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Sunday 15 December 2013

The year that was

Past times with bad co-o-ompany.
I moan, and shall until I die.

(Pic : via Tumblr)

So ends another blogging year. For me, anyway.

It ends on a sad note. Firstly the death of Wyn Roberts, who played a pretty critical role in the development and passing of the Welsh Language Act 1993 . It wouldn't have satisfied hardcore Welsh language activists, and won't be celebrated by certain people, but it was perhaps the most important "Welsh law" passed between the Laws in Wales Acts and devolution.

Secondly, it looks as though the long-running A Change of Personnel (ACOP) has gone. Although It was raised by Michael Cridland a few weeks ago, I was hoping it was a temporary glitch. As the blog hasn't reappeared for several weeks I'm going to assume it's permanent.

Although ACOP's posts were increasingly irregular, you could sense the mounting frustration - perhaps apathy too - the author felt towards the state of Welsh politics.

ACOP often flagged up things others didn't, prompting both people like myself to delve into stories further and lengthy debates in the comments section. It's always good to have a grown-up independent voice too, when the early days of the blogosphere - a period where it was more closely entwined with the Assembly itself and party politics - seemed more chaotic and tribal.

I doubt many of us know who was behind ACOP, but if the author is still reading this and isn't considering a return - thank you for your hard work down the years, you're leaving a big gap and will be missed.

Though 2013 was hardly a classic in terms of political events, in Wales, you can point to the resignation of Leighton Andrews as the single "biggest story of the year" within the Bay Bubble.

Though headlines were generally dominated by : the measles epidemic, hospital reorganisations, the passing of the controversial Human Transplantation Act, and, of course, the performance of local health boards, ambulance service and school system. Then there were the two elections on Anglesey, though it's hard to tell if recent polling has brought Plaid back down to earth.

Outside of Wales, there were the deaths of Hugo Chavez, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela; the resignation of a Pope, the supposed green shoots of a economic recovery, the Syrian crisis (and the Westminster vote to ditch military action) as well as the ever tightening impact of welfare reforms.

As you can tell, covering politics is often a miserable pastime, but it's right to put the negativity aside and look forward.

My census blogs proved more popular than I'd anticipated, and I hope they were useful. Considering I was only going to look at the Welsh language in isolation, you can see how that snowballed.

2014 promises to keep me very busy. I intend to cover the European Parliament elections, though I haven't decided to what extent. There's also the formal conclusion to Part II of the Silk Commission, which is due next spring (and I hope it's a damned side better than Part I).

In May, I aim to mark the 15th anniversary of the National Assembly (because this blog's unlikely to be around to mark any other milestone) with a special look at devolution's successes, failures and its future over the next 15 years.

For fellow "hard nats", I'll finish my look at ethical considerations in relation to independence with cloning, robotics (drones etc.) and hunting. Considering recent media reports, I'm thinking of re-writing my post on space policy too, possibly adding Ordnance Survey and the Met Office to that.

I also intend to have, what have become obligatory, in-depth examinations of two of the "biggies" – drugs policy (let's hope it doesn't turn out like the last time that was raised on the Welsh blogosphere!) and foreign policy.

The latter's still in the balance as it might be too big for me to take on. It could easily be 10-15 parts and I'm considering giving all of August 2014 over to cover it.

I don't intend to cover the Scottish independence referendum (other than the result and fallout). I believe it's a matter for Scots alone, and if I were a betting man I'd be laying on a comfortable no vote – though both could change.

In addition, there'll be the usual stuff from Bridgend and National Assembly - hopefully including more detailed coverage of Bridgend Council itself.

The Democratic People's Republic of Carmarthenshire will inevitably feature too.
I'm considering whether to "recall myself" should a certain WAO public interest report be published, but in all honesty I've done enough this year to give it a miss....until January. My best wishes go to Caebrwyn for her appeal hearing, due tomorrow.

I'll also give my links to other sites/bloggers/AMs a revamp.

Repeating what I did in 2012, and to tide you over until the new year, here are my most popular posts of 2013 in descending order :
  1. Vibrant & Viable Places – A new regeneration strategy
  2. Census 2011 : National Identity & Ethnicity
  3. Twinning the Nation – What nations are like Wales?
  4. Census 2011 : What's stunting Welsh?
  5. Welsh Government's low stakes on problem gambling
  6. Life, Ethics & Independence IV – Stem Cells
  7. The deal's done – So what next for Cardiff Airport?
  8. Digging deep into deals done dirt cheap
  9. Local Sovereignty I – Principles, Practices & Problems
  10. Up Shipton Creek

Honourable mentions :

So unless I "have to" post again over the next fortnight or so - take care and enjoy yourselves!

