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Wednesday 28 September 2011

Taking aim at Labour's Programme of Government

The document outlining how Wales will be run by Labour for the next five years was released yesterday. It's basically a reaffirmation of the bulk of Labour's manifesto promises in May. The manifesto then was fairly weak and unambitious, so as you might expect, the programme of government is fairly weak and unambitious too.

Carwyn Jones has said himself that he wants delivery to be at the heart of the new government. All very laudable. To a certain extent, previous Welsh Government's have focused on the micromanagement of various departments and the procedure/ administration of the Assembly itself at the expense of actual nitty-gritty stuff.

I don't think we should criticise Carwyn Jones - or his government - too much for turning their attention to the issues that matter on the ground to ordinary Welsh people : shorter NHS waiting lists, better educational performance, a better environment and falling unemployment. If Labour can drag Wales upwards in these areas, then it'll be hard to argue that they are not doing a good job.

It's a user friendly document. It makes it clear who is responsible for what and who the Welsh Government sees as a key partner in delivering their pledges. The trouble is Labour's programme of government doesn't outline any significant proposals other than more reviews and some very unambitious targets (an extra 500 PCSO's whoop-de-doo). Nor does it offer any indication of what would constitute success.

I'm critical of the "targets culture" as its been used in England in particular, as it often misses the point and the targets themselves have sometimes been arbitrary like the requirements of the new English Baccalaureate at GCSE.

The programme of government does offer more than enough "indicators" which will be used to evaluate success. If unemployment, for example, fell by 1,000 over the next year it's clearly positive movement. But if unemployment remains high overall, then it's no real success at all. Sometimes you do need to set a target, but they don't have to be unrealistic or put unnecessary pressure on public services.

All of the opposition parties in the Assembly have taken aim - somewhat predictably. Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) criticised the delivery of certain departments to date. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon) has said its a missed opportunity "and collection of meaningless generalisations" while Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnorshire) has said that "without's not worth the paper it's written on".

If Labour cannot deliver without the pressure of strict targets looming over them - unlike the last 13 years - and go on to trumpet modest improvements as "successes", then I don't think the opposition parties will be the only ones taking aim 12 months from now and asking "why so lazy?"

Monday 26 September 2011

Should a second language be compulsory at GCSE?

The Western Mail is reporting that CILT Cymru - the body for language teaching in Wales - believes that Welsh schoolchildren are falling behind their mainland European peers when it comes to learning a foreign language. They cite the number of pupils taking a full foreign language GCSE have fallen from 55% in 1995 to 29.6% in 2008.

As you might expect, some of the mouthbreathers that skulk around the Walesonline comments sections are pointing the finger at Welsh - probably because it's being taught at all rather than a compulsory subject at GCSE level.

For the record, I don't believe that Welsh should be compulsory post-14 in English-medium secondary schools
. I'll expand on my reasoning later in this post.

Mastering a Language

(For related and more in-depth look at the figures behind this, I seriously recommend this and other posts on Syniadau.)

It's said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. There's no reason why this cannot include second languages. Also, some people will be naturally adept at picking up languages or linguistic skills in general, which may reduce the time. The reason people become fluent in a language is because they're immersed in it. All lessons in English-medium schools are as much English lessons as the subject being taught - and they certainly add up to 10,000 hours.

It's the same situation in Welsh-medium schools with regard Welsh, except these children (in many cases) are as likely to use English outside the classroom. That's true bilingualism.

At the moment, the Welsh GCSE short course - which the majority of GCSE students take to meet their "compulsory Welsh" requirement - consists of one or two hours of contact time A WEEK (not including homework). Welsh is compulsory in the same manner as Religious Education and PE are. It's something to fill a gap in the timetable, not a serious attempt at bilingualism.

Likewise, the full GCSE might be only be 3 or 4 hours of contact time a week.

This applies as much to modern foreign languages (MFL) as it does to Welsh. The way we teach children languages - except English - doesn't prepare them for fluency. Unless students take a MFL to A-Level or beyond, it's highly unlikely that they'll have anything other than a passing familiarity with the language.

My German GCSE would probably enable me to cope on a short trip, or even pick up a little bit extra from a phrase book or quick course, but it would never prepare me for business or to live there.

Bonjour, Guten Tag, Shwmae butt

Let's look at how languages are taught in outward looking internationalist countries mainland Europe.

France – A first and second foreign language are core compulsory parts of the French curriculum at all levels. A first foreign language (usually English or Spanish) is introduced in primary schools. Some schools still have Latin and Greek as optional subjects.

Germany – A foreign language is taught at every level in the German education system - usually English. Students choose from a wider variety of second languages at secondary level, and a second language is most times mandatory - sometimes even a third language - studied to the German equivalent of A-Level. Some German gymnasium (grammar schools) still teach Latin.

Netherlands – Schools teach English from between their equivalent of Years 3 and 6. Language education is a core - usually compulsory - part of the Dutch curriculum at all levels.

– Pupils are expected to learn two languages other than Finnish from age 7 right the way through the school system. There's a strong emphasis on reading (for pleasure) and communication skills from the outset.

The English Problem

There is no question, English is the international lingua franca (for now). Welsh students have an advantage of being able to speak it natively.

The - not necessarily arrogant - assumption that all you need is a good command of English to succeed internationally has helped create a blasé
attitude to foreign languages (including Welsh, which is a foreign language from a non-Welsh perspective). Why go through the hard graft learning a second language when you can take an "easier" GCSE instead?

In a way, the fact that many European nations choose English as the first foreign language to introduce to students has created this problem. This isn't because of the UK (with the exception of London), but the United States. How else would teenagers in Germany and France consume the latest Hollywood blockbuster or RnB hit without a decent grasp of English? Of course, they have dubbing and subtitle but it's not the same. English-language culture still has a big pull.

If foreign languages are ever going to take off in Wales - or indeed, the rest of the UK - these languages also need that pull. Welsh already has it to a certain extent, though you don't need to be a fluent Welsh speaker to enjoy the latest Welsh language music or watch S4C.

What can we do?
  • Introduce a third language at a much earlier age (around year 4), presumably a Romance language like French or Spanish due to the similarities with Welsh.
  • Teach Welsh, the "third language" and English along side each other in some lessons - especially those focusing on grammar and comprehension.
  • Introduce other foreign languages in Geography and History lessons in primary school. At least one of Arabic, Mandarin or Japanese should be explored.
  • Use sports stars, especially Premier League, La Liga footballers and French-based Welsh rugby internationals, to boost language uptake amongst boys in particular. Efforts to do this so far have been half-hearted.
  • A second (or third in the case of Welsh Medium schools) language should be a compulsory full GCSE choice - but this shouldn't have to be Welsh in English medium schools. English Literature, Religious Education (except faith schools), IT and PE should be dropped as a compulsory GCSE's to compensate.
  • Widen the choice of languages available at GCSE (i.e Mandarin, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Hindi).

