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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 December, 2004, 09:47 GMT
Welsh education moving away

By Hywel Griffith
BBC Wales education correspondent

Classroom
Teaching in Wales now differs from education in England
Look back through the school calendar and one thing becomes clear - Wales is gradually moving further away from England.

Not that new maps will have to be drawn up for geography lessons, or reinforcements used to make the Severn Bridge longer.

But in terms of how children are taught here, there is a changing landscape.

The most obvious difference is in exams.

In July, the scrapping in Wales of SAT exams for 11-year-olds, and their phasing out for 14-year-olds was broadly welcomed by teachers and parents.

The SATs were criticised for heaping too much pressure on young children, and too much preparation work on school staff.

Whether the new 'skills tests' for 11-year-olds prove to be any more popular will only become clear when pilot schemes start in 2005.

University library
A decision on top-up fees could be on its way in 2005

The first round of results for the new Welsh Baccalaureate in the summer was also a bit of a landmark, although it is too early to judge how well the new 'Bac' works alongside conventional GCSE, A-level and vocational qualifications.

Add to these the arrival of free breakfasts in primary schools and a new play-based curriculum for three-to-seven-year-olds called the 'Foundation Phase', and you can see education in Wales is genuinely different.

However different does not always mean better - at least according to the Secondary Heads Association (SHA).

At their December conference, they argued that schools in Wales were receiving 200 per pupil less than those across the border in England.

Their research was based on a very small sample, and was hotly contested by the Welsh Assembly Government, who claimed overall Welsh schools receive the better deal.

The SHA is now calling for an independent review of school funding to take place, to sort out who is right.

In any year, there are also personal stories that leave an impression on pupils, teachers and parents everywhere.

Laura Rhodes
Laura Rhodes took her own life in September

In January, the inquest into the death of schoolboy Stuart Cunningham-Jones put the issue of school bus safety back into the headlines.

Stuart was killed on the way home from Cowbridge Comprehensive, after the school bus he was on crashed two years ago.

In October, South Wales Police announced they were going to re-investigate the circumstances of his death, after a long-running campaign by his parents.

Another tragic story, the death of schoolgirl Laura Rhodes from Neath, brought the issue of bullying to the fore.

Laura's parents believe one of the reasons she took her own life in September was that she was repeatedly bullied, a claim denied by staff at her former school.

There have since been several calls for schools to become more transparent in dealing with bullies, and for a law to be introduced to record all allegations.

Top-up answers

Finally, a look ahead to 2005. While students and tutors at Welsh universities spent much of the last year worrying about funding, the new year will finally bring some sort of an answer on the future of higher education.

The Rees Commission, set up to consider the possible introduction of variable or 'top-up' fees in Wales will produce its first, interim report in February.

The basic choice for Professor Theresa Rees and her team is to follow England and allow universities to charge up to 3,000 pounds a year for their courses, or recommend a different, 'made in Wales' option.

The decision could be another landmark in devolution, and move Wales that little bit further away from England.





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