Education in Wales

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Education in Wales
Department for Education and Skills
Minister for Education and the Welsh LanguageJeremy Miles
National education budget (2021/22)
Budget£2,728.6 million
General details
Primary languagesEnglish and Welsh
System typeNational
Compulsory education Devolution1880
Literacy (2003[1])
Total99 %
Male99 %
Female99 %

Education in Wales differs in certain respects from education elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For example, a significant minority of students all over Wales are educated either wholly or largely through the medium of Welsh: in 2014/15, 15.7% of children and young people received Welsh-medium education - a drop from the 15.9% in 2010/11.[2] An additional 10% attend schools in which significant portion of the curriculum is bilingual. The study of the Welsh language is available to all age groups through nurseries, schools, colleges and universities and in adult education. The study of the language is compulsory for all pupils in State Schools until the age of 16.

Since devolution, education policy in the four constituent countries of the UK has diverged: for example, England has pursued reforms based on diversity of school types and parental choice; Wales (and Scotland) remain more committed to the concept of the community-based comprehensive school. Systems of governance and regulation - the arrangements for planning, funding, quality-assuring and regulating learning, and for its local administration - are becoming increasingly differentiated across the four home countries.[3] Education researcher David Reynolds claimed in 2008 that policy in Wales was driven by a "producerist" paradigm emphasising collaboration between educational partners. He also alludes to lower funding in Welsh schools compared to England, echoing similar concerns at university level. He concludes that performance data did not suggest that Wales had improved more rapidly than England, although there were considerable difficulties in making these kinds of assessments.[4]



As Wales had been part of the Kingdom of England and its successors since medieval times and did not hold a distinct legal status in the United Kingdom like Scotland, Ireland and later Northern Ireland did, throughout most of the 20th century and more distant past the development of education in Wales was heavily aligned to its development in England.[5] In the middle ages, the vast majority of people had no access to education with only boys of the land owning classes being able to attend the few schools that did exist, by the 16th century a growing class of traders wanted education for their sons and some grammar schools were set up to serve this demand. During the Commonwealth of England, sixty "free schools" were set up in Wales, though little is known about about these institutions and they disappeared following the restoration of the monarchy, they represent an early experiment in providing education to a wider section of society. By the end of the 17th century, a network of religious charity schools taught both boys and girls in the Welsh as well as English languages.[6]

At the start of the 19th century, schooling in England and Wales was provided on a haphazard basis by private business, charity and the church. This system saw many less wealthy children in particular receive a low quality of education and in 1800 around half of people were illiterate. From the early 1800s onwards the state increasingly provided financing for education.[7][8] During the mid 1800s a report into unrest in Wales recommended that use of the Welsh language be cut back in schools, this led to the practise of the Welsh Not when children were beaten and stigmatised for speaking welsh in school. This method of discipline was widespread in some welsh counties in the middle of the 19th century though it was never official government policy and the schools where it took place were voluntary at the time so acted with the endorsement of parents.[9] In 1870 the Elementary Education Act legislated for the creation of a system of state funded schools. Ten years later education became compulsory for five to ten year old children and all school fees at elementary schools were abolished eleven years after that.[8] Over the following decades, compulsory education was steadily expanded into adolescence until by 1971 the school leaving age was 16.[10][7] In the late 20th century much of Wales' governance including in education was increasingly being conducted by the UK government's Welsh Office which began some of the reforms which would continue into the era of devolution such as by making Welsh a universal part of the curriculum for children aged five to fourteen years old in 1990.[5][11]

Devolution Era[edit]

Following the victory of the Labour party in the 1997 general election the government enacted it's policy of giving significant governing powers to elected bodies based in Scotland and Wales.[12][5] Referendums were held on this matter later that year which passed in Wales by a narrow margin and two years later the first elections to these institutions were held.[13][5] The Welsh Assembly as what would become the Welsh Parliament was then known lacked legislative powers to begin with but did control many public services including education.[14] Changes in the years immediately following devolution including compulsory study of Welsh for students up to the age of 16 and the removal of statutory testing for children in the middle years of their schooling (though it was later reintroduced).[11][15] In 2010 the foundation phase was introduced for three to seven year olds in Wales, a curriculum which was designed to focus on a child's developmental needs and emphasised the importance of play and direct experiences for learning among children of this age group.[16] A 2015 report into the rollout of the phase found that it was associated with improved attainment including in the later years of primary school after its completion.[17]

The structure of the Welsh educational system[edit]

Early years care and education[edit]

Don Close Nursery School in Newport

From the start of the January, April or September (whichever comes soonest) following a child's third birthday they become eligible for a minimum of ten hours a week in publicly-funded nursery education, though these hours can also be provided through a playgroup or childminder. Nursery lessons are focused on developing children's abilities in a variety of areas such as creativity, communication and general knowledge however, at this age, learning to read and write is not yet considered a priority.[18] Depending on their parents economic and employment status children in this age-range may be eligible for up to twenty additional hours of state-subsidised childcare each week.[19]

