier letter, because in it they say, and I quote:

'The education unions are also incredulous that, at a time when schools are facing a crisis in funding, recruitment and pupil behaviour, the Welsh Government should be so engaged in this entirely unnecessary distraction.'

I'm sure they don't use a word like 'incredulous' lightly. But they're entirely right. After 25 years of this Welsh Labour Government we've seen hardworking pupils and staff completely undermined by Labour's record of falling standards. We've been at the bottom of UK-wide league tables in every single subject assessed by PISA every time that we've been assessed. What a damning indictment of the shambolic education policies of this Welsh Labour Government. We also know that the policy so far has cost the Welsh taxpayer £350,000. What a difference that could have made to our schools. The message from parents and teachers alike is clear, Cabinet Secretary: we don't want this proposal delayed; we want it consigned to the dustbin of history for good.

More widely, the tourism and hospitality sector were clear that these changes would mean businesses closed and jobs lost. That's on top of the other policies pursued by this Welsh Labour Government, such as a tourism tax, which seem intended to decimate a sector on which one in seven jobs in Wales relies. The agricultural sector was also clear that it would massively damage those farms that have diversified to capitalise on the summer months. And similarly, the Royal Welsh Show said that schools remaining open during show week would lead to a £1 million loss to the show and threaten its future financial viability. Representatives from across these sectors said in that damning letter that these are

'a few of many arguments that we have all repeated time and again to Welsh Government officials, but no one is listening.'

So, did the Welsh Government do its due diligence on the impact that these changes would have on other sectors in Wales, and why does she think that they said that no-one is listening?

And finally, it would be remiss of me not to note, Llywydd, where this sits in the wider picture of the last few weeks of decisions taken by this Welsh Labour Government. In the last few weeks alone, we've seen a sustainable farming scheme delayed, ALN reform under review, changes to council tax in Wales shelved, 20 mph rowed back on, and now school year reform kicked into the long grass. These are policies brought forward by the Welsh Labour Government in this term—money wasted on development and consultation—and then shelved in the face of opposition. That's simple. The reason for that is simple. It's because this is a divided and a weak Labour Party in the Senedd that can't agree on anything, and a weak First Minister who can't command the authority of his group. And we, the Welsh public, are all paying the price for it. When Keir Starmer said that the Welsh Labour Government was a blueprint for a UK Labour Government, I now understand what he means. [Interruption.] I know he likes to flip-flop, but now I know where he gets his inspiration from.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 4:07, 4 June 2024

Allow the Member to finish his contribution, please.

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative

So, in closing, Cabinet Secretary, the next time a Labour Minister gets to their feet in this Senedd Chamber, or a hypothetical Labour Minister in Westminster, and announces a policy, how can we have any faith that it will actually happen?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour

Can I thank Tom Giffard for his remarks? He started so positively, didn't he, and it all kind of went downhill from there, really, but there we are. I don't regard this as being kicked into the long grass. As you've highlighted, Tom, the evidence base on reform of the school year is a mixed picture. Much of it is based on America, which has an entirely different system to us. Much of it was based on something called year-round education. So, we have looked at the evidence base, but we've also conducted a really thorough consultation, which I hope you've had the opportunity to review, and that consultation was mixed and contradictory. A majority of people thought there were better ways to redesign the school year, but a majority of people also wanted to keep the status quo, and there was no majority for any one of the options available. So, rather than kicking it into the long grass, I regard this as listening—listening to the consultation that we undertook. Why would we have a consultation and we then not listen? And this was a consultation that had more than 16,000 responses. That's the biggest consultation we've ever had in education.

I'm very well aware of the letter that you referred to from the trade unions, which was sent to my colleague Jeremy Miles, and I'm aware of the trade union concerns about the proposals. I've also taken every opportunity I've had since coming into post to talk to front-line staff about these plans. And it is for that reason, as well as listening to the consultation and in recognition that we are asking an awful lot of our schools—they are recovering from a pandemic, they are implementing major reforms with Curriculum for Wales and ALN, they're dealing with some huge challenges with attendance, and I want to make sure that they have the time and the space to focus on delivering those reforms, and, while that happens, we will continue to explore these discussions with our partners and stakeholders.