Proposed GCSE subject structure


Double Award Science (or Separate Sciences)
English Language
Welsh First Language (WM Schools only)
Religious Studies (Faith Schools only)
Personal & Social Education (Not Examined)

Electives (Depending on facilities available to schools)

  • One Language other than Native Language(s)
Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi

  • One Technical, Scientific or Numerate Subject
Information Technology, Separate Sciences, Design & Technology, Textiles, Engineering, Business Studies, Accountancy, Economics, Electronics, Automotive Engineering & Design, Construction, Plumbing, Carpentry, Food Science

  • One Humanities Subject
Geography, History, Business Studies, Psychology, Sociology, Law, Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Classical Studies, Media Studies, Religious Studies, Physical Education, Care & Health, Tourism & Hospitality, Food Science

  • One Creative Arts Subject
English Literature, Welsh Literature (WM Schools), Art, Graphic Design, Music, Drama, Physical Education, Design & Technology, Media Studies, Food Science

  • First Free Choice

  • Second Free Choice (English Medium non-faith Schools Only)

Thursday 22 September 2011

Fast Growth 50 & The Economic Renewal Plan

Professor Dylan Jones-Evans' Fast Growth 50 list was unveiled on Wednesday in association with the Western Mail. As the name suggests it's a list of the 50 fastest growing companies in Wales that's been produced annually for several years.

My personal opinion is that lists like the FG50, Hot 100 and Top 300 are absolutely invaluable in measuring the true success of the Welsh private sector. It's utter nonsense that Wales isn't home to a successful entrepreneurial ,or that all our enterprises result in failure, foreign takeover or relocation. We don't sing their praises enough.

The onus on our politicians should be to fuel the growth of indigenous businesses - like those listed in the FG50 - listen to their concerns and create an environment that might encourage some of the rapidly expanding firms to take a risk every now and again. They also need to end the ridiculous ideological "battle" between the public and private sector.

The turnovers of this years FG50 range from £1.6billion for insurer Admiral Group to £505k at Caerphilly-based ventilation experts SCS Aftercare. However, as the saying goes "turnover is vanity, profit is sanity".

What I want to look at in this post, is the impact of the Economic Renewal Plan. Prof. Jones-Evans has been one of the more vocal critics of Ieuan Wyn Jones's strategy for the Welsh economy and, more importantly, business assistance.

The ERP adopts a controversial "sectoral approach", with a panel (headed by an outside expert in the relevant field) appointed to oversee business support, and target it at the six sectors it's believed add "the most value".
  • Life Sciences
  • Creative Industries
  • Financial & Professional Services
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Energy & Environment
  • Information Technology/ICT

One of the major concerns - and a perfectly legitimate one - is that growth can come from any company, in any sector, at any time. The #1 company in the 2011 FG50 was a laundry company - not the most glamorous of industries by any means. By "picking winners", the ERP excludes many good companies that don't have the "right face".

So, what's the trend?

I've looked back at the last 10 years of the FG50 to see how many companies would fall into the ERP's sectors listed above, I'm calling them "ERP-compliant" businesses. I've also included "questionable" companies that may or may not fit into one of the sectors – for example, would a training company be classed as "financial & professional services"?

I've included these "questionables" in the final percentage of ERP-compliant companies, on the basis that in reality, the definitions of the six sectors are going to be very broad and likely include them.

A look at ERP-compliant companies since 2001 (Click to Enlarge)

What did I find?
  • That the number of ERP-compliant companies in the FG50 average around 60-65% of the list every year and 2011 has seen the highest number for the last 10 years - but also included a large number of "questionable" companies. The numbers of ERP-compliant companies generally increase year on year.
  • The majority of fast growing companies wouldn't miss out because of the ERP. However, ERP-compliant companies have only made up a majority of the FG50's top ten in three years (2001, 2002, 2010) and top twenty in 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
  • Life Sciences are straggling as a sector, with Bridgend-based clinical trials company Biotec Services International being the sole company present consistently over the last three years.
  • Financial/Professional Services (especially the recruitment industry) and ICT are the only consistent good performers of the six ERP sectors. The vast bulk of "questionable" companies would probably fall into the Financial & Professional Services sector.
  • Creative Industries, Environment & Energy and Advanced Manufacturing have had many single "top 10" performers but the sectors as a whole don't add a great deal of numbers. Creative Industries and Advanced Manufacturing might have been hit particularly hard by the recession.
  • Many of the companies (possibly even a majority) appear in the FG50 over multiple years. There are very few "new" companies making the list.
  • The biggest "excluded" sectors include : Construction, General Manufacturing, Logistics and in the earlier years, Tourism & Hospitality.

Suggested Improvements

It's far too early to judge the success or failure of the ERP - it's only been going for 18 months or so. However, that doesn't mean that some of the trends highlighted by the FG50 couldn't be worked into a review of the ERP in the near future.

1. Merge Life Sciences and Advanced Manufacturing into a "Science & Technology" sector. Considering the small number of life science companies regularly making the FG50 list it makes some sense to consolidate. Special focus in this sector could include IP protection, attracting more R&D funding from central (and private) sources and university spin-outs (regardless of sector).

2. Subsequently replace life sciences with a "Construction & General Manufacturing" sector. This would probably result in 80-90% of the FG50 being ERP-compliant companies in future years and cast the net much wider.

3. The Welsh Government should give a clear definition of what business specialisms fall into each sector as soon as possible.

4. Help for entrepreneurs/start ups and inward investment arms should be completely separate from the ERP functions. There should also be specific/ring-fenced/additional help for fast-growing companies with large turnovers ("small nation stars"), companies with the potential of franchises (i.e. Retail) and social enterprises.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Edwina blinks - Five enterprise zones announced

It was half expected - Mark Drakeford AM (Lab, Cardiff West) let the cat out of the bag a few days ago - and yesterday, the Minister for Business and Enterprise announced five new enterprise zones for Wales. This comes hot on the heels of the decision by TATA to locate a Jaguar engine plant in a Wolverhampton enterprise zone, when south Wales was (apparently) shortlisted.

This announcement was going to be made regardless, I doubt the Jaguar decision forced it. Despite the headlines, Wolverhampton was a logical choice on a number of factors. We shouldn't beat ourselves up too much that the plant isn't coming our way, even if it is a blow to the Welsh automotive industry.

The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru have already attacked the plans, with Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) - seemingly miffed that he wasn't told sooner - accusing Edwina Hart of making it up "on the back of a fag packet". Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon) made a (somewhat) valid observation that a vast swath of West Wales - including Edwina Hart's own city of Swansea (surely a prime candidate for a life sciences enterprise zone) - miss out.

I'm skeptical, but not dismissive, of the potential impact of enterprise zones as I highlighted in a post last month. I don't doubt that these new zones will create jobs and wealth, but I don't believe they will do so on a scale that will seriously alleviate unemployment to a significant degree.

The BBC reports that the Welsh Government is going to make £10million available over five years. The zones will also - it's assumed - have relaxed planning regulations and business rate relief. The only major difference between England and Wales is that the Welsh zones will be targeted at specific sectors - an echo of the One Wales Government's Economic Renewal Plan.

Here's a profile of the five enterprise zones:


Sector : Energy

Anglesey currently has the lowest GVA per capita of any local authority in the UK. The presence of several current and future energy schemes - such as the Wylfa replacement, a new biomass plant and several offshore wind farms in the area - has raised hopes of an "energy island" economy. The Welsh Government's decision to prioritise energy industry here is logical and practical.

I do believe that in a seriously under performing areas like Anglesey, "general" enterprise is a better approach than targeting a single sector. With the well highlighted problems in governing the island, and the inevitable future controversy surrounding Wylfa, it remains to be seen whether energy production is going to be just another extractive and low labour intensive stop-gap instead of providing real prosperity.