Friday 13 December 2013

Future of the Wales & Borders Rail Franchise

Rail policy in Wales has significant cross-border impacts, and it's
not expected that the franchise map would change in 2018.
(Pic : Arriva Trains Wales)

Before I wrap up for the year, it's worth returning to my "favourite Assembly committee" – Business & Enterprise – which launched their report on the future of the Wales & Borders rail franchise on Wednesday (pdf).

Rail services in Wales recently come under criticism from the Campaign for Better Transport, who claim services were poorly used compared to the rest of the UK
and that Welsh rail passengers have lower service satisfaction. The franchise to run rail services in Wales and the Marches is up for renewal in 2018.

The Committee didn't come up with any recommendations as such. Instead, they produced a draft Charter for the franchise, based on an assumption that powers over the Wales & Borders franchise would be devolved.

The Current Franchise

The Wales & Borders franchise is currently run by Arriva Trains Wales (ATW), a subsidiary of Arriva UK, who are in turn owned by Deutsche Bahn. ATW was awarded a 15-year franchise in 2003, with Westminster retaining powers to award rail franchises via the Department of Transport.

The committee say most of the evidence they received was critical of ATW's performance. This includes reasons like:
  • Lack of demand forecasting, provision for passenger growth and investment (by ATW).
  • A failure to reflect Welsh Government priorities.
  • Inadequate rolling stock, poor service standards and complex fare structures.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said the franchise was awarded during a time of increasing austerity, while the SWWITCH transport consortium (covering south west Wales) said ATW had "performed well given the limitations of the franchise".

ATW said the current franchise was effective, with significant passenger growth, record levels of passenger satisfaction and improvements in punctuality.

The current franchise agreement (pdf) meant ATW only had to invest £400,000 over 15-years (what numpty drew that up!?). They say they invested £30million (p3 2.7).

Passenger Focus disagreed with ATW's assessment, saying that although some aspects were "good", there was no planning for future growth and the franchise contract was "flawed from the start".

The committee took evidence from Transport Scotland (the Scottish Government's transport agency). Railways are mostly (but not 100%) devolved to Scotland, and the ScotRail franchise is up for renewal in 2015, so they're going through the same process Wales is. They're including integrated transport provisions within their next franchise agreement, including linking rail services to active travel routes.

A New Franchise

Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), told the committee that discussions over devolving further rail powers to Wales are "ongoing", while the Welsh and UK Governments have made it clear there should be further devolution of rail powers in both submissions to the Silk Commission. The UK Government are, in fact, actively pressing for devolution of railways, but it's unclear if that's to the same extent as Scotland.

The franchise map is unlikely to change as including English routes improves the franchise's "financial sustainability".

In terms of timescales; the procurement notice will be published in the EU in March 2017, tenders will be published in August 2017, the contract will be awarded in June 2018 and the franchise will come into effect in October 2018. The committee believes work needs to start now "to ensure deadlines are met".

In terms of the length of the franchise, the Department of Transport said long-term franchises were "not as attractive as they had once appeared". Edwina Hart said she would, however, prefer a "long-term relationship". Meanwhile, Railfuture suggested the current franchise should be extended so to enable a move towards a not-for-dividend business model.

Service Standards and Rolling Stock

Minimum service standards on board trains and in stations
should be part of any new franchise agreement.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Evidence suggested there needed to be minimum service standards as part of any new franchise in terms of facilities, rolling stock, integrated transport and dealing with complaints. Passenger Focus suggested there needed to be "hard measures" to tackle overcrowding and simplified fares, but "soft measures" when it comes to service quality.

In Scotland, stations are monitored every four weeks for things like as cleanliness, toilets, timetables and customer service. Inspectors are given laptops to instantly record reports. Respondents believe something similar should happen in Wales.

Passenger groups said there needed to be more regular contact between themselves and train operators, suggesting the creation of a "franchise panel" of rail users. ATW agreed that any new franchise needed to "ensure passengers views are at the forefront" of operations.

In terms of new routes, there was an emphasis on connectivity with England, in particular Liverpool and Manchester Aiports, Birmingham and London. Within Wales, there were calls for improved services on the Cambrian Line between Birmingham and Aberystwyth, and calls for a reopening of a "north-south" rail line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, electrification of the north Wales coast line and light rail in unspecified towns and cities.

I think most people using Welsh railways agree that current trains are barely suitable for modern transport. Most are 40 years old and nearing the end of their useful life. Evidence pointed to a need for Wi-Fi, improved disabled access, better refreshment and toilet facilities, and better facilities for bikes.