The Welsh government is planning to introduce universal state funded childcare for two-year-old children by the mid 2020s. Currently, only the most disadvantaged toddlers in this age group and those in some more deprived areas are entitled to 12.5 hours of care provided by the state.[20][21]

Compulsory schooling[edit]

A child's age on 1 September determines the point of entry into the relevant stage of education. Education is compulsory beginning with the term following the child's fifth birthday, but may take place at either home or school. Most parents choosing to educate through school-based provision, however, enrol their children in the reception year in September of that school year, with most children thus beginning school at age four or four and a half. This age was traditionally much earlier than in most other Western nations,[22] but in recent years many European countries have lowered their age of compulsory education, usually by making one or more years of kindergarten compulsory.[23]

Primary education[edit]

Primary school pupils in 1960, in Barmouth, celebrating St David's Day

In 2014/15, there were 1,330 primary schools in Wales with 273,400 pupils and 12,240 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers. The teacher/pupil ratio was 1:22 and the average class size was 26 pupils.[24] In the same year, there were 13 nursery schools in with 1,076 pupils and 43 full-time equivalent teachers.[24] In 2015/16, there were 276,950 pupils in 1,310 primary schools - a rise of 3,550 since 2014/15.[25]

In 2008 a unique new curriculum - the Foundation phase - was rolled out to all schools in Wales. It began for 3- to 4-year-olds and by 2011 is in place for 3- to 7-year-olds. It is based on experiential learning, in small groups, with a teacher ratio of 1:8 for the youngest ages.

In 2014/15, there were 435 Welsh-medium primary schools with 65,460 pupils, rising from 64,366 in 2013/14 but the number of Welsh-medium primary schools decreasing from 444[24] due primarily to the closure of small rural schools.

Secondary education[edit]

Pupils in secondary school take part in the compulsory GCSE and the non-compulsory A-level or BTEC qualifications at ages 15/16 and 17/18 respectively. Since 2007 the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification has also been available as an option although it was ungraded until 2014.

In 2014/15 there were 207 secondary schools (a drop of six since 2013/14) in Wales with 182,408 pupils and 11,269 FTE teachers (a drop of 310 since 2013/14). The pupil/teacher ratio was 17:1, which has remained largely the same since 2000/01.[24] In 2015/16, there were 178,650 pupils in 205 secondary schools - a drop of 3,700 since 2014/15.[25] The same report found that in 2015/16, there were 8,000 pupils in 34 independent schools, 4,540 pupils in 32 independent special schools, and 730 pupils in 25 pupil referral units.

In 2014/15, there were 50 Welsh-medium secondary (a drop of 2 since 2013/14) schools with 36,485 pupils, dropping from 37,400 in 2013/14. In the same year, there were 4 Welsh-medium middle schools (a rise of 2 since 2013/14) with 2,448 pupils, a rise from 1,577 in 2013/14.[24]

In 2016, 60/3% of Year 11 pupils (aged 16) achieved the Level 2 inclusive threshold (Level 2 including a grade A*-C in English or Welsh first language and Mathematics). 35.6% of pupils eligible for FSM (free school meals) achieved the L2 inclusive threshold. 66.9% of pupils achieved A*-C in maths. 70.4% of pupils achieved A*-C in either English or Welsh first language.[26]

PISA results, by which the performance of Welsh pupils is compared to that of other countries, is also of enormous concern, with Wales lagging behind all other countries in the UK, leading to the then Minister of Education Leighton Andrews to describe the performance as "unacceptable".[27]

Education Consortia

There are four formal education consortia in Wales covering:

  • North Wales (GwE) (Flintshire, Conwy, Wrexham, Gwynedd, Isle of Anglesey, Denbighshire)
  • South West and Mid Wales (ERW) (Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Powys, Ceredigion)
  • Central South Wales (CSC) (Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Vale of Glamorgan)
  • South East Wales (EAS) (Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen)

Each of the consortia are responsible for school improvement services throughout their respective local authorities and schools. Whilst all aspects of school improvement are considered consortia roles, they are specifically targeted with addressing the three Ministerial priorities of; improving levels of literacy, numeracy and reducing the impact of poverty on education attainment.

Further education[edit]

A further education college in Merthyr Tydfil.

Further education (FE) includes full- and part-time learning for people over compulsory school age, excluding higher education.[28] Young people often enrol in FE as an alternative to staying at school after the age of 16.[29] FE and publicly funded training in Wales is provided by 15 FE institutions in 2014/15 and a range of public, private and voluntary sector training providers, such as the Workers' Educational Association. Colleges vary in size and mission, and include general FE, tertiary and specialist institutions, including one Roman Catholic Sixth Form College and a residential adult education college. Many colleges offer leisure learning and training programmes designed to meet the needs of business.[30][31] In 2014/15 there were 263,315 FE students in Wales spanning the entire availability of FE at multiple placements, including FE, HE (higher education), LA (local authority) Community, and work-based learning.[24]

Adult community learning[edit]

