Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s education questions.
One of the headline policy proposals to come out of Labour’s autumn conference was to scrap/nationalise private schools in England. Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) asked the Minister – who was herself privately-educated at St Michael’s School in Llanelli – whether the Welsh Government intended to do the same in Wales.
“I have no plans to scrap private schools in Wales.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)
Given that answer, Sian Gwenllian suggested further discussion of the topic at a later time, moving on to the issue of religious education in the curriculum (amidst lobbying against RSE remaining a statutory subject in the new curriculum) and free home-school transport for pupils attending Welsh-medium schools – which is being reviewed by a number of councils.
The Minister assured AMs that religious education was to remain a statutory subject in the national curriculum. School transport doesn’t lie within her portfolio as it’s a transport issue but she said the Welsh Government were “working on a policy solution to the situation that we find ourselves in”, adding that the home-school transport proposals were a cause of concern.
Prioritising school funding
Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), returned to the issue of school funding. While the Welsh Government has identified eight priority areas, school-age funding wasn’t one of them. Meanwhile, direct school funding wasn’t protected by local authorities.
“Bearing in mind the huge changes that will be happening in schools recently, not least with the change in curriculum and the preparation for that, but also the long-standing and very acute complaints made by schools now about their direct funding, I have to say, I was disappointed not to see that more explicitly in even the cross-cutting themes of Government, because of course if you get education wrong it has an effect on every other area of spend as we go forward.”
– Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM
The Education Minister said early years was one of the priority areas and is itself a fundamental part of the education system. She accepted the recommendation of the Children & Young People’s Committee report on school funding and will provide a further response when that report is debated later this year.
Access to vocational courses
Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) asked about access to vocational courses. He was pleased that new performance measures add greater value to vocational courses, but Wales remains some way off university-recognised parity between academic and vocational options.
David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) added that it was a shame that older generations and parents understand that vocational qualifications can close the sort of skill gaps in Wales that we desperately need to close and university needn’t be the be-all and end-all.
The Minister said there was now no disincentive for schools to not offer a full range of vocational options, but:
“….there is more that we need to do to sometimes overcome perceptions of the value of vocational courses. And that’s why we are currently piloting a new approach to information advice to children and young people, so that we can ensure that all children are making the right choices, on the basis of a real understanding and knowledge that vocational qualifications can help them achieve their career aspirations, and fulfil their potential.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams
Allegations of bullying and harassment at Care Inspectorate “not dealt with properly”
Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy), raised concerns about Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW), with its annual report recording a decline in inspection and regulation activity despite increasing costs. There were further worries too regarding the working environment:
“….there are serious allegations of bullying and harassment within the organisation, and intense pressure on the inspectors themselves. In fact, I know of an inspector who raised concerns, triggering a so-called investigation….it is alarming that the investigation was abandoned just because the person concerned resigned from CIW. And, technically, being as they themselves—the senior manager—said (the person resigned from) CIW and Welsh Government, the buck stops somewhere with Welsh Government.”
– Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM
Deputy Minister for Health & Social Care, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), had every confidence in CIW and stressed the importance of their work. While there’s a good working relationship between CIW and the Welsh Government, they act independently. She couldn’t respond to specific allegations from anonymous sources.
Keeping track of the NHS workforce
Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) referred to the findings of his committee’s recent report on district nursing, namely a lack of data on the number of nurses or their skill mix which will impact workforce planning. How can the Welsh Government plan to move more healthcare services into the community when they don’t even know who’s working there at the moment?
In a bit of a roundabout answer, the Health Minister told him there was “no blank sheet of paper” on the current workforce or rates of demand for community services, but only those community health projects which can be scaled up will be picked for additional development:
“…..you have a range of different sources of intelligence on what is currently happening, and what we need to do more of in the future. But the Member will know….that he still carries on at various points as well, that this is never a static point in time. And our ability to reform as rapidly as we would like in this place often grinds up against reality.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)
Backlog of NHS estate repairs
Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) told AMs there was a £250million backlog of maintenance works on the Welsh NHS estate deemed to pose a high risk. There was a particular problem within the ambulance service, with only a third of ambulance service buildings being “functionally suitable”. How much of the £370million allocated for capital spending in the Welsh NHS will be spent bringing building up to standard?
The Health Minister said most of the capital budget was spent on new buildings – such as the Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran. Around £80million was available for health boards to carry out maintenance works. Where there are immediate issues, the Welsh Government intervenes to provide alternative facilities while health boards work to replace them – such as when a threatened roof collapse in Wrexham within the last financial year affected endoscopy services.
Minister calls for a clear timetable for rail devolution
Yesterday, the Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), published the Welsh Government’s vision for the future development of rail services (pdf).