There's clear need for a long-term strategy on rolling stock
- whether "hand me downs" or brand new.
(Pic : David Burrell via Flickr)

As to where to get the trains from, there wasn't an agreement on whether rolling stock should be "cascaded" ("hand me downs") or bought new.

Transport expert, Prof. Stuart Cole, suggested the Welsh Government should become a "rolling stock company" in its own right, owning any Wales and Borders train fleet from 2018. Leasing company, Angel Trains (and ATW), said refurbishing old trains provided better value for money than completely new rolling stock.

Edwina Hart was open minded about either option, leaning towards refurbishment. While Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, has previously called for bespoke trains post-electrification.

It was generally agreed that the issue of rolling stock needed a "long-term strategy". However, Prof. Cole said any decision to lease or purchase new trains had to be in place by the end of 2014 as it takes up to 3 years for new trains to become available.

The Business Model

Three potential management models for a new franchise were offered.
  • A standard model – Train operators receive revenues and accept risks, with subsidy paid by the Welsh Government or a premium paid by the franchise holder.
  • A concession model – Operators are paid a fee to run services specified by a franchise authority. Revenues are then received by that authority (similar to MerseyRail and London Buses).
  • A not-for-dividend model (aka "Glas Cymru model") – This could include a state-owned, not-for-profit company operating at arms length from the Welsh Government, or a co-operative franchise.
There was no clear consensus on which model would be best, though many respondents at a special "stakeholder event" believed the not-for-dividend model was worthy of further investigation. Railfuture outright supported it. Many though believed the business model itself wasn't as important as service delivery.

Prof. Cole believed that the traditional franchisee model would provide improvements to customers, but that the not-for-dividend model would be more popular. He also raised concerns there wasn't enough expertise within the Welsh Government to develop the franchise and procure things like rolling stock.

If the franchise moved to a not-for-dividend model, ATW say that there would be more management "by the Assembly", whereas if it's a for-profit business model, the operator takes on more of the management duties.They also believed that profit motive was essential to create economies of scale, saying that if the Welsh Government were considering a different business model, they should do so with their "eyes open to the risks".

ATOC produced evidence from KPMG that highlighted the benefits of competition between franchises, though its findings were questioned by a Leeds University study which said franchising has been "less successful, cost wise".

Edwina Hart said she was open-minded to a not-for-dividend company bidding to run the franchise, but would require the powers to enable that to happen. She did say though that "no substantial work" has been carried out by the Welsh Government to investigate a not-for-dividend model, which caused the committee concern.

There was also discussion on the benefits of integrating infrastructure (Network Rail functions) with train operations - dubbed a "deep alliance" - to help reduce costs overall. It means train operators and Network Rail could work together to improve efficiency and customer service in all aspects of rail operations.

The Draft Charter

The overriding aim of the Charter is to put passengers first.
Haven't we heard all that before though?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The draft Charter (p34-36) had 10 key points, building on the committee's integrated transport inquiry, summarised as :
  • Lobby the UK Government for devolution of powers and funding for railways so the Welsh Government is responsible for awarding the Wales & Borders franchise.
  • Ensure the Welsh Government has the right expertise and funding in place to deliver an effective franchise and necessary rolling stock. This includes developing a rolling stock strategy "as a matter of urgency", factoring in electrification programmes.
  • Base new routes on a detailed understanding of rail traffic flows in the franchise area, including cross-border routes.
  • Take an early decision on the management model, clearly demonstrating how it would improve passenger satisfaction, service delivery and provide value for money.
  • The Welsh Government, when drawing up the franchise, should clearly :
    • Put passenger needs first and foremost.
    • Require significant investment by the operator.
    • Enhance performance monitoring based on the Scottish example, and enhance monitoring of services and environmental impacts.
    • Simplify ticketing and fares, as well as provide high standards for station facilities and effective branding.
    • Integrate with other modes of transport as well as walking and cycling routes.
    • Develop a closer working relationship between the franchise holder and Network Rail.

All Aboard?

It looks like they've scored a hat trick.

In all honesty, from my own experience, rail services in Wales – while they could be significantly improved – aren't that bad. I have the luxury of living in an urban area though that's well served by routes, and it's clear rural Wales has serious problems. Rail services aren't as bad or as under pressure as bus services anyway. Following Scotland's lead when it comes to monitoring and maintaining standards of service is long overdue and a necessity.

You can't really argue with the Charter as outlined. It does seem a bit aspirational for now, and will need to be backed up with something concrete when it comes to awarding the franchise itself. That is however - in political terms - a long time away.