Sector : Advanced Manufacturing

Wrexham and Deeside is Wales' forgotten second economic engine (excuse the pun). With many of the major employers in this "region" on the Welsh side of the border - including big names such as Toyota and Airbus - advanced manufacturing already has a very big presence here.

The Deeside area is also leading the way in some very high-tech niche industries such as optronics and renewable/advanced materials. Glyndwr University is also very active in post graduate reseach in areas such as materials science. There's potential for some significant higher education – industry cooperation here.

Cardiff Central Business District

Sector : Financial & Professional Services

This was one of the more predictable zones and something of a no brainer. Cardiff Council and the Welsh Government have joined forces to create a "national business district" in and around Cardiff Central station, with the outgoing previous Welsh Government already committing a large sum of funds towards developing it.

Admiral Group are primed to start work on their new headquarters a stones throw from the site while there are long term ambitions to "complete" Callaghan Square and kick start a creative industries cluster at Porth Teigr in Cardiff Bay.

The question remains whether Cardiff can seek to use it's capital status to rival Bristol's enterprise zone. What advantages does Cardiff offer over Bristol?

St Athan

Sector : Aerospace

Another logical choice. However, St Athan has a dogged history with promises of jobs and wealth being broken. The former Labour MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, John Smith, became the face of this, predicting doom in front of the cameras which eventually became a self fullfilling prophecy.

"Project Red Dragon" – a "super hanger" built by the WDA and Welsh Assembly, heavily trumpeted by Rhodri Morgan, became "Project White Elephant" when the UK Government decided to take fast-jet maintenance in-house in 2007.

Then came Metrix, and the proposed military technical training academy. Another false dawn, as once again the UK Government cancels the project (which was never really a goer just like the Severn Barrage) to the protestations of local politicians and Peter Hain.

I have to wonder what the UK Government will do to scupper it this time? Or will it be a case of third time lucky.

Ebbw Vale

Sector : Automotives

This is a bizarre one. Ebbw Vale is primed for an enterprise zone – The Works scheme is a sandbox for small enterprises. Automotives are a big employer in the area but I don't think the area is synonymous with it.

Blaenau Gwent has several long standing problems relating to unemployment and economic inactivity since the closure of the steelworks. Like Anglesey, in such an under performing area, surely any enterprise is better than targeting a sector that has other, better established, centres of employment in Wales.

I would've liked to have seen Ebbw Vale become a focus for smaller, indigenous businesses from all sectors that can - in time - create something of a sustainable valleys renaissance. Instead, and I hate to say this, unless there are some rabbits waiting to be pulled out of hats, this enterprise zone is the most likely to fail.

I'm left to wonder if Jaguar were "encouraged" to set up in Ebbw Vale against other more suitable sites, pushing them into the arms of Wolverhampton?

Sunday 18 September 2011

What is Wales? - The Higgitt Question revisited

This is in part a response to a response by Adam Higgitt to my original post a few weeks ago and a further expansion of the wider underlying issues.

Is Wales a nation, a region or an imagined community?

There's a hierarchy of human organisation that's naturally fallen into place for whatever reason. From the bottom-up, we have : individuals, families, communities, towns/cities, local authorities, regions/federal states, nations, "extended national/cultural families", continents/supranational organisations and a global community. To any Welsh nationalist, Wales is/should be explicitly a nation in this hierarchy, yet Wales remains/is treated as a region of the UK - albeit with clearly defined responsibilities devolved from the centre.

I don't want to get bogged down too much in the semantics of nationhood and identity. There's a civic Welshness, a civic Englishness, a civic Britishness and we are all Europeans, humans and members of the smaller communities in which we live.

I don't think there needs to be anything "special" about the Welsh to want full statehood. "Special" - in the wrong environment and context - can easily be fostered to become "better than" and "superior". All that there needs to be is a Welsh civic identity and a desire - by the majority - to have that identity fully expressed and recognised internationally as an equal to any other nationality – with the same voice, privileges and responsibilities.

I also, believe it or not, have a sense of Britishness (I'm sure other nationalists do as well) – a sense of "kinship" or "extended family" that might be equally applicable to the Nordic nations. In a UK context, it can be applied to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Commonwealth. Also, they show that you don't need a political union to remain "part of the family".

When I, as a nationalist, look at voting patterns for example, it's always from a national perspective and as a national dynamic - never as a region. Comparable to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or any other nation as a whole (and as an equal) but not one of the regions of England.

Is there a civic "north east England-ness" in the same way as there is for Wales, England, the UK etc? Are comparisons between a region of a nation and a nation ever fully valid? Wales may share a lot with the north east of England, demographically, economically and psephologically but I'm sure there are other regions in Europe - and elsewhere - where Wales is equally comparable. For example : Wallonia, Silesia and Brandenburg. There are also several dozen full nation states Wales can be compared to.

Wales also has it's own "regions" – the north west of Wales isn't comparable to the south east in many ways but they share a civic identity, a cultural expression of it (via sport etc.), a contiguous territorial identity, a devolved national government and a common culture.

Does it do Wales any favours to be obsessed with the neighbours gardens while ignoring the rest of the street or the wider neighbourhood? Is Wales stuck in a British bubble?

Stretching the British constitution to breaking point

One of the UK constitution's strengths is that it has a fair bit of slack and hasn't been rigidly set down US-style. One of its weaknesses, is that compromises have the potential to leave the constitution in a tangled mess, or store problems for the future inadvertently. The asymmetrical nature of devolution is an example as is the complete ignorance of English national feeling.

The UK constitution has snapped before – in Ireland - for a multitude of reasons, none of which really apply to modern Wales, Scotland or England. What I fear, is that we are heading for a similar situation in the next 10 or 20 years. Tensions between the constituent nations of the UK originating from constitutional policies that were good at the time but no longer work or lose public support (i.e Barnett formula). The constitution could then be stretched so far (i.e. Independence-lite in Scotland) that it is effectively useless at holding the core together - like a rubber band that's lost its elasticity.

If there are moves to codify or solidify the UK's constitution, then it'll lose it's flexibility that's vital to make the government and legal system (in EnglandandWales at least) function properly. If nothing is done, then the tensions placed on it - for example the English Question or the (theoretical) repatriation of powers from the devolved nations to Westminster - could cause it to snap once again.

Independence for the UK nations is just one solution or possible outcome but not necessarily the "must have" solution.

Uti possidetis juris, sovereignty and devolution

Regarding my comment on a separate Welsh body of law – it's already happened. It very much "is" instead of "ought to". The Welsh Assembly has passed measures (and will in future pass Acts) that have changed - in Wales - the way health and social services are delivered, the planning system, laws governing the Welsh language, education, housing, the Welsh approach to the environment et al. The Welsh border is locked in legally and there is now a form of Welsh sovereignty. If these laws (and future ones) are to be enforced properly in the future it will require - with some inevitability - a separate legal jurisdiction to England.

Cross-border cooperation in its most basic sense, will have to be on the basis on two nations, not one EnglandandWales clump or some sort of cross-border "super region".

I gave environmental policy and government responses to climate change as an example where there are, or will be, different priorities between Wales and England. Responding to climate change isn't as simple as reducing carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases – it means whole scale change in public attitudes and behaviour, using resources more effectively and physically preparing for the impacts (i.e. Flood protection, civil defence, land management).