You referred to the tourism and hospitality sector, and I'm sure you'll have seen that their views were indeed reflected in the consultation, and there was engagement with both sectors and indeed with the Royal Welsh Show throughout the consultation. And I've been very clear, I think, that the decisions that I make on this will be made on the basis of what is in the best interests of children and young people and the school workforce that supports them. But we will still, of course, continue to engage with wider stakeholders, which is right and proper to do.

I'm probably not going to dignify your party political rant at the end with a response.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 4:11, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for the statement today. Evidently, you did refer to the fact that a lot of this stems from the co-operation agreement, and you mentioned Siân Gwenllian's work on this. Evidently, there will be a number of people that will be disappointed that these radical reforms, these long-awaited reforms, aren’t going to happen, and, as you've recognised and as is clear from the evidence, the response has been mixed, very mixed, and a number of people do want to see change, so even though there is nervousness among some people, and, evidently, we have to listen to the stress being experienced by teachers and listen to their voices in this challenging situation, I think that we do have to look also at the broader timetable in terms of how we are going to proceed with that. And maybe the question to ask is: were we looking at enough options? Are there even more radical options that we should be considering?

I am pleased to hear that you have given Julie Morgan the task in terms of improving the SHEP programme, because I think it is very important. Even if we do reduce the school holidays to five weeks, that still leaves five weeks for some children who can't get a healthy meal as they do at school, and who can't have access to the kinds of activities and so forth that are available to others in their peer group.

So, there is a wider problem here, isn't there, in terms of looking at the context of young people and children, in terms of it's one thing to look at the support provided in schools, but what do we do in the holidays? I've been part of the work on the Children, Young People and Education Committee, and I've heard about the great challenges in terms of parents with additional learning needs children and those with disabilities in terms of having access to any kind of childcare during the summer holidays at all. So, it doesn't matter how long the holidays are; there is a lack of provision.

So, am I right to assume that, in terms of the fact that you are going to delay this—? Is this going to be broader work, looking at all of the package of support that's available in terms of childcare and provision during the summer holidays, and are we going to see more radical proposals being submitted? Because one of the things that emerged very clearly from teachers and parents from the research was that people didn't want to see us tinkering just to change things, but that people did want to see change that would meet some of those challenges. There were concerns, obviously, in terms of the Royal Welsh Show and the impact upon the National Eisteddfod, which, of course, as has already been outlined, are not just important in terms of tourism, but also the local economies in many areas, and a very important part of the calendar. So, we need to look more broadly at this.

If I could ask one question as well: in terms of the SHEP programme, what's the timescale for that work, and is it the intention that things are put in place for this summer's holidays? Because I'm already having food banks and so forth contacting me asking me what support will be available.

And could I also ask: will you be looking at the element of Welsh-medium provision? Because often—. Trystan Edwards from Garth Olwg school, who is part of the working group looking at this, was on the radio this morning, and he was talking about the challenges with the Welsh-medium schools in terms of Welsh-medium learning loss that happens over the summer holidays, and, even though there are excellent activities that are organised by the Urdd and so forth, and the mentrau iaith across Wales, not everyone can have access to those activities at present. Certainly, in my region, the SHEP wasn't always available through the medium of Welsh, or there were only a small number of Welsh-medium sessions available. So, how do we ensure that whatever is available also caters for that Welsh-medium element? So, if we could have clarity in terms of the timetable for this coming summer holiday, but also taking this work forward, that it isn't forgotten, but that we do see the radical action that is needed to ensure the best opportunities for all of our learners. Thank you.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:15, 4 June 2024

Thank you very much, Heledd. As you highlighted, this work was part of our co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. I was very grateful for the work that we did together on it, especially the very constructive relationship that I had with Siân Gwenllian on this, and also Dafydd Trystan as well, who was helping with that work. As you've highlighted, the response was very mixed, and I'm grateful for your acknowledgement that this is about listening.

In terms of the work that Julie is going to do on SHEP, we've asked that this be a rapid review. I need to have further discussions with Julie about how that will look. I'm sure you recognise that Julie has a really sterling record of working with young people who are experiencing disadvantage, so I also want to take into account her views about what should be included as well. It's my understanding that, for this year's SHEP, plans have already been made, so it will be more likely that this will be for the following year, although we've already agreed to extend SHEP this year despite the really difficult financial circumstances.

I understand completely what you're saying about ALN, and you'll have heard me tell the committee how concerned I am to make sure that we get support for ALN right. My colleague Jayne Bryant leads on childcare issues, and I know that she, like myself and Lesley Griffiths, is waiting for the committee's report on access to childcare and education for disabled children. We will want to make sure that we consider that carefully and respond to the recommendations.