If there's one area you would point to a not-for-dividend/not-for-profit model working, it would be the railways. The former chair of the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Rail, now Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), has led work on that before.

It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the Welsh Government have been lazy when it comes to investigating that model further. If Edwina Hart really wants to see that happen - I suspect that deep down, she might - she'll have to get her skates on. I suspect though that the next franchise will be awarded to an established company – simply because it's less risky. Typical Wales.

The overriding fact is that absolutely none of this matters without the devolution of prerequisite rail powers. That will have to happen by the end of 2014 at the latest judging by the timescales given in the report.

Saturday 7 December 2013

How many AMs do we need?

The debate on how many AMs we now need is well and truly underway,
but like many other things, could this issue have been put to bed years ago?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
In terms of answering the title question, a loud, chippy minority will say "none".

Most of us will laugh at the suggestion that – amongst all the problems presently – we need more Assembly Members.

At the moment I'm firmly, but reluctantly, in the latter category. That's because although the case for more AMs is watertight, it's a poisonous proposition.

The Richard Commission famously recommended the number of AMs be increased from 60 to 80, which would put Wales – representative per head wise – in line with Scotland (with 129 MSPs for ~5million people) but behind Northern Ireland (108 MLAs for ~1.8million people).

Regardless of its potential impact on the referendum result, an extra 20 AMs should've come alongside primary law-making powers in 2011. It'll be a racing necessity should financial powers come in future.

We don't do things like that in Wales though because constitutional change here is driven by a mix of compromise and cowardice.

The Assembly chamber was designed to accommodate 80 AMs (eventually), and 80 AMs should be more than enough - not only for the current and future devolved settlements but independence too – presuming there were some sort of significant local government reform alongside it.

UK Changing Union and the Electoral Reform Society went one step further, suggesting the number of AMs should be increased to 100 in their comprehensive report, Size Matters (pdf).

The electoral mechanics of that is an issue in itself. The Elections in Wales blog has done a lot of work on that, though if I had to pick one system it would be 40 FPTP and 40 list members. It's all academic for the time being though.

The two big issues that have prompted this debate are levels of scrutiny and workloads.

The Scrutiny Issue
The impact of too few AMs in the debating chamber is obvious, but
little attention has been paid to the impact in the Assembly's committees
- which is perhaps more critical in scrutiny terms.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
This should be the most important consideration.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) recently told The Western Mail that more AMs, or other changes to how the Assembly functions, were "urgently needed". Around half of Labour's AMs are on the government payroll (plus the Llywydd), meaning only 15 Labour AMs are left to scrutinise their own government's work. Many are – let's face it – not very good at it.

You could say that's down to good party discipline – with Janice Gregory (Lab, Ogmore) being an effective enforcer for Carwyn Jones.

You could also say the atmosphere is claustrophobic, with little wriggle room for discontent, meaning party whips are disproportionately more powerful that they would be in Westminster or the other devolved administrations. Significant Labour rebellions have happened before, but they've usually cost the rebel dear, which is typically Welsh.

I don't think it matters too much in plenary debates, because you would expect AMs of all colours to act tribally.

When it comes to the committees though, the situation's more worrying. According to Size Matters, only 42 AMs are available to work in the Assembly's 11 committees - not including Assembly Commissioners and Business Committee - once ministers, the Chief Whip, presiding officers and party leaders are excluded (though Kirsty Williams still sits in committees).

The detailed, line-by-line scrutiny of government takes place in the committees, so that's where the real "damage" is done. Labour AMs are often more critical of government policy in the committees than they are in the Senedd chamber. That's presumably because they have "freedom" to do so in a more deliberative atmosphere where they, not ministers, call the shots.

The remit of some of the committees is also very broad, meaning AMs lack opportunities to develop specialist expertise. Meanwhile, AMs have reportedly complained they don't have time to properly read material before committee sessions, meaning ministers are often at an advantage when being questioned.

As Julie Morgan found out herself earlier this year, committees have been manipulated by the government. Three pro-smacking ban Labour AMs were shunted out of the Health & Social Services Committee to prevent a Plaid Cymru amendment to the Social Services and Wellbeing Bill – that could've outlawed smacking – being added.

Obviously with more AMs, committees could be larger, or committee workloads would be spread out a bit more, giving AMs more time to digest evidence and develop their skills and expertise in certain areas. There would perhaps be an extra 6-10 Labour AMs (in an 80 member Senedd), possibly improving backbench scrutiny on the government side because backbenchers might be a little harder to control.