Adult Community learning is a form of adult education or lifelong learning delivered and supported by local authorities in Wales.[32] Programmes can be formal or informal, non-accredited or accredited, and vocational, academic or leisure orientated.[33] In 2018-2019, there were 23,970 learners in Local Authority Community Learning.[34]

Higher education[edit]

Main Building of Cardiff University
St David's building of the University of Wales Lampeter - Wales' oldest University

Students normally enter higher education (HE) from 18 onwards. Undergraduate students contribute £9,000 a year in fees, and are generally entitled to student loans and grants depending on their family's economic situation for maintenance.[35] The state does not control syllabi, but it does influence admission procedures and monitors standards through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

The typical first degree offered at Welsh universities is the Bachelor's degree, typically taking three years to complete full-time. Some institutions offer an undergraduate master's degree as a first degree, typically lasting four years. During a first degree students are known as undergraduates. Some universities offer a vocationally based Foundation degree, typically two years in length.

Within Wales, medical undergraduate education is provided by only Cardiff University, while graduate fast track route training is provided at Swansea University. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of universities with their own degree awarding powers owing to the change in the University of Wales from a single awarding body for most of the Universities in Wales to a confederal structure, along with former institutes gaining university status. In 2014/15, there were 8 HE institutions in Wales including one music conservatoire, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff which is part of the University of Glamorgan Group. The University of Glamorgan, the second largest university in Wales, has never been a member of the University of Wales and awards its own degrees: the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama also awards University of Glamorgan degrees.

In 2014/15 there were 145,735 enrolments at HE institutions in Wales, including 97,900 first degree and other undergraduates and 27,780 postgraduates. Welsh HE institutions had a total of 10,140 full-time and part-time staff.[24]

In 2012, the minister with responsibility for education within Wales, Leighton Andrews, made a significant statement in relation to the merger of Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU, formerly UWIC), the University of Glamorgan and University of Wales, Newport (UWN),[36] in which he proposed the dissolution of CMU and UN as part of the process towards merger. However significant such changes may seem, it is arguable that the effective imposition of an average undergraduate fee of £7.5 K pa for the three institutions (and others, but not to Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth all of whom will charge £9 K pa) will cause much more substantial long term damage to these universities and reinvent the 'binary divide' between universities and the former polytechnics and HE institutes.[37]

See also[edit]


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  4. ^ Reynolds, D. (2008) "New Labour, Education and Wales: The Devolution Decade" inOxford Review of Education, v34 n6 p753-765 Dec 2008
  5. ^ a b c d "History of devolution". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  6. ^ "Education in Wales 1: Introduction". Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  7. ^ a b "The Education System In The Nineteenth Century". Retrieved 2022-01-07.
  8. ^ a b Lloyd, Amy. "Education, Literacy and the Reading Public" (PDF). Gale Primary Sources. University of Cambridge.
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  10. ^ Sheldon, Nicola (13 April 2008). "The school leaving age: what can we learn from history?". HistoryExtra. Retrieved 2022-01-07.
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  13. ^ Taylor, Ros (1999-04-09). "Timeline: devolution from 1536 to 1999". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  14. ^ "BBC - Wales - The National Assembly for Wales". 2005–2009. Retrieved 2022-01-08.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  15. ^ Wightwick, Abbie (2018-05-17). "What are SATs and why don't we have them in Wales?". WalesOnline. Retrieved 2022-01-08.
  16. ^ "Curriculum for Wales: Foundation Phase Framework" (PDF).
  17. ^ "Evaluating the Foundation Phase (Final Report)" (PDF). Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data.
  18. ^ "Nursery education for 3 and 4 year olds in Wales" (PDF). 2019.
  19. ^ "Childcare for 3 and 4 year olds". GOV.WALES. Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  20. ^ Albert, Angeline (14 November 2021). "Free childcare for all two-year-olds in Wales must be 'fully costed'". Retrieved 2021-11-24.
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  23. ^[bare URL]
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  26. ^ "An annual report collated from examination bodies on the results of external examinations taken by pupils aged 15 or 17, which includes GCSE and A Levels by subject". 7 December 2016. Retrieved 2017-01-24.
  27. ^ "Pisa tests show pupils in Wales falling behind". BBC News. 7 December 2010. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  28. ^ Education Act 1996, Part 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 2
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  30. ^ Welcome to fforwm Archived February 28, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
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  32. ^ . 23 July 2011 Archived from the original on 23 July 2011. Retrieved 23 March 2018. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. ^ Delivering Skills that Work for Wales: A new approach to Adult Community Learning. Consultation document issued 29 September 2008[permanent dead link]
  34. ^ "Local authority community learning activities by local authority and provision type". Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  35. ^ Rogers, Sophie (4 March 2021). "University tuition fees and financial support in Wales". Retrieved 2021-10-26.
  36. ^ "Cardiff Metropolitan University included in merger plan". BBC News. 17 July 2012. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  37. ^ "Welsh university fees set to fall after Hefcw decision to reallocate spaces". walesonline. 11 April 2012. Retrieved 31 May 2015.

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