In terms of what you've said about Welsh-medium education, I think that's a very important point. This was something that was considered as part of the consultation in terms of learning loss for those children where they didn't have a Welsh-speaking family at home. Again, the views were quite mixed, and it didn't come out with a strong range of views. But we do provide SHEP in quite a number of authorities through the medium of Welsh, and in some local authorities we have a dual-track provision in Welsh and English. I acknowledge that it could be more and better. I'll certainly make sure that that's one of the things that Julie looks at, and I'm happy, if it's helpful, to write to you with a list of the local authorities that offer SHEP through the medium of Welsh.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour 4:18, 4 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to thank you for having the courage to resist political pressure and to really listen to the responses to the Welsh Government's consultation on the school year. Speaking as a former teacher and being mindful of the scale of the radical reforms that we are already expecting our schools to undertake, I think that your focus on raising standards is exactly where we need to be. Pausing these plans will allow our schools to focus on that, in particular addressing attendance and attainment issues amongst our most disadvantaged pupils. So, Cabinet Secretary, could you expand on how you intend to tackle these two key issues?

Secondly, Cabinet Secretary, I wholeheartedly welcome your decision to appoint Julie Morgan MS to oversee a review of the school holiday enrichment programme. I make a habit of visiting SHEP programmes in my constituency every summer, and I'm always impressed by the excellent nutritional meals and the fun educational tasks that are on offer. Uptake, though, is always an issue, and what I see is that while SHEP programmes are always located in our more disadvantaged communities, I still don't feel, truly, that they are reaching the most disadvantaged pupils within those communities. So, can you confirm that the review will take a real hard, long, nuts-and-bolts look at how we can truly reach those most disadvantaged pupils?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:20, 4 June 2024

Can I thank Vikki Howells for her comments and for her support? I particularly welcome you drawing on your experience as a teacher and that recognition of the amount of reform that we're asking schools to manage at the moment. I've been very clear since coming into post that raising attainment is a priority for me. I certainly don't recognise the bleak picture that was painted by Tom Giffard, but I do recognise that our PISA results last time around were disappointing and that we need to focus on raising attainment across the board.

Officials are currently working on a plan that will allow us to raise educational attainment across Wales, putting equity, inclusion and well-being at the centre, and there'll be four strands of work to achieve that. The first is that attainment for us includes inclusion, equity, aspiration and stretch. Secondly, the curriculum and additional learning needs reform are central to our achievement of improved standards in Wales. Thirdly, we need to set up our national leadership to bring our partners together to all focus on improved standards, and you'll be aware of the school improvement partnership programme, which is currently in the second phase of its work. Fourthly, as I've said many times, mental health and well-being is fundamental to this whole agenda.

You're absolutely right to recognise the issues around attendance. The attendance figures in Wales are going in the right direction, but there's more to do. I'm particularly concerned about the attendance of children and young people who are eligible for free school meals. So, we're really looking at what more we can do in that space. I'm chairing the national attendance taskforce, which now has all its work streams and sub-groups in place, and I hope that we can bring a real laser focus to that work.

Thank you for your comments on SHEP; I would certainly encourage any Member to go and visit their local SHEP schemes during the summer. You're right to highlight the issues around uptake and that's something I've been worried about myself. I know that there is a fair amount of soft targeting that goes on with SHEP that's based on local knowledge from the people who are running the schemes, but one of the things I'm very keen for Julie to really look at is how we can make sure that the schemes are reaching those children who are—I hate the term 'hard to reach'—least likely to engage with the SHEP programme, to make sure that nobody is left out.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 4:23, 4 June 2024

(Translated)

May I thank you for your statement, Cabinet Secretary? I think taking a step back in light of the responses to the consultation is sensible. I am surprised that there was no specific reference in your statement to the impact that some of the proposals would have had on the Royal Welsh and the National Eisteddfod, particularly as this was a very prominent feature in the summary that you published of the responses, and certainly something that we, as a party, have made clear in terms of our opposition to changes that would have a negative impact on the Royal Welsh or the Eisteddfod. You've said that no final decision will be taken in this Senedd term, but in your statement, you also say that you now, as Cabinet Secretary and as a Government, will continue to look at the second proposal in the consultation during the rest of this Senedd term. But, of course, that was one of the proposals that would have had an impact on the Royal Welsh particularly. So can you confirm that, as you develop that work, you will not only be aware of the need to protect the interests of the Royal Welsh and the Eisteddfod, but that you will also ensure that any changes ultimately implemented will not lead to a negative impact on those festivals?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:24, 4 June 2024