The Workload Issue
AMs are certainly paid enough, but has anyone ever considered
the amount of work they need to get through in a typical week?
(Pic :

The Hansard Association report The Assembly Line (p19) from January said the average AM's workload is divided thusly:
  • 22% in plenary
  • 21% in committees
  • 21% on casework
  • 18% on constituency matters
  • 20% "campaigning" at local and national level
....which is 102% (sic).

So only ~40% of AMs work is the stuff we see "on camera" (plenary and committee). The rest of it happens in their Cardiff and local offices or, I presume, at the various events hosted at the Assembly for charities, lobbyists etc.

The report said it tots up to a 57 hour week, with two thirds of that spent in Cardiff. Although people in professional jobs work longer hours anyway, to put that in perspective, in 2011 (pdf) 43 hours (including overtime) was the average in Wales.

Most of that work will consist of reading. Lots and lots of reading. E-mails, casework, committee evidence, legislation, accounts, and reports of various descriptions.

Because I keep my eye on things like committee reports and legislation, I appreciate how much legalese sludge an AM (and their support staff) gets through in an average week, but even then I perhaps only see a quarter to a third of it.

So, in the spirit of the season, AMs – all of them – work pretty damned hard. I don't think I've ever criticised "how hard" AMs work and I never will.  Performance is a different matter. A 57 hour week – even if it might be slightly exaggerated – is a potential health hazard and needs to be brought down to something more reasonable.

We expect "value for money" from elected representatives, but an overworked AM is an ineffective AM.
And yes, if workloads come down, pay and expenses should come down with it.

Committee work, in itself, is a pretty big commitment in terms of time and effort. Many AMs might sit on 3 or 4 committees (if you include filling in for absentees) when, ideally, they would perhaps only sit on 2 committees and no more than 4 Cross-Party Groups (some AMs are involved with 10+ CPGs).

The easiest solution is more AMs. In the absence of any consensus though....

What can be done with 60 AMs?
Should there be extraordinary Assembly sittings on Thursdays?
(Pic : Click on Wales)

The Assembly will have to do at least 4 things :

Spread the workload out (to reduce working hours)

This could be done – as the Size Matters report suggests – though the use of Senior Advisers to provide specialist support to individual AMs when dealing with "issues of strategic significance locally and nationally". The numbers of support and research staff could also be increased to ensure AMs are properly briefed on significant legislative and scrutiny work over shorter timescales.

However, this approach wouldn't address the democratic factor. After all, support staff can't question ministers in plenary or committees.

AMs will have to help themselves too by limiting the number of committees and Cross-Party Groups they're a member of. Committees should also perhaps make better use of one day inquiries for technical, narrow-focused topics instead of spreading them out over several months in a "full" inquiry.

Increase the number of backbench government AMs

This could be done by capping the number of government ministers to 8-10 AMs (including deputies and Chief Whip, but not the Counsel General or Llywydd). This can increase as the number of AMs increases, or as more powers are devolved. However, if some deputy minister positions went it would reduce the amount of "apprenticeship" future ministers get to build up experience, and it would likely mean heavier workloads for other ministers.

Rethink Assembly scheduling and procedures

Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew Davies, recently proposed an extra plenary sitting on Thursday mornings. I presume that's because the Conservatives are Stakhanovites who want to work themselves and you to death for no reason other than to prove they're/we're all "working hard".

I don't judge politicians by how close they are to giving themselves a stroke or how little sleep they get. Working for show is idiotic.

There is, however, a more practical side to it that shouldn't be dismissed.

There's a case for short notice, extraordinary plenary sessions on Thursday afternoons (after committee meetings) if a plenary meeting on a preceding day is expected to run significantly beyond 6pm. They could also be used to discuss matters of urgent national importance that couldn't be fitted in to other meetings. At the moment, only the First Minister has the power to recall the Assembly, via the Llywydd, for that reason. Maybe the power to hold extraordinary Thursday sessions should pass to AMs as long as a minimum number of AMs agree.

If you want examples of when that might be useful, you could easily see the Stage 3 debate on the Social Services and Wellbeing Bill lasting 5 hours+. So instead of debating it on the Tuesday or Wednesday – probably leading to the Assembly sitting until beyond 9pm – it might be worth debating it in its own right on a Thursday afternoon.

Something like the recent PISA results could be seen as a "matter of national importance" that warrants its own plenary debate, with as many AMs as possible wanting to make a contribution, instead of the usual 30-45 minute discussion slotted in on Tuesday afternoons – which is what we're going to get next week.

Grant committees more independence and empower backbenchers

Ministers should fear the committees, it goes without saying. You get the impression though that Welsh Ministers are given an easy ride by Assembly committees. That could be – as said earlier – because AMs don't have enough time to get through the material before committee meetings. It could also be that AMs, especially of governing parties, are scared of putting their own ministers on the spot and potentially embarrassing them.