It can easily be accommodated by devolution, but in my opinion, with more powers devolved away from the centre, this makes a full, unitary, political union more redundant and restrictive - not more useful. It creates more completely avoidable tensions between differing and bickering layers of government. Half measures in areas such as energy policy and natural resources like water - especially when they are key parts of the Welsh economy - isn't a healthy situation, and are historical sore points.

Adam Higgitt is absolutely right that there can be policy/constitutional adjustment to reflect a multitude of different "local factors" , instead of a black and white choice between an over centralised British state and an over centralised Wales. There are plenty of examples around the world that do this without compromising on sovereignty or civic/territorial integrity - even in small nations i.e. the Swiss cantons, the Belgian communities or even the European Union itself.

My personal belief,  is that sovereignty resides with the individual and its political and governmental manifestations should get weaker with every step up the hierarchy. I certainly don't believe devolution has to stop at the Welsh level. I think Adam Higgitt and nationalists share an lot in common with regard how the constitution and sovereignty - in all its forms - can be perfected. We just have slightly differing ideas about where "Wales" would fit in - if it should fit in to it at all.

Any attempt to split Wales up, as a territorial contiguous nation, will be seen by nationalists as partition. That's not something the UK has had a good historical track record in.

Wales in Europe

Perfectly valid points are often raised about Wales' potential relationship with the European Union and whether Wales would cede sovereignty from one union to another. Is it a case of better the devil you know?

The EU is a very different beast to the UK. It has strength in numbers - yet doesn't massively infringe on individual national sovereignty thanks in part to a very weak civic European identity. Although there can be no doubt that it does exert a "control".

It has all the benefits of political union : freedom of movement, capital and trade for example that we currently enjoy in the UK in addition to currency union for the Eurozone.

The EU is also very good for smaller exporting nations (of which Wales is one) and small nations in general who've benefited a great deal from it, with many becoming very influential in European decision making, not to mention the rolling 6-month presidency of the European Council – dare I say it a "flotilla effect".

From a nationalist perspective, the UK is acting as a middle man, getting in between Wales and the EU. Why does Wales  have to be dragged along with the ebb and flow of Britain's fractious relationship with the EU? Influenced and dominated (by sheer weight of numbers) by eurosceptic English and British nationalism? Is that in Wales' best interests in the long term? I don't think it is.

Wales has inherent disadvantages being a "region" instead of a full member state Wales has fewer MEP's (4) than it would as an independent EU member (~8-12). Wales has no EU Commissioner, no member of the EU Council and plays no role in the big decisions. Instead Wales' role is relegated to regional groupings, while matters vital (or in some cases exclusive since devolution) to Wales' interests - like the CAP and Objective One - are done through the UK on our behalf. Why?

Smaller nations in Europe are no longer the play thing of the traditional great European powers (England [by extension the UK], Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia) that change hands depending on power politics. The EU has brought a stability and certainty for smaller countries that protects their sovereignty and treats them as equals.

It's a Europe of independent and sovereign nation states, not regions or any sort of half-way house.

Killing Wales through kindness

There is a certain logic to wealthier areas subsidising straggling areas. This happens within Wales to a certain extent via the Welsh Government's redistribution of locally-raised taxes. The question is whether - on the larger macroeconomic scale - this actually doing more harm to the economies of  straggling areas than good, and if this approach is only managing a decline than actually giving these areas an economic boost.

Wales has near Soviet-levels of public expenditure as a percentage of GDP by virtue of being a straggling area in a wealthy UK - propped up to a certain extent by big "UK" spends. This doesn't scream like an invitation to inward investors or somewhere to inspire confidence in entrepreneurs. As Wales becomes an ever smaller proportion of the UK's population , the pressures to replace the Barnett Formula could see the subvention heading from Westminster shrink.

Within Wales, the gap between the East and West is large, but it is in fact narrowing - thanks in part to sluggish growth in East Wales compared to the rest of the UK. Wales also has some unique problems in closing this gap compared to North and South England. West Wales is mostly rural and sparsely populated, with higher than average jobs in the public sector. The North of England can at least still rely on big centres of employment, and global cities like Birmingham and Manchester, to be drivers of the kind of growth that keeps their heads above water - or at least respectable in terms of GVA per capita.

UK economic policy backs winners at the expense of losers. UK social policy is perhaps the opposite.

The UK does have more than one global city. The Globalisation and World Cities Research Network lists London (Alpha), Birmingham, Manchester (Beta) Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Belfast, Southampton (Gamma). Notice something about the list? Practically every single capital of a European nation is on the extended list. There's a big difference between England and Wales right there, and a massive one in terms of the economy.

Capital follows power and influence – the agglomeration effect. If Wales can use its national status to its advantage, why shouldn't we? If Wales really wants to follow an English examplem then Wales should reconsider the role of cities in economic development instead of trying to push water uphill.

There's no question that Wales need a more dynamic, more ambitious private sector and that there are endemic weaknesses within the Welsh economy that can be equally applicable to regions of England or in Europe (NE England and Brandenburg for example). Solving this problem doesn't necessarily mean "becoming more like England". I would like to think that Wales can adopt an approach that compensates for the lack of agglomeration, and re-balances the relationship between the public and private sector, without the "power struggle" between them that dogs "British" and English politics. My point about the Welsh middle/professional classes having a much bigger vested interest in the public sector is relevant to this.

In many respects, this will need full macroeconomic powers of an independent state, or at the very least a significant shift in economic sovereignty down to Wales from Westminster. Edwina Hart can tinker around the edges, but monetary/fiscal policy, taxation and things like welfare and employment laws play a much bigger role in the success and failures of the economy and individual businesses than grants and fast broadband.

Imagine having the most overbearing parents possible while living at home in your 40's. Wales is Timothy Lumsden from "Sorry".

Why culture matters

My comments on things like sport and culture were purely observations, but I don't think that makes them any less relevant to the "uniqueness" of Wales. Things like sport and the arts shape and define a nation and its identity. To ignore it would be to ignore the essence of Wales itself. It's not the most important thing on the list in terms of warranting independence, but it does provide the foundation for a national civic identity that - in nationalist opinion - underpins independence. It's our voice and deserves to be heard on the World stage as an equal.

The nonconformist issue of course is irrelevant now. It's important historically because the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales acknowledged that there was a key difference between England and Wales as nations. It applied explicitly to a territory and nation of "Wales" and was controversial in doing so. Again, little things like this underpin a civic Welsh national identity and a uniquely "Welsh way of doing things".

It's agreed that the Welsh language is an important difference between Wales and England, Adam agreed that Wales should have custodianship of it. From a somewhat self-preservationary viewpoint, would Welsh speakers feel more comfortable being a 20-25% minority in 3million or less than (and ever shrinking) 1% of 60million+? Who can be heard effectively? Who can be pushed around more easily?

Equally, although English language is used as a medium, is there any reason why the English language culture of Wales - with its own idiosyncrasies - shouldn't belong to Wales either? Part of the reason Wales has such a weak media is that, in English-language culture, we've often looked east (or in some respects forced to look east) instead of building up our own version and providing a Welsh twang and a Welsh viewpoint to the Anglosphere. This is slowly changing with regards television and on the internet though.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Breast cancer "breakthrough" at Cardiff University

First things first, this isn't a "cure". Science doesn't work like that. This is one step out of hundreds but it's a significant one.

