Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

2. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Education – in the Senedd at 2:40 pm on 12 June 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 2:40, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Tom Giffard

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. With a UK general election on the horizon, I thought I'd look up some UK Labour policies and see the impact that they would have on our education sector in Wales. And despite Keir Starmer's best efforts to go through an entire campaign without announcing anything, I did manage to find one. A UK Labour Government would apply VAT to private schools on both sides of the border. Last month, I wrote to you asking what impact this policy would have on Welsh schools. Astonishingly, you told me that, quote:

'The Welsh Government has not commissioned any research in this area.'

End quote. But Keir Starmer says that this policy would be implemented as soon as it can be done, if Labour wins the general election. 

Can you provide clarity for parents and schools as to whether it would apply from this coming September? And a month on from me first asking, what impact do you think that this policy would have, and do you accept it would mean some pupils leaving the private school sector and entering state schools?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 2:41, 12 June 2024

Well, it's good to see you paying this much attention to the UK Labour Party manifesto. I'm really pleased that we have a party that is committed to campaigning for and investing in education. You will be aware that the plans for VAT are not devolved. They will, of course, impact on us in Wales. You did table the question asking whether we had done any research. Given that we don't actually yet have a Labour Government—although aren't we all just desperate for that Labour Government—I think it would be a little presumptive to commission research on that.

What I can say to you is that officials have been working on it, so we're aware, for example, that there might be particular issues for children who are in additional learning needs placements in primary schools. And we are very mindful of that. That's something I've already discussed with my counterpart, Bridget Phillipson, and, in the happy event that a Labour Government does come to power in the next few weeks, I will, of course, be having discussions with my opposite number on not just how that funding will benefit Wales, but also the actual practical implementation of that policy. 

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative 2:43, 12 June 2024

Well, looking at the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings after 25 years of a Labour Government, I think the worst thing that could happen to an English education system is a Labour Government in Westminster. 

Now, as you mentioned, Cabinet Secretary, the worst part of all of this is VAT is not a devolved tax; it's a tax collected by the Treasury rather than one kept by the Welsh Government. And, as you say, the Welsh Government hasn't impact assessed its own policy, which could be coming into place as soon as September if Labour wins that general election. But, never mind, Cabinet Secretary, let me do that impact assessment for you. Let me do the maths. A 2018 report by Baines Cutler Solutions Ltd projected that around 25 per cent of pupils would leave private schools if VAT was applied to them. So, in Wales, the cost per child, per year, in state education is £7,327, and 25 per cent of the number of private school pupils dropping out means 2,460 more pupils being educated in the state sector. Therefore, the total—[Interruption.] People in Blaenau Gwent and across Wales should be incredibly worried about this one, Alun. Therefore, the total cost to Welsh schools, Cabinet Secretary, could mean an £18 million black hole in Welsh school budgets—£18 million.

Cabinet Secretary, does the Welsh Government have an extra £18 million to spend to fill that black hole?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 2:44, 12 June 2024

Well, you clearly haven't been paying attention, Tom, because the purpose of this policy is to release much-needed funding to invest in our schools. And we have a pledge in this general election to use that funding to increase recruitment and retention of our teachers. So, I'm not worried about this policy. We will work with an incoming Labour Government on it to make sure that we get the best possible outcomes for children in Wales.

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative 2:45, 12 June 2024

Well, I'm surprised to see the Cabinet Secretary so relaxed and supporting a policy that could leave Welsh schools £18 million in the red. Now, we know schools are making difficult decisions at the moment with their budgets, with many letting staff go as we speak, and this policy would only make that worse. But what else would be the impact of the policy, Llywydd? It's fewer teachers and larger class sizes in our schools. Labour shadow Minister, Emily Thornberry, said earlier this week, 'It's fine—if we have to have larger class sizes, we have to larger class sizes.' That's what she said. But it's not fine, Cabinet Secertary, is it? This policy will have a real negative impact on our young people and our schools in Wales, and both you and the UK Labour Party seem relaxed about it, because it fills some ideological dogma for you lot. So, we know all too well what a UK Labour Government would mean for Welsh schools: smaller class sizes and an £18 million black hole. Isn't it the case that a UK Labour Government would be an absolute disaster for Wales?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 2:46, 12 June 2024

Well, Tom, you should know all about black holes, given that we have a black hole in our budget of £700 million as a result of being short-changed by the UK Conservative Government. So, those are the kinds of figures we are grappling with, not the £18 million that you've done on the back of a fag packet. This is a policy that will release funding for schools. It will be implemented sensibly by an incoming Labour Government. And, in relation to class sizes, I'm sure you will have heard Bridget Phillipson say very clearly that Emily Thornberry was mistaken in what she said.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 2:47, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Cefin Campbell

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd. As this is my first opportunity as my party's new spokesperson on education, may I say that I'm looking forward very much to working with you and, of course, to scrutinising the work of the Government in this particular sector too. 