Thank you very much, Llyr. As you highlight, the Royal Welsh Show and the Eisteddfod did feature in the consultation and there have been discussions with relevant organisations in relation to that. I want to be really clear, though, that I think this is a decision that has to be taken on the basis of what is best for children and young people, but I know too that there are communities in Wales that really value taking their children and young people to visit the Royal Welsh Show. Indeed, the consultation itself reflected that there was a need to make sure that major events were catered for in that respect. So, I understand that this is a cause of concern for Members representing rural areas, and you do have my assurance that we will continue to engage with the Royal Welsh Show, the Eisteddfod and other organisations about this as we take this work forward.

Photo of Rhianon Passmore Rhianon Passmore Labour 4:25, 4 June 2024

I wish to welcome the statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, and there are arguments and value on both sides of this issue. But the consultation on the change to the school calendar in Wales has received 16,000 responses, and we must note that this is the biggest ever education consultation in Wales. The list of organisations opposed is very extensive, as is the very mixed response from parents, pointing to a commonsense approach needing to be adopted. It is right to consult on this matter, and it is also right to listen and then act on that consultation.

Today, as our school communities continue to strive forward away from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and struggle out of the darkness of austerity, we know that their challenges are profound and we cannot, and should not, underestimate this, none more so than the drop in school attendance seen across Wales, critically by some of the poorest children in our society, our most vulnerable cohort.

Cabinet Secretary, thank you for the clarity that you've given today; it will be broadly welcomed. In terms of the assurance that you can give us today—to the children, teachers, staff and families across Islwyn—that you will prioritise and focus the Welsh Government on tackling attendance, the implementation of the new curriculum, the needed additional learning needs reform, the development of a stronger school holiday enrichment programme, the reduction in teachers' bureaucracy and, finally, the need to strengthen staff retention across Welsh schools, we need that prioritisation. 

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:27, 4 June 2024

Thank you very much, Rhianon, for that welcome for the announcement today, which is very much appreciated. I'm very happy to give you the assurance that attendance is absolutely critical. Children aren't going to learn and thrive if they're not in school, and we know that we've got more work to do in that space. We're rolling out ambitious Curriculum for Wales reforms, and I've been very clear that we've got more work to do on our ALN reforms. There are the workload issues that you've just mentioned as well—we are doing lots of work on that. We have a strategic workforce group within the Welsh Government; we're developing a digital tool for headteachers to do workforce impact assessments. You raise an important point as well when you talk about retention, because one of the issues that the workforce were concerned about was that these proposals could impact on the retention of the workforce. So, I think it's why it is really important that as we take this work forward, we do so in partnership with the workforce and with our trade union partners. 

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 4:28, 4 June 2024

I just wanted to draw a focus on the impacts of what the change might have meant. I did post a video on my Facebook page asking people who live in Caerphilly what they thought, and it was very much mixed, which reflects the responses you got. One of the things that came through strongly from the people with whom I attend, with my daughter with ALN, the Sparrows group is that in the summer there are a lot more free activities available for them, and you can't keep a child with additional learning needs in the house continually over the summer holidays, or any holidays. We went to Morgan Jones Park on the weekend; there's a splash pad there, and there are lots of good-weather outdoor activities that tend to close up in the October half term. In the October half term, we tend to see soft play, trampolining—those things that you've got to pay for under a roof—and it is much more costly for families, particularly families who are in that position and also more likely to be on lower incomes. So, I welcome this pause, but I also would ask you to keep in mind what I've said, if you decide to proceed in future.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:29, 4 June 2024

Thank you very much, Hefin. Indeed, those issues did come out through the consultation: concerns about things like heating your home in an extended October half term and the fact that it is harder to find free activities to do. But the other side of that was that there was also a recognition of the fatigue that kids and the workforce experience during that very long run into Christmas. The debate we're having today really highlights how mixed and contradictory these issues are, and how there is that work to be done to balance out those contradictions.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 4:30, 4 June 2024