One of the major theories regarding the origins of cancer is that it is metastasised (spread throughout the body) by stem cells - cells with unlimited potential at cell division, a mutated form of which is cancer itself.

The Tenovus research team at Cardiff University, led by Dr Richard Clarkson and including PhD student Luke Piggott (in the video above), have potentially discovered a way to "switch off" the drug resistance in these stem cells, marking them for destruction by a new drug (TRAIL-receptor antagonists). If developed into an effective therapy, it could limit the spreading potential of aggressive forms of breast cancer, making it a chronic condition that a person can be treated for instead of something much worse.

Different cancer stem cells are associated with different types of cancer - so for the moment this research is limited to breast cancer. However, there's no reason that other aggressively spreading cancers couldn't be targeted for similar treatments in the future - like cancers of the brain, skin, pancreas, prostate and bowel.

One of the "holy grails" in medicine at the moment are the use of stem cells to repair or replace damaged organs or tissues. One of the issues, and one of the reasons that is hasn't been fully developed or commonplace as a treatment yet, is that it's hard to "turn off" stem cells or get them to differentiate (change) into the specific parts needed. A way to do this might be another future spin off from this breakthrough.

This is how scientific research works, and what often riles me about tabloid headlines of "useless" research projects "wasting money" as well as ramping up the latest breakthroughs as magical cures for all. Big discoveries - like a cure for cancer - are a massive jigsaw puzzle instead of a simple A-B-C process. Research projects that might seem completely unrelated are just pieces in that jigsaw.

As a graduate of the Cardiff School of Biosciences, I'm immensely proud that they continue to carry out World-class research like this close to home. There are also dedicated scientists working on treatments for arthritis/connective tissue diseases, Huntington's disease, neurological disorders, dental diseases and more famously, the common cold.

Of course they wouldn't be able to without funding. Tenovus have a donation site here.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Ieuan's swan song and Plaid's paradox

Ieuan Wyn Jones's legacy to Wales and Plaid Cymru runs far
deeper than high-profile air links and "WAG" managerialism. (Pic : BBC)
He's still got another few months as Plaid leader, but Ieuan Wyn Jones's speech at the Plaid conference last week was the start of a goodbye process. Who will replace him? We don't know. Judging by reports, there'll be no shortage of candidates. Elin Jones has thrown her hat into the ring, Dafydd-El Thomas too. There have also been rumblings about Leanne Wood, Llyr Huws Gruffydd, Simon Thomas and Jocelyn Davies since May's disappointing election results.

IWJ's legacy will be a bit of an odd one. He's arguably the most successful leader Plaid has ever had, yet this isn't the first time the party has moved quickly to replace him and descend into (justified) post-election naval gazing.

He was a successful Economy and Transport Minister in terms of delivering projects on time (if not quite on budget) and overseeing a complex (and controversial) review of post-WDA economic policy. He's an excellent manager, organiser and always seemed keen to listen. Yet he never seemed to have the confidence of the business community, and there have been more than a fair share of completely unfair accusations and labels thrown at the man.

"Ieuan Air" is a case in point. The outgoing Labour Second Assembly introduced the north-south air link in 2007 - before the election, and way before Plaid went into One Wales. Yet all of the negative fall out - the accusations that it's a waste of money (as though £1.5million would achieve anything near the same boost for north-south travel) or that the money should be spent subsidising the awfully-run Cardiff Airport - fell squarely on IWJ's shoulders.

In his own back yard, he was accused of doing too much "nation building" - improving north-south links that would shame a Central American banana republic. He also stood equally accused of not doing enough for Ynys Mon – like failing to wave the WAG's magic wand and turn Wales' most rural, most distant local authority - run by a cabal of bickering and incompetent Independents - into an economic powerhouse.

He's been labelled bland and uncharismatic, yet his speech to the conference was full of passion and vitriol - albeit in Welsh. He's clearly a far better public speaker in Welsh than English. That's a problem (though in an ideal world it wouldn't be a problem) if Plaid want to make head ways in the Valley and M4 corridor. It's a factor the party membership should consider when choosing a new leader.

His performances in the leader debates in April were pretty good - especially the first one. Yet he was always cut as something of a pathetic figure. A squeaky "Gog", who couldn't command physical presence (like Carwyn Jones and a lesser extent Kirsty Williams) or a lightly pompous academic respect (like Nick Bourne). Yet he was still a fine leader regardless. No infighting or party rebellions. Competent in government. A trustworthy and workmanlike face for Plaid.

He didn't get everything right. He had a tendency to waffle, a tendency to become obsessed with process over delivery (a Welsh problem if ever there was one) and never stood up for himself or his record in government when it mattered.

But there's absolutely no reason why he, or Plaid, shouldn't be proud of his contribution as leader.

Ieuan's legacy is everywhere: the construction of a £100m+ road in Port Talbot that will help regenerate the centre of the town, the Porthmadog and Tremadog bypass, the Church Village Bypass delivered after 30 years of waiting, several new and improved rail stations, a new Swansea bus station, a reduction in road casualties because of "nation building" safety improvements along the A470, platform extensions in the south Wales valleys, ProAct & ReAct keeping thousands of people in work and training during the worst recession since the 1930's (and Welsh unemployment not the worst of the UK's nations and regions for once) and a strong case made for future electrification of the south Wales mainline and valley lines.

He set the ball rolling for infrastructure improvements for the next 10-15 years. He also radically (in Welsh terms) changed the relationship between business and state that has existed unchallenged in Wales for 40 years – a conceived wisdom that handouts and grants dished out like swimming certificates to any business that wants one in a mobile globalised economy automatically leads to jobs and wealth creation.

I'm not the only one who disagrees with some of the outcomes of that, but he grasped a poisoned chalice and did his best to deliver in some pretty intolerable conditions and under fire from many different quarters.

History is going to be very kind to him.

The Plaid Paradox

There were a few other developments at the conference of note.

Firstly, the party have finally put "the i-word" into its constitution. We should be laughing at the reaction to this - especially from our Cheryl - that independence has been some sort of insidious "nats under the bed" plot Plaid have kept quiet for decades. I'm glad this nonsense has been sorted out once and for all. It's also prompted one of the best debates on Welsh independence for a long time on BBC Radio Wales which you can listen to here.

Secondly - and more importantly - the vote to support those evading TV Licence Fees in protest at the UK Government's proposals for S4C funding.

The good from this move is that Plaid are clearly a party who actually listens to and values its membership, they actually have a spine and that they are not ashamed to stand up and fight for what they believe in – things ordinary voters might want in a party.

And yet this is also the sign of a party driven by protest and the Welsh language, willing to ramp up illegal activity to make a point – things that will turn away many ordinary voters, and make Plaid look like nothing more than a large pressure group.

This is the "Plaid Paradox" : electable, yet unelectable at the same time.

The SNP have managed to reconcile the two (North Sea oil arguably being the SNP equivilant of the Welsh language) and that might be one of the reasons they've been so successful. Surely there's a "moderate" path Plaid can follow as well instead of being dragged to extremes?

No party should encourage or support illegal activity unless there is a clear injustice, oppression or predjudice being enacted or targeted at its members or supporter base that contradicts the existing law or constitution. As frustrating as the S4C situation is, I fail to see the "injustice", but what I do see is an opportunity.