We probably need the Assembly Commission to undertake something similar to the Wright Committee in Westminster, which proposed (pdf) : direct election of committee chairs and committee members by secret ballot, a decrease in the number of committees (which might not be possible in the Assembly), and more frequent debates on both backbench motions and public petitions.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Ghost Children : Missing from care

Yesterday, the Assembly held a members debate on the issue of exploitation of vulnerable children and children who go missing from care. Just to illustrate how seriously AMs are taking it, the debate motion was sponsored or supported by 10 AMs from all parties.

The latest statistics from March 2013 show that there were 5,745 looked-after children in Wales. The majority (3,125) are boys and the vast majority of both sexes are aged under 10.

Rhondda Cynon Taf (620) has the largest number of looked-after children, followed by Swansea (590), Cardiff (555), Neath Port Talbot (490) and Bridgend (385). There are noticeably fewer children in care in north Wales and rural Wales.

The Western Mail
comes in for some well-deserved stick here and elsewhere, but when they get things right it's proper to give them the credit they deserve too.

I'm not sure if the report prompted the Assembly debate, but a few weeks ago, Ciaran Jones highlighted the shocking number of children who've gone missing from care in Wales. Following Freedom of Information requests to local councils, they revealed 221 looked after children had been reported missing from social service care over the last two years.

The "good" news is that most were eventually found, though four children remaining missing at the time the local authorities released the data. Some were missing for a long time – one teenager for 19 months - and the cases included babies, including one in Bridgend.

During the debate, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) said that across three Welsh police force areas there were more than 1,700 reports of children going missing from care. If South Wales Police had responded, I suspect the figure would've comfortably broken the 2,000 mark.

The reasons looked-after children "run away" or go missing are complicated. It's easy to place the blame on social services, but you can understand what sort of pressure and bureaucracy there is when they could be dealing with hundreds of children in foster or local authority care. It's probably a tough enough job for all parents.

It's doubly worse if those running away or going missing believe they don't have anyone to turn to. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) highlighted a "culture of not listening/believing children". Needless to say, many of these children will also have awful back stories and might not be inclined to trust adults – any adults.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) raised the issue of sex and relationship education in general, to ensure that young people are safe, not only from things like bullying and sexual abuse but online "grooming".

I'm not sure if there was a similar inquiry in Wales, but a 2012 Westminster inquiry in England (pdf) found that reasons for running away included :
  • General unhappiness.
  • Missing family and friends (where applicable).
  • Bullying or abuse.
  • "For fun"/attention seeking.

Going missing in itself is pretty serious, but there's an even darker side to this. Missing children, especially foreign children, are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking – effectively modern slavery - whether that's from criminal gangs, pimps or even things like paedophile rings.

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) chairs the Assembly's cross-party group on Human Trafficking and has raised her own concerns on this several times. During the debate she said that the "wellbeing of looked-after children should be uppermost in the minds of every councillor at county hall." The legalese term for that being "corporate parenting".

Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales), a former council leader with experience at corporate parenting, said he had no recollection of any figures being given to him on the number of children missing from care in Wrexham. He questioned whether councillors with responsibility for corporate parenting will be able to fulfil their roles without that information.

The Welsh Government's own protocols on missing children say any child missing from care for more than 6 hours or after midnight needs to be reported to the police.

Earlier this year, Gwent Police joined forces with the local authorities in the area, in order to co-ordinate their own responses with social services and health professionals when dealing with children who go missing – not only from care, but generally. Gwent Police say they deal with up to 300 cases a month.

The Assembly noted the Gwent Missing Children Project approach, but wanted "more consistent and reliable data" regarding children, specifically those who go missing from care or foster homes.

The debate also addressed the issue of "out of area placements", with the Assembly agreeing that the practice could put children at risk. Around a quarter of children in care are placed "out of county" in Wales and this could contribute to unhappiness.

The Welsh Government's flagship Social Services & Wellbeing Bill – if passed - will require out of area placements to be subject to certain requirements, set out by regulations. Most of the current local authority responsibilities towards looked-after children have been retained, including providing accommodation to any child who requires it.

Another issue related to this is that of older children leaving care. In 2011, Children's Commissioner  Keith Towler published a reportLost After Care (pdf) – which says that many looked-after children are required to leave care "before they're ready", while social workers often don't have the opportunities to spend "quality time" with looked-after children.

There have been proposals to increase the age that looked-after children stay with foster parents (or care homes, I presume) from 18 to 21.

Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) proposed a Member's Bill in 2012 - the first one post-referendum in fact - that would have provided phased support packages for children leaving care from ages 18-25. For whatever reason, the Bill itself wasn't introduced, but the debate at the time showed that there was clear cross-party support for continuing care (or contact) into young adulthood.

AMs approved the motion unanimously. Let's see what they can do though.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

A slice of frozen PISA

Climb into your bath, track your arteries with a razor blade and bring on The Smiths.

It's PISA time, and there's nothing the Welsh enjoy more than a good moan, revelling in the doom as we all – once again - rubber neck the slow motion car crash that is the Welsh education system.

PISA, as you know, is an OECD initiative. Since 2000, it's tested 15 year olds in 60+ nations and territories every three years in reading, mathematics and science.

Although Wales has been included as part of regional statistics before, Wales has only sat the PISA tests separately since 2006, so today's results are the third set where Wales has featured specifically.

They're important because PISA is the closest we have to a direct international comparison in terms of education, as all pupils sit the same test at near enough the same time. It's not perfect, but it's the best measure we have and its results shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

2012's Results

How Wales has performed in the last three PISA tests.
(Click to enlarge)

You can find all the data here, but the specific part relevant to Wales is here (pdf).

One crumb of comfort is that reading performances have improved slightly - up 4 points from 476 in 2009 to 480 in 2012. However, this still lags behind England (500), Scotland (506) and Northern Ireland (498). Northern Ireland was the only Home Nation to have seen a decline.

The bad news is that performances in maths and science in Wales have again declined – though not as sharply as 2009. Maths scores dropped by 4 points from 472 to 468, while science scores dropped by 5 points from 496 to 491.
Again, the other Home Nations outperform Wales, with a ~20 point gap between Wales and the rest of the UK that shows no signs of closing.

For want of comparison, 2009 saw a 12 point drop in maths and 9 point drop in science. So the latest figures are hardly as "alarming" as The Western Mail screamed today.

Wales also remains below average compared to the rest of the OECD, placing an equivalent of 41st out of 65 for reading, 43rd for maths and joint 36th place for science.

The changes to the raw scores are barely significant enough to make a big difference - we're talking 1% falls compared to 2009 (or a 1% rise in case of reading) - so it's fair to conclude that Welsh results have stagnated or frozen.

Examining Welsh Performances

International Comparisons

The Welsh education system is roughly as "awful" as
Sweden's, based on the 2012 results.
(Pic : Aberdeen University)
This is the whole point of PISA, but it seems everyone's determined to compare pencils with England alone. Wales – while far from brilliant – isn't the worst by a long shot, though there's clear need for improvement.
  • Wales' score in maths places us in the bottom half of the table alongside Israel (466) and Croatia (471) but well ahead of Greece (453), Malaysia (421), UAE (434) and Qatar (376).
  • In reading, Wales scored similarly to Sweden (483), Israel (485), Iceland (483) and Slovenia (481).
  • In science, Wales scored similarly to Croatia (491), Italy (494), Luxembourg (491) and Russia (486) and was just 10 points off the OECD average.
However, in addition to being behind the other Home Nations on the whole, Wales is light years behind many other similar nations like New Zealand, Finland, Ireland and Slovenia.

That's before mentioning far-east nations like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea who are in a league of their own, due to very intensive, competitive education systems and heavy use of private tuition. Those bring their own problems - like high suicide rates.

So, internationally speaking, Wales is a "C student who needs to buck their ideas up" and needn't sport a dunce's cap, while the UK as as whole isn't doing that much better. There are plenty of developed nations in the same boat we are.

To make a significant jump up the rankings, Welsh performances would have to improve by up to 10% (~40points).

Judging the overall figures, Welsh education standards are directly comparable with Israel, Sweden and Croatia.

You know...."third world" Sweden. Where the UK Conservatives went to get ideas for their school policies.The same Sweden which has an education system that's near enough as "awful" as Wales', just to put things in much-needed perspective.

Economic Performance

This is the first thing people point to when they analyse the results, (somewhat) logically deducing that PISA influences international investors when deciding where to invest, or impacts the economy in some great way.

Is there a correlation between good PISA scores and higher economic productivity?

2012 mathematics scores for the 65 nations/territories plotted against GDP per capita.
(Click to enlarge)

Using the mathematics scores in isolation - no. There's no strong correlation at all. If there is one it's incredibly weak.

All PISA does is compares test results, giving you a good idea of the strength of respective education systems. As pointed out, Wales scored similarly to Sweden, and performed better than many nations we've lost foreign direct investment to over the years, including parts of eastern Europe.

There's a whole host of factors that determine whether businesses make an investment. Education and skills is one key part of that, but it's not the be all and end all.