My first question is this: last month, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, visited Wales, as part of the election campaign. Now, during the visit, he made six pledges for Wales, to be implemented were he to win the general election. Now, one of those was to recruit more teachers in key subjects. Now, I'm not sure if Starmer is aware that education is devolved and that Labour has been responsible for education in Wales for over 25 years. But, for his information, here is your record: the annual NASUWT survey for 2023 shows that almost three quarters of teachers in Wales over the past 12 months had considered leaving the profession; recent statistics on initial teacher training show that the numbers registering for secondary courses is 34 per cent lower than the target set by the Education Workforce Council for Wales; in the most recent PISA results, Wales scored 473 for science, 466 for maths and 466 for reading, which are significant reductions in points, and which, in that order, are 12, six and 10 points below the OECD average for the nations participating in the programme. In the PISA results—

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 2:49, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

I have been very patient indeed, as it is your first question as education spokesperson, so if you could come to a question now.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

I will come to my question. Therefore, what I would like to know is how Starmer is going to deliver something that Welsh Labour has failed to deliver, namely to transform our education sector and to make it an attractive sector to teachers once again.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour

Thank you very much, Cefin, and can I welcome you to your post and say that I hope that we can work together in a constructive way, and thank Heledd Fychan for the work that she did as the frontbench post holder in this area? I can assure you that Keir Starmer is very well aware that education is devolved. We, as I've said to Tom Giffard, will have a consequential arising from the commitments that have been made around the recruitment and retention of teachers, and we will be able to introduce that work in our own way, being respectful of devolution, because the kind of shortage subjects that we would have in Wales—. As you know very well, we've got a particular priority on getting more Welsh language teachers, as well as other subjects, and it's important that we're able to use that money in a way that respects the needs that we have in Wales.

I do recognise the challenges that we have with the recruitment of teachers. That's why we're working very proactively on an ongoing basis around teacher recruitment. That's why we have put so much support in for workforce well-being through things like education support, and I'm continuing that dialogue with front-line practitioners about what more we can do to make schools attractive, welcoming places for people to work in Wales.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 2:51, 12 June 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn. I look forward to those consequentials coming and changing the poor record over the last 25 years. You mentioned teacher recruitment, and we know that there are huge problems in terms of recruitment and the retention of teachers across the whole of Wales. There's been no shortage of announcements by the Welsh Government to encourage young people to think about a career as teachers and classroom assistants, but do we know whether these campaigns have been successful? The initial teacher education incentive scheme for priority subjects is one such example. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered last week in a question to the First Minister that the Welsh Government has no idea whether the scheme is working or not because you haven't got the evidence. You have no data to determine if the recipients of the incentive before 2022-23 are still teaching in Wales, are teaching somewhere else, or not teaching at all. Now, this is a scheme that's been running for about a decade, with millions of pounds already spent on it. So, Cabinet Secretary, how do you respond to this obvious failure in monitoring and evaluation, and do you agree with me that, without this data, we can't measure the success of this extremely important scheme?

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 2:52, 12 June 2024

Thank you. Data is really important, and I've been very, very clear about that with officials. You can't change policy without having effective data. Obviously, I was in the Chamber for your exchange with the First Minister, and you tabled a similar question to me. The answer that I gave explained that, over the last couple of years, the teachers are still going through that process. So, we've changed it so that it's not just going on a training course to learn to be a teacher; it's about going through the qualified teacher status, the induction status. So, that first tranche of people will be completing their studies now at the end of this year, and part-time students will be next year. I did acknowledge in the answer that I gave you that there was a lack of data before that time and informed you that we were working with the Education Workforce Council on a data-sharing agreement to try and obtain that data. So, what I'm very happy to do is, when we've completed that work, to provide the data for you.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 2:53, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much. I look forward to receiving that data. 

Sticking to the theme of attracting more people to the profession, I now intend to turn to PGCE courses. As we know, our universities provide these courses. We've seen an example recently of the threat to these courses, with Aberystwyth University announcing that teacher training courses there are to cease from September onwards. This, of course, raises a number of concerns in the sector and beyond. Not only is it causing problems to many people in mid Wales who would have gone to Aberystwyth University to study a PGCE, but it also reduces the opportunities for those who would have trained to be Welsh-medium teachers too. So, given all of this, what is your response to the news that the PGCE course at Aberystwyth University is to cease? What does the Welsh Government intend to do about this fact? Will we see further cuts in the sector? And finally, what assessment does the Minister intend to make in terms of reaching the target of a million Welsh speakers, given the possible reduction in the numbers training to be teachers? Thank you.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 2:55, 12 June 2024

Thank you. Can I say, in relation to the situation in Aberystwyth, Cefin Campbell will be very well aware that we have an independent system to accredit initial teacher education in Wales? I think that's very important—that we have a system that sets the highest possible standards to make sure that, if someone is going to do that course, they're going to get a really good experience. Aberystwyth was not successful in being re-accredited and chose not to appeal. That was a process that was independent of Government. It's my understanding that there were around 21 students registered to undertake the course in Aberystwyth in the coming year, and we have worked with the university to make sure that there are appropriate places elsewhere for those students. It is important to say as well that all teacher training universities in Wales offer provision through the medium of English and Welsh, so I can give you that assurance that, although we have lost the Aberystwyth places, people can learn through the medium of Welsh elsewhere.