Plaid could have come out of this calling for a new funding model – i.e. Welsh Government grant funding for S4C, combined with the licence fee - or even used this as leverage to devolve broadcasting (or at least Welsh-language broadcasting) to Wales. That would've not only made Welsh Labour look toothless and lazy, it would've made Plaid look like they were the only party genuinely standing up for Welsh interests and that they are willing to explore the issues and come up with clear and practical solutions.

Sunday 11 September 2011

A sunny September morning that cast a shadow over a decade

There's no question that the September 11th attack was the most significant and shocking event to have occurred in my lifetime.

I was too young to remember the collapse of communism in eastern Europe - and the associated national rebirths - while Princess Diana's death and the public reaction - although memorable - just seemed "weird". The first decade of the 21st century has been one disaster after another - both natural and man made. The optimism of January 1st 2000 was firmly wiped out by those murderous assaults on New York and Washington DC. It wasn't just an attack on the world's only superpower, but on Western civilisation and its ideals of tolerance and liberty.

This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen. This was the future. We were supposed to be safe and clean and happy.

I was in the school library when the attacks occurred. The few of us there at the time were told by the librarian returning from the staff room that "something terrible has happened in America". Being a nauseating student "leftie", I'd believed that the US could afford to be taken down a few pegs. Not like this though. Nothing prepared any of us for the horrific images that have now become grim and era-defining icons. I can't imagine what it would've been like for those actually caught up in the attacks. This was quite clearly - as many newspaper headlines on September 12th screamed - a "declaration of war".

Most of the discussion in the following days queried how the US -and the UK as an ally - would respond to the attacks. Of course, by then it was clear that this was an Islamist terrorist attack, that the US was now at war against "terrorism" and that those who did it were "going to here from all of us soon". How do you fight a war against a concept?

It's hard to temper emotions when you see ordinary men, women and children, going about their daily business, crushed under tonnes of twisted steel and concrete, having no recourse but to jump thousands of feet to their deaths, or lying dead in aircraft wreckage in rural Pennsylvania. You can understand the anger. You can understand, and perhaps even want to participate in, retribution.

Our leaders and our governments are supposed to be above those base instincts.

First was Afghanistan. The "graveyard of empires". Taken in weeks, bogged down by insurgency for years. Bali was next on Al-Qaeda's hit list. While in the meantime, Afghanistan is one assassination or policy foul up away from becoming another unstable central Asian state, with a big welcome mat laid out for the Taliban.

Then came Iraq, with the sexed up dossiers, the misplaced triumphalism of "mission accomplished", shock and awe and sectarian violence - that some estimates suggest killed several hundred thousand people. Once again it was taken in weeks, then bogged down in insurgency for years. Saddam Hussein was even brought to justice. London's transport system was next on Al-Qaeda's hit list. The UK, as the ever loyal companion to the United States, suffered a serious dent in its reputation in Europe and the Middle East.

There's the war at home too. Successful counter-terrorist operations by security agencies and the police have to be acknowledged. This is where the war on terror actually means something. Unlike other wars in the past, where the public are expected to hunker down and join the effort through physical sacrifice, we've allows our rights and liberties to be put on the table. We all want to feel safer and more secure, but giving up those things that make modern secular western society what it is (excuse the cliché) just hands victory to those who want to see it destroyed.

We need to honour all those who've made the ultimate sacrifice. The victims of terrorism home and abroad. The thousands killed on Iraqi streets by suicide bombers. The people killed by military "accidents". Those thousands of military personnel who - prior to 9/11 - probably couldn't even find Afghanistan on a map let alone care about playing cat and mouse with Taliban fighters in Helmand Province.

My generation now knows what it's like to fight a war against a concept.

It means missing limbs, missing senses, terrifying dreams and flashbacks, tears on the streets and in homes and colleagues being brought off a plane in a box draped in a union flag.

Just like any other war, any other act of terrorism, except without victory conditions and without a foreseeable end.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011 Predictions

Dere 'mlaen Cymru!..............
........until the quarter finals at least (Pic : Guardian)

The Rugby World Cup kicks off tomorrow, with all the home nations involved of course. I'm not much of a rugby fan to be frank - I'm more into football - but I believe I know just enough about the sport to make a prediction on the outcome.

The kick off times might be a bit inconvenient for the large European and African audiences, but the Antipodeans have had to deal with that every time the tournament has been hosted in the north - fair's fair.

Only five nations are realistic contenders for the trophy : New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. Many believe this World Cup is New Zealand's to lose. Call me lazy if you want, but I can go along with that.

A best case scenario for Wales and Ireland are kind draws in the quarter finals (depending on their results in their respective pools) that might open the door to the semi's or even the final itself but that's a long shot. Whether Scotland can get that far depends on their result against Argentina.

This Welsh side appear to be the best prepared ever for a World Cup. I think they can and will exorcise some Oceanian demons this time around....touch wood.

Pool A

New Zealand


Pool B



Pool C


United States

Pool D

South Africa


Quarter Finals (winners in bold)

Australia v Wales
England v France
South Africa v Ireland
New Zealand v Argentina

Semi Finals

Australia v England
South Africa v New Zealand

Third Place Game

England v South Africa


New Zealand v Australia

Monday 5 September 2011

"The Higgitt Question" - A response from the man himself

Last month, I blogged about a discussion in a Wales Home comments section that stemmed from an article about the Welsh language by Blog Banw's Adam Jones. Imagine my surprise when Adam Higgitt himself took the time and effort to respond to my blog yesterday.

This was very much appreciated and a class act.

Due to Blogger's comments section limitations, I've decided to post Adam's response in full here because it deserves to be read. As you would expect Adam makes a brilliant case even if there are some parts I don't agree with. It certainly deserves a proper response and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

A Background

The exact quote from Wales Home:
I find myself asking: what are these differences which are apparently so fundamental as to positively compel a completely different constitutional settlement and yet which cannot be described – by anyone?

Now I took "constitutional settlement" to mean many things: devolution, devolution-max, a new form of British federalism, American-style federalism, German-style federalism, confederalism and of course independence.

Adam's response implies he was referring exclusively to independence. My blogpost was trying to address any sort of difference between Wales, England and the rest of the UK that may warrant a "different" policy approach at a Welsh level or economically, historically (religion/non-conformism) or culturally (sport/culture) set Wales as a nation apart from England as a nation.

I summed this up as a question (and you could easily replace Wales and England with Scotland, Catalonia, Spain etc.)
What are the differences between Wales and England and why do they warrant a separate constitutional settlement?

Here's the original Wales Home article by Blog Banw

Here's my "Higgitt Question" blog from August.

Here's Adam Higgitt's response posted yesterday afternoon:


I’m sorry I’ve only just got around to seeing this, as a reply now seems somewhat tardy. However, since I’ve never before had a question named after me (and probably won’t again) I feel it’s in order.

I’m really pleased that you’ve given this answer, but I should add at the start of my reply (because, I’m sorry to say, this is a very long reply) that it wasn’t really the question I posed. What I was really seeking illumination on was: what is different about the Welsh as a people such that their own separate state is the optimum moral or practical solution? It is a subtle difference, but to my mind an important one. It strikes me that to be a nationalist one has to have some sort of conception of particularity or specialness of the people who comprise the nation in question: after all, if one didn’t believe that something that defined their group, it could not surely be a group?

