June 29, 2011 4:10 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I want to concentrate on the funding aspect and comment on Simon Thomas's remarkable speech in relation to the pupil premium. I can see that Plaid Cymru is not taking a constructive view towards this motion, given that its amendments can only be described as trying to salami slice the motion bit by bit and, basically, to neuter it. That is not a constructive approach towards the funding of education in our schools and it is not the constructive approach that, to be fair, has been characteristic of past Plaid Cymru amendments. I am astonished by that. I am even more astonished by the fact that Simon Thomas stood up and said that he was opposed to the pupil premium, not because of the merits of the proposal, but because of the way that it is being funded in England-which I think he has got wrong-without looking at how it would be funded in Wales or even the benefits that it would bring to many children from deprived backgrounds who would benefit from that premium in improved educational outcomes. If you look at the costings in the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto, Simon, you will see that our proposal is not to fund this from welfare benefits or the education maintenance allowance, but to fund it from a range of fairly sensible and minor changes to the Welsh budget. In addition, in terms of the costs, we are not proposing to bring in the £2,500 per pupil straight away, but to phase it in over four years. Therefore, in year one, we would be looking at costs of about £33.6 million, rising by year four to around £185 million. These are not substantial sums of money when you think of the benefits they will bring to help pupils in schools who, at the moment, are struggling because of a range of social factors that are hampering their education.

Let us not pretend that the idea of targeting funding at children who are receiving free school meals is new. It is certainly not new in Wales. The RAISE grant, which was introduced by the then Minister for education, Jane Davidson, was precisely targeted at children who were receiving free school meals for precisely the sorts of reasons that we are talking about in relation to the pupil premium. That had limited success. I say 'limited' because there was not enough money and it was not extended over a long enough period for it to be a major success, but it showed what could be done with small pots of money properly targeted to help pupils in those particular situations. In this situation, the pupil premium is the right solution to help those pupils who are struggling in our schools today because of social and economic issues. If you look at the evidence from countries that have a similar scheme to this, you can see that, where this sort of money follows the pupil and supplements their education, it improves their attainment and their achievement. For that reason, we believe that this is the right thing to do.

The other issue that I wanted to raise on funding-and we have had this debate on a number of occasions, as Kirsty Williams has said-is whether additional funding makes any difference. My view is that it does. I am not saying that funding is the be all and end all or the panacea for all our problems, because that is clearly not the case and I do not think that we have ever said that it is. There are other issues, as has been highlighted in a number of debates over the past few weeks and months, which will improve the outcomes for pupils in our schools. If you talk to any teacher, headteacher, school governor or parent, they will recognise that, if we are to bring in changes that will improve the outcomes for pupils, we will have to pay for them. It is not as simple as saying 'We have a £604 spending gap per pupil between Wales and England and we must meet that for all to be right', but it is about saying that we have extra pots of money that, if properly targeted at transition and issues such as deprivation, literacy and numeracy, will make a difference in pupils' educational outcomes. For that reason, we feel strongly that this dismissal of the funding gap as the root cause of educational problems in Wales istoo simplistic and the wrong approach. We have to do other things, but we also need to talk about how we are going to pay for them. The Labour Government is right to say that it is going to close the funding gap over a period of time, and we support that. However, we also think that we need to do more than that, which is why I urge you to support the motion, and the pupil premium in particular, which can make a huge difference to children's lives.

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