Appropriate devolution settlement
Rail infrastructure and rail funding are currently not devolved to Wales, but the government’s vision is largely based on the presumption that a strong case has been made for the powers and budgets to be devolved in the coming years.
Asset transfer of the core Valley lines is due to be completed “imminently” meaning delivery of the South Wales Metro is still on time.
While the Minister recognised that some functions were better managed at a UK level – cross-border timetables, freight access and safety standards amongst them – there was no excuse for powers to continue to be retained by the UK Government.
“I have every reason to believe that our case has been heard, and that further devolution to the Welsh Government will be recommended. I now expect the UK Government to reflect our requirements, meet our expectations, and set a clear pathway, timeline and programme for full devolution of our railways. I expect the UK Government to meet their commitment to publishing a White Paper this autumn, and we stand ready to work with them on its implementation.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) said that lofty ideals were all well and good, but most rail passengers will be asking: “What about now?” Many people won’t choose to travel by rail because the services are so unreliable. He challenged assertions of under-investment by the UK Government; £2billion is set to be spent by Network Rail in Wales between 2019-2024.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) reflected on the consensus built up in the Senedd that rail budgets and powers should be devolved after years of chronic under-investment – relative to the proportion of the UK network that exists in Wales. He did bring up the issue of toilets on new tram-trains, to which the Minister said:
Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said one thing that united people around the chamber was the “absolute determination” that Wales deserves better in terms of funding for, and powers over, rail. He called for more services in the Ebbw valley and a new station for Abertillery – projects the Minister said were due to be delivered by 2024.
Dr Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) mentioned a lack of seats on Rhymney valley services and wanted confirmation that toilets will be on new trains (not tram-trains) due to be run on the line. The Minister confirmed new Rhymney valley trains will have toilets.
John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) asked about a Magor station and Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) asked for an update on Maesteg Sunday services and potentially increased service frequencies.
The Minister told them the Magor “walkway” plans (which didn’t make it to the shortlist of new station) had enormous potential but the government’s hands were tied, while he promised to chase up news from Network Rail on Maesteg services.
In response to a question from Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), the Minister said passenger numbers on the Halton Curve service between north Wales and Liverpool have been higher than expected.
Additional £33million awarded to innovative housing projects
Yesterday, the Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) updated AMs on the innovative housing programme (IHP).
At the vanguard of innovation
The Minister told the chamber that Wales “was at the vanguard of housing innovation” and this year, she received bids to the IHP totalling £230 million. She was particularly pleased to see collaborative projects emerge focusing on fuel poverty, zero-carbon homes and new building methods.
One project at Ruthin will see 76 zero-carbon homes built that will cost, on average, less than £80-a-year to heat and light. Meanwhile, a 214-home zero-carbon development at Rumney in Cardiff will be a mix of social and private housing.
“The IHP programme has now invested in 55 schemes to build social housing and affordable homes. The schemes I announce today see a further £33 million of funding invested, meaning 600 new homes will get underway this year – much-needed new homes, for those who need them most. I am also delighted to see schemes submitted from 19 different local authority areas. This demonstrates that in most areas of Wales there is now a growing willingness and appetite for change in the sector.”
– Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James
In a separate statement, the Minister hinted at rule changes to enable empty student flats to be converted to social housing; at the moment student flats fall short of social housing quality standards. The Minister also announced the establishment of a Welsh Government Land Division to help bring forward publicly-owned land for development.
A good approach
Opposition AMs were enthusiastic.
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said the fact the IHP was oversubscribed was a good sign. He did have a particular concern on the pace of development regarding modular housing:
“….this method has now once again shown itself to be of high quality, and great in the speed of delivery, just in terms of house building by this method compared to traditional ones….In Sweden, 84% of detached homes use manufactured timber elements; that compares to just 5% in the UK. Yet these forms of construction are greener, cheaper, come with many fewer defects, and also lend themselves to the sort of beauty that the Minister was talking about, and what we often see in television programmes like Grand Designs.”
The Minister said there were some “great small modular (home) factories” around Wales rooted in their communities and it needed to develop like that instead of through large centralised factories.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) asked how these innovative developments were integrating with private developments to avoid the creation of “ghettos”? The Minister reassured Leanne that “mixed tenure” estates were prioritised by the Welsh Government in planning policy and it’s her ambition that nobody should be able to tell the tenure of a household from the outside of the building.
Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), once again, made the case for councils to start building houses again – but cautioned that some innovative building methods (such as steel houses) “didn’t last 25 years”. Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) welcomed low-carbon housing but thought it was taking too much precedence over tackling the scale of housing shortages.
Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) called for more to be done to address the high demand for and lack of supply of single bedroom homes, while Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) hoped that housing associations will futureproof their housing stock by making it easier to add additional bedrooms or other adaptations (like lifts).