It seems to me that this “root” question – what is special/different about the Welsh as a people – has to be addressed before any others. If not, you fall into the same circular trap that your response does at times (i.e Wales is different, therefore we should be treated differently). The problem with such circular argument is that it is incapable of deducing cause from correlation, and hence can’t get to the nub.

Your first “exhibit” – voting patterns - is a case in point. Wales’s more left-wing leanings are surely a function, not a cause, of an idea of Welsh peculiarity. Merely saying “Wales is a [more] centre-left nation” is a statement of bald psephological fact – it doesn’t address why this is so. There is another serious grievance with this in that, by only looking at nation-level voting patterns, you come up with the answer you want. The north east of England, for example, is an even more Labour-leaning part of the UK than Wales. So is the north west. Does this mean that both have a case to become separate states? What about Yorkshire and the Humber, which was more Labour-leaning until recently? What happens if Wales continues along the pattern of the last couple of elections (don’t forget that the Conservatives topped the poll in Wales in 2009) and exhibits a greater proclivity to vote Tory? Conversely, what about those parts of Wales, like the north east and south east coastal strips, that behave very much like (your notion of) England? Why should they be lumped in with the valleys and urban areas that vote Labour much the same as former coalfield areas and cities in England do? Welsh voting patterns, if you break it down, are a function of very conventionally British socio-economic factors, albeit operating counter-cyclically to the "mother" polity at times.

You say that Welsh and Scottish nationalism are less Eurosceptic than English and British nationalism. Perhaps so, but given all of those, with the exception of Scottish nationalism, are (presently) marginal electoral forces, I’m not sure what this helps to establish. The Welsh as a people appear to be only slightly less Eurosceptic than the English, and the embrace of Scottish and Welsh nationalism of Europe was, as we know, a tactical move, designed (in the sentiment of Dafydd Wigley) to remove the taint of separatism. It nonetheless raises an important question about a movement that wants independence from the British union but is outwardly enthusiastic about ceding a very large amount of independence to the European Union. But that’s probably for another discussion.

On public services, I think you have half a point. But this is difference born or Welsh relative rurality or sparsity of population. Any modern and intelligent constitutional settlement ought to be capable of adjusting policy to reflect such physical differences. Moreover, it’s only true in some parts of Wales. In others, there is the concentration of population much like urban areas of England. Surely what we need is not a choice between an all-UK approach or an all-Wales approach, but something that reflects the local reality? We need a more localist approach than either a centralised British or Welsh state can offer.

You then go onto suggest that “middle-Wales” is less upwardly-mobile and public-sector facing. Even if this is so, most agree that Wales needs a larger and more dynamic private sector, so the aspiration here is to be more like England, not less. Your point about prams and Adare street is a good one, but I don’t think this is to do with social leveling – it is merely a product of the fact that Wales is a country of 3 million rather than 60 million. Besides, didn’t I see pictures of David Cameron pushing a pram down his local high street recently?

As for Welsh social egalitarianism, I suspect this is more a working-class and less a national thing. Again, I’d suggest a comparison with England’s ex-coalfield areas, as well as her upland farming areas might be illuminating. I don’t believe the Welsh have a different idea about the type of people who ought to sit at the top table - in fact, what is striking about devolved politics is how often it seems to mimic British politics.

You are right that the composition of the Welsh economy is different from that of England’s. Actually, to be more accurate, it is different from London’s in the way you describe (England, by the way, doesn’t have several global cities, it has one; even Greater Manchester’s population is a mere one-quarter that of London’s, Leeds is one-tenth the size and Birmingham, while larger, is just another provincial European city. Belfast, for the record, is smaller than Cardiff and only slightly larger than Swansea). The economy of the north east of England shares a lot of similarities with Wales, The economy of the West Midlands is different from both London and Wales/NE England. The south west of England is different again. One size doesn’t fit all these different areas, but that doesn’t in itself mean they each need to be separate states, or that a UK-wide macroeconomic policy is incapable of meeting all those different needs, any more than an all-Wales macroeconomic policy ought to be flexible enough to cater for the prosperous south east and north east of Wales, and still take care of the Valleys and west Wales.

I can’t comment on your observations about matriarchy vs rule of law because I don’t know of any evidence to support them. But they are, at least, an attempt to identify something qualitatively different in the values, customs and sentiments of the Welsh as a people.

You are right about the Welsh language. Along with its associated culture, it is one of the very few things that is unambiguously distinctively Welsh. Of course, as you note, Wales is also very extensively English-speaking, and the English language is very much part of Welsh culture. Should Wales have “ultimate custodianship” of the Welsh language? I believe so. Does this require a separate state? I doubt that, and the existence of numerous bilingual and multilingual states suggests that it is not necessary.

As for sport, no it certainly isn’t as clear-cut as your opening sentences imply. I’m afraid that your following observations on culture and sport don’t strike me as especially valid or grounded in evidence. And they certainly don’t pass the “we therefore need a separate state” test. As for religion, I very much hope we have definitively moved beyond the era when peoples and states are divided according to religion.

Your comments on laws fall into the “ought” rather than the “is” category: it is something you hope to see as opposed to something that is in place and differentiates the Welsh.

On climate change, I find this analysis rather odd. Yes, Wales has certain natural assets that can be brought to bear in pursuit of a more sustainable mix of energy production, and devolution (with amendments) should be more than flexible enough to tailor policy accordingly. But on the broader picture, Wales, England, the rest of the British Isles and indeed most of Europe are in exactly the same position. What is needed here is greater co-ordination to reduce emissions. England’s additional need for climate change mitigation is a miniscule issue by comparison, and certainly doesn’t mean that Wales and England are incompatible as joint members of a political union.

On sub-national divisions, again I fail to see the point you are trying to make. Yes, attempts have been made to address the relative underperformance of west Wales and the Valleys, just as (in many cases exactly the same) attempts have been made to address similarly identified malaise in Merseyside, Cornwall and several other English regions. And I’m sorry to tell you that the gap between east and west Wales is also widening.


Please don’t get me wrong: there are important areas in which Wales as a whole is different from England as a whole. It is, by and large more rural and sparsely populated. It is more mountainous. It has commensurately poorer communications links. It has a greater proportion of relatively depressed post-industrial areas. And it has a unique and historic language and associated culture. But none of these, individually or collectively make the case for a separate Welsh state (as opposed to, say, a modern federal state) and none do justice to the real issue, namely the need for form of government that recognises the substantial differences that exist within Wales and within England and the commonalities that exist between parts of these two countries. A lot of problems you have described are functions of a historically over-centralised British state. I fail to see how these will be fixed by supplanting it with an over-centralised Welsh state.



Saturday 3 September 2011

Evolving the Welsh Baccalaureate

Curriculum 2000 & "Key Skills" - My Experience

The Welsh Baccalaureate - in itself - is a Welsh evolution of the Blair government's Curriculum 2000. My year were the first cohort to be taught under this new curriculum - which introduced A/S and A2 Levels. The Welsh Assembly - which was barely a year old at the time - was still in the administrative devolution stage, and merely enacted policy with a bit of tweaking here and there.

The relevant part of Curriculum 2000 vis-à-vis the Welsh Baccalaureate is "Key Skills" - in numeracy, communication/literacy and IT. As a sixth-former, I had to prepare a portfolio of evidence for each of these key skills as well as take a short exam. Each key skill was worth a certain amount of UCAS points, and although it was clear that the teachers were trying their hardest to take this seriously, the whole thing seemed like a complete waste of our time and their time.