I listened carefully to the Cabinet Secretary's disappointing statement this afternoon. I noticed that she chose to begin and end her statement by referring to her commitment to the best interest of children. Of course, the quality of her commitment is not an issue this afternoon—that's evident week after week here in the Chamber. It's the quality of her decision making that we are scrutinising, not the quality of her commitment. And let's be clear that what we've heard this afternoon is the abandonment of a manifesto commitment made by the Labour Party at the last election. And the Minister shouldn't seek to shelter behind semantics in saying to me that this was a commitment to explore reform of the school day, because she knows perfectly well that her predecessors published a plan—not an exploration, but a plan—to implement that commitment, and that will now not be happening in this Senedd term. And what was that plan, Llywydd? It would have moved one week—one week—in five years from the school holidays in the summer to the autumn half term. Nobody I think could claim that the Government was rushing headlong down some radical path, but it was a start. It was a start on a journey that would have improved the outcomes for children in Wales. I regret the political damage. I regret the reputational damage that will be done to Wales, just as other parts of the United Kingdom were looking at Wales and pointing to us as an example of what a progressive Government could do. What I really regret is the damage that will be done to the life chances of the children who are at the heart of this policy.

Colleagues here will know of the difficulties experienced on the Ely estate here in Cardiff. I'll say to the Cabinet Secretary: the children that I am concerned about, their families will not be worrying, as was said in your statement, about the quality-of-life opportunities that come with an extended summer break. Those families will approach the summer holidays in a spirit of anxiety, sometimes amounting to fear. And the life chances of those children rely absolutely on what the school can do for them, and the fantastic schools that there are on the estate who do so much to invest in those children who have no chances—[Interruption.]—otherwise, and who work through them all, from September to July. And in July, those children have had—

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 4:33, 4 June 2024

Hefin David is seeking to heckle at this point. I'm allowing the Member to carry on with his contribution. Mark Drakeford.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. Those children, in July, have had the benefit of everything that that school can do. [Interruption.] And then those children go away—

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

Excuse me, don't question my decision to allow Mark Drakeford to—. You said, 'This is ridiculous', me allowing Mark Drakeford to continue. It's not. I've allowed you discretion time after time to continue on important issues for yourself, so remember that, Hefin David. I'm allowing Mark Drakeford to continue.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. When those children go away in July, in those six weeks, they will not see a book, they will have no opportunity to play in a way that allows them to appreciate what maths can do for them in their lives, and when they come back in September, the school starts all over again. The idea that there is no learning loss in the lives of those children is absolutely absurd. What this policy would have done is it would have begun to close the gap in the lives of those children. Here is a Government that could have done something to help them, but it has decided not to. What explanation does the Cabinet Secretary think I should offer those children who now find their interests in second place, against those of the reactionary forces that will always be attached to the status quo?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 4:34, 4 June 2024

Can I thank Mark Drakeford for his comments? I do regret the tone of some of those comments, which I do feel call into question my own commitment to children and young people, which is the only reason I am standing in this job, and the reason I have done every job that I have done in this Chamber: to promote the rights and the well-being of children and young people. And with respect, Mark, I think I have set out very clearly my reasons for this decision today. It is about listening to a consultation. You cannot have a consultation and then just ignore that consultation. That would not be acceptable. But it’s also about recognising that we have to implement a series of major reforms and tackle some serious attainment issues in our schools. And do you know who suffers most from those attainment challenges? It's those very children that you are talking about. Getting those children out of poverty is what I am interested in doing, through implementing our reforms. To think that a week's change in the school year is going to make a difference to the systemic challenges we’re facing in education is, quite frankly, fiddling while Rome burns, and I’m really, really sorry that you have chosen to couch it in those terms.

The persistent absence rates for free-school-meal children at secondary school are 50-plus per cent. That is an astonishing figure, and it is that which we have to address. It is not about tweaking a week here or there. And this is not about reactionary forces. [Interruption.] Can you let me finish? Because I let you speak, didn’t I? I didn't say a word while you were speaking. This is not about reactionary forces. This is about me making a decision based on a 16,000-plus consultation and what I am hearing on the ground about a school system that is struggling and overwhelmed with reform, that is finding it challenging to raise attainment, and which is also struggling for funding. So, that is what I am prioritising, and I make no apologies for that decision. I have made that decision after many weeks of careful consideration, in what I consider to be the best interests of all children and young people, including the children on the Ely estate, who I care passionately about.