There is, however, a clear correlation between socio-economic background and good PISA scores. According to Volume II of the report itself (p38), the difference in performance – on average - between the top advantaged quarter and bottom disadvantaged quarter is up to 90 points, with disadvantaged students twice as likely to wind up in the bottom quarter than advantaged students.

In economies where there is greater "resilience" (pupils who perform better than their socio-economic background suggests they would), the scores are higher. That means in order to improve performances, more chances need to be given to disadvantaged students.

If you are interested I suggest you read the whole report. However, it cements the link between individual motivation, deprivation (not money spent on schools) and poor educational performance.

The Welsh Education System

Time to invest more capital in the classroom, not on classrooms?
(Pic : Wales Cnline)
As ATL's Philip Dixon explained on Click on Wales, turning this around doesn't come down to selective schools, the Welsh language, not enough time teaching "the Three Rs" or whatever knee-jerk response the media and commentators want to come up with to explain things.

The report says higher performing nations "allocate school resources more equitably amongst advantaged and disadvantaged schools" and "grant more autonomy over curricula and assessments".

They also value teachers more. We see them as workhorses who can never do their job properly.

Policies outlined to improve educational equity include :
  • Targeting low-performance schools, or low-performing students within schools - This could include a special curriculum, early prevention programmes or, in some circumstances, grade repetition ("holding students back a year").
  • Targeting disadvantaged students – This includes, once again, a special curriculum, including disabled students in mainstream classes, and conditional financial incentives to make sure children regularly attend school. Technically, Wales is already doing some of this through the Flying Start scheme and Pupil Deprivation Grant.
  • Raising standards for all students – Altering the curriculum, increasing class time, changing the length of the school day and improving teacher training.

I'm not convinced this is something you can "throw money at", as the Welsh Government and opposition parties might be minded to do. Clearly the answers don't lie in things like selective schools either.

The answer, in Wales' case, probably lies in the curriculum and how subjects are taught.
It's no good just "teaching to the test", the curriculum itself is going to have to change fundamentally and teachers are going to have to be given the freedom, and trust, to innovate.

You can still do all that while setting down national guidelines and targets. The control freakery in Cathays Park needs to stop.

PISA puts theory in a practical, problem-solving context making it different from any other exam. Welsh schools generally just teach the theory and give straight-forward number/word-only questions, which are never placed in their practical, "real world" use. So when pupils come across a real world example, they might not fully understand the question or might miss key bits of information.

Successive Welsh Governments might well have pumped a lot of money into new schools, but they've clearly neglected the teachers and the curriculum itself. There's no point having lots of shiny new buildings if they're not properly equipped in terms of trained teachers who can deliver a meaningful curriculum.

So if there's one area I would expect more money and policy capital to be spent on, it would be professional development for teachers and developing a brand spanking new National Curriculum – not deprivation grants and school extensions.

And, of course, all the existing measures need to be given time to work too.
Big changes take time to filter through though in education – perhaps up to a decade or more. Any measures taken in the last 5-10 years might not make a noticable impact until the 2020s.

Burnt by melted cheese? Let it cool first

The results are embarrassing. However, some of the the reaction to the results has been even more embarrassing. Everyone needs to CALM DOWN.

There's nothing in this worth getting excited about, and we're pretty much in exactly the same place we were last time around. Wailing and gnashing teeth without offering any practical solutions isn't going to help anyone. That's going to take time and thought.

Yes, it's disappointing news, and the Welsh Government/Welsh Labour deserve to be roundly criticised. The First Minister should be pretty red-faced right about now. I suspect if Leighton Andrews were still in his old role, when you add the tuition fee stuff to this, he would be looking at the sack.

However, the decline isn't as pronounced as 2009's and there's been a noticeable turnaround in reading. The worst of it might be over, and once various policies like the Literacy and Numeracy Framework begin to filter through, I suspect we might see modest improvements in scores (but not rankings) in 2015.

Luckily (or conveniently) for Welsh Labour, the results of 2015's tests won't be made public until after the 2016 National Assembly elections. Having said that, it also means there's no opportunity for an improvement between now and then to put on election leaflets.

The backdrop to that election campaign in terms of education is now boiling down to two areas - PISA and higher education funding.

It's all well and good that I can take a step back and look at it as part of the "big picture". Try telling parents that.

Everyone's going to have to take a deep breath, think rationally and think of long-term, transformative changes. Policy makers are going to have to look beyond England for inspiration, and I would recommend Finland and Estonia as the best places to start.

Unfortunately, as the media and political reaction to this has proven, there's plenty of knee-jerk politics out there, but precious little patience.