While I was conducting in depth analysis of war poetry, I had to prove for "key skills" that I could write a letter. While Geography was introducing us to the student t-test and I had to balance equations for Chemistry, for "key skills" I had to prove that I could read from a bar graph. Use of IT was an integral part of every single subject, yet I had to collect evidence that I could word process properly.

The exams for these key skills could best be described as an insult to the intelligence of any sixth former. My GCSE exams were harder. I'm not sure what the portfolio or the exams were supposed to prove to myself, teachers, universities or future employers.

The Welsh Baccalaureate

The Welsh Baccalaureate, in its current form, could be described as "A-Level General Studies on steroids". Former WJEC chair and Bridgend Council leader Jeff Jones described it as "an A-Level with a load on nonsense added on." Even the Institute of Welsh Affairs have been critical.

The "Key Skills" element from Curriculum 2000 is still there, but there are additional requirements for the Advanced Level - such as work experience, volunteering, community service, an individual investigation - in addition to traditional A-Level subjects.

This year, some 7,000 students received the Advanced Level Welsh Bac - a big rise on 2010. It's claimed that UCAS consider it the equivalent of an A-grade at A-Level, but it's not as clear cut as that. It depends on the courses applied for and the university itself. Some universities and some courses only consider it a B-grade (like Cardiff University), or only accept the Welsh Bacc in lieu of certain A-Levels. Others, like Aberystwyth University, accept the Welsh Bacc fully as an A-grade. This is an unacceptable situation in my opinion.

As someone who's gone through Curriculum 2000, the Welsh Bac is a huge improvement on it. If I were in the position of going into sixth form, I'd consider the Welsh Baccalaureate a worthwhile qualification. However, I can't help but feel it falls short of its peers on the European mainland.

International examples Wales can emulate

French baccalauréat – Divided into three "streams" (sciences, economics and literature). French, Maths, philosophy, PE and a second language are all compulsory. Subjects are weighted based on their importance in their respective "stream" (i.e. Life sciences is weighted heavily in sciences stream, while languages more so in the literature stream). Exams average 3 hours and are essay based, multiple choice questions are unusual.

International Baccalaureate (IB) – A "core" of six subjects; maths, the native language, a second language, a science, a social science subject and an elective (usually arts). This is in addition to an extended 4000-word essay project, a critical reasoning module and up to 150 hours of extra curricular activity (called creativity, action and service).

Voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs (VWO) – Dutch pre-university eduction. Four "specialisations" (Culture/Society, Economics, Nature & Health, Nature & Technology) each placing a different emphasis on various subjects (i.e. Culture & Society focuses on history, arts and languages). Maths, Dutch, English and an additional language are compulsory, though different specialisations emphasise different mathematical disciplines.

A proposal for the Welsh Baccalaureate of the future

Key Principals
  • The Welsh Baccalaureate should be a qualification worth getting in itself, not just a matriculation/university entrance one or an additional A-Level. It should prepare students for employment as much as university.
  • Academic and vocational qualifications should have equal status.
  • The teaching structure of post-16 courses should be changed to a university-style one (lectures in large groups, tutorials/seminars in small groups, practicals where applicable) with more self-directed learning and a de-facto 9-5 day.
  • Post-16 education should be provided exclusively by further education colleges in the medium to long term. Provide a university-style experience without actually needing to go to university, including a students union and membership to NUS Wales. Make sure there is as wide a choice as possible in post-16 subjects and courses.
  • Marks should be given in percentages instead of grades, with a 50% pass mark. A student would have to pass all of the elements to get the Baccalaureate. There should also be "Honours", "Distinction" and "Merit" categories for high-acheiving students i.e. Top 1% in Wales get Welsh Baccalaureate with "Honours".
  • Exams should take place at the end of each module (spreading the exams out over the academic year), should be essay based and ideally not exceed 2 hours in length. Coursework should be replaced with teacher-monitored in-class assessments/assignments. Arts subjects are an exception for obvious reasons.

Proposed Welsh Baccalaureate Structure
  • A student chooses a "profile" (outlined below) and a selection of A-Level, A/S Level or vocational courses, some of which will be compulsory depending on the profile chosen.
  • Students should be able to make their Baccalaureate as challenging or pragmatic as possible and be able to choose up to 5 A-Levels or its equivalent.
  • Short courses should be offered to partially meet compulsory profile requirements (i.e. An "Essential Maths for scientists" course instead of A/S Level Maths). These shouldn't be seen as a "soft touch", and would be examined/assessed to the same standards as A and A/S levels.
  • A student prepared 4000-word investigation on a subject of their choice along with a 5 minute presentation of its key findings. It would be assessed on quality of argument, research skills and quality of language/presentation.
  • Each student should spend two-weeks either in work experience or volunteering in the summer break between year 12 and 13.
  • Students should be able to organise their own extra-curricular activities to provide a greater breadth of choice. There should be greater organised inter-college competition in sport and other activities.

The Proposed Profiles

Natural Sciences

Careers/University Courses : Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmaceuticals, Medical Sciences, Academia, Laboratory & Industrial Science, Chemical Engineering, Earth Sciences, Conservation/Environmental Science
  • Compulsory Course I : At least 2 natural, earth or applied science A-Levels
  • Compulsory Course II: At least an A/S Level in Mathematics or equivalent

Physical Sciences & Engineering

Careers/University Courses : IT, Academia, Physical Sciences, Astronomy/Space Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Civic Engineering, Product Design, Architecture, Energy Industries, Skilled Trades
  • Compulsory Course I : Mathematics A-Level
  • Compulsory Course II: 2 A-Levels from physical sciences, computing, engineering or technology

Business & Economics

Careers/University Courses : Entrepreneurship, Business, Finance, Economics, Public Relations, Retail, Personnel & Recruitment, Law, Marketing, Advertising, Management, Politics
  • Compulsory Course I : Either Mathematics or Economics A-Level
  • Compulsory Course II: A non-native language A-Level
  • Compulsory Course III: A humanities, business, computing or technology A-Level

Communication & Social Sciences

Careers/University Courses : Law, Translation, Business, Liberal Arts, History & Archeology, Anthropology, Classics, Social Sciences, Politics, Psychology, Performing Arts, Media/Journalism, Speech Therapy, Publishing, Criminology, Teaching, Child Care
  • Compulsory Course I : English (or Welsh First Language)
  • Compulsory Course II : Non-native second language A-Level
  • Compulsory Course III: Humanities/Social Sciences or Arts A-Level

Public Service & Leadership

Careers/University Courses : Law, Law Enforcement, Military, Security, Skilled Trades, Politics, Teaching, Management, Retail, Nursing, Civil Service, Professional Sports, Child Care
  • Compulsory Course I (Logic): One from Mathematics, Computing, Economics or Physics
  • Compulsory Course II (Social Awareness): A humanities A-Level
  • Compulsory Course III (Communication): A languages A-Level

Creative Arts

Careers/University Courses : Architecture, Performing Arts, Advertising, Graphic Design, Product Design, Marketing, Media, Photography, Teaching, Cosmetology, Fashion Industries/Textiles, Child Care
  • Compulsory Course I : First language or humanities A-Level
  • Compulsory Course II : Two creative arts A-Levels
  • Additional Requirement : A maintained professional portfolio for one of the creative arts subjects