The grant offered critical support with the cost of buying school uniforms to many of Wales’ poorest families. It had benefited 5,500 families last year alone. With the Conservative UK government cutting the welfare state and with living costs on the rise, it was shameful that a Labour government and a Lib Dem Education Secretary in Wales were cutting support for the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.
The decision was made without consultation or debate, causing huge worry for those who were so dependent on it. It also left individual local authorities having to scrape budgets together to cover the shortfall.
Not surprisingly, there were sustained protests, not least from Plaid Cymru who pursued the matter relentlessly, ultimately forcing a vote on the issue in the Senedd.
Within weeks the Government had been forced to reconsider and reverse its decision by introducing a new grant. It was better late than never but how did this government get this so badly wrong in the first place?
Second, was another education-related funding cut that went wrong.
SchoolBeat is a school liaison programme run by the Police to help inform children about a range of subjects such as substance misuse, domestic violence, online safety, sexting and other key issues. The Government announced it was cutting the scheme and therefore cutting Police visits to schools – something I argued would be a retrograde step and would result in a generation of children losing out on vital information aimed at keeping them safe.
If we agree that prevention is better than cure, then this programme was clearly taking important messages out to youngsters under 16.
Police Commissioner Arfon Jones said: “Children today face a growing number of dangers in their daily lives, not least online – so it is extremely important that children understand safety on the internet from an early age.”
Again, Plaid Cymru led the charge in the Assembly, raising the issue with the government and hosting events to showcase the important value of the scheme. We worked with Arfon and the other police commissioners, eventually securing a further year’s funding – sure enough, it was another Welsh Government u-turn.
Perhaps the most significant u-turn came over tuition fees.
Having announced a rise in tuition fees to £9,250 a year, the education secretary then performed a shuddering u-turn to mirror the freeze announced in England.
Wales’ Lib Dem Education Secretary had previously said she would reject any rise in tuition fees and the Labour party had promised to scrap tuition fees altogether. But now the Welsh Government was hiking up the cost of higher education.
Plaid Cymru argued that it was wrong to pass the increased cost on to students. We called for funding to be made available to HEFCW to support Welsh Universities, instead of adding to students’ increasing burden of debt.
We joined with NUS Wales to campaign against the tuition fees hike and welcomed the eventual change of heart which saw additional funding for HEFCW in exactly the way we had demanded. However, the fact that the money had been found showed that the Labour/Lib Dem Government’s original tuition fees hike was a political decision, not a necessity.
Questions remain about the judgement of this Government which clearly cannot make its mind up on key issues.
It’s a shabby way to treat a service such as education, which has been devolved for 20 years but shows no signs of improving under a Labour government that is u-turning under pressure on a regular basis.
It’s the sign of a regime that’s lost its way – turning in circles rather than making progress.