the debating chamber at the senedd
The debating chamber at The Senedd Credit: Photo credit: Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament)

An angry Mark Drakeford criticised Wales’ education secretary for shelving plans to shorten the school summer holidays.

The former first minister lambasted Lynne Neagle as she announced a decision on school year reforms will be pushed back until after the 2026 election.

Prof Drakeford accused his former Welsh Government colleague of rowing back on a manifesto commitment to reform the school calendar.

Visibly riled, he said: “Let’s be clear that what we’ve heard this afternoon is the abandonment of a manifesto commitment made by the Labour Party at the last election.

“And the minister shouldn’t seek to shelter behind semantics in saying to me that this was a commitment to explore reform of the school day.”

‘Political damage’

Prof Drakeford argued reforming the school year, which has hardly changed in more than 150 years, would improve outcomes for children in Wales.

“I regret the political damage,” he told the chamber. “I regret the reputational damage that will be done to Wales.

“Just as other parts of the UK were looking at Wales and pointing to us as an example of what a progressive government could do.

“What I really regret is the damage that will be done to the life chances of the children who are at the heart of this policy.”

Referring to the experience of the Ely estate in his Cardiff West constituency, he warned some families approach holidays in a spirit of anxiety, sometimes even amounting to fear.

‘Absolutely absurd’

Prof Drakeford, who stood down as first minister in March, said: “When those children go away in July, in those six weeks, they will not see a book.

“They will have no opportunity to play in a way that allows them to appreciate what maths can do for them in their lives.

“And when they come back in September, the school starts all over again. The idea that there is no learning loss in the lives of those children is absolutely absurd.

“What this policy would have done is it would have begun to close the gap …. Here is a government that could have done something to help but it has decided not to.”

The Labour backbencher, who plans to stand down as an MS in 2026, warned children are playing second fiddle to reactionary forces attached to maintaining the status quo.

‘Ridiculous’

Elin Jones, the Senedd’s speaker or Llywydd, rebuked Labour MS Hefin David, for heckling the former first minister and describing his contribution as ridiculous.

Lynne Neagle, who succeeded Jeremy Miles as education secretary in March, defended the decision to pause plans to spread out school holidays more evenly.

Hitting back at her former boss, she said: “I do regret the tone of some of those comments, which I do feel call into question my own commitment to children and young people.”

Ms Neagle stressed the decision was based on a consultation which received 16,000 responses, more than any launched by the Welsh Government’s education department.

She said: ”With respect, Mark, I think I have set out very clearly my reasons for this decision. It is about listening to a consultation. You cannot have a consultation and then just ignore that consultation. That would not be acceptable.”

‘Fiddling while Rome burns’

Ms Neagle warned Wales’ schools are overwhelmed with other reforms, such as a new curriculum, and struggling under funding constraints.

She said: “To think a week’s change in the school year is going to make a difference to the systemic challenges we’re facing in education is, quite frankly, fiddling while Rome burns.”

In a statement to the Senedd on June 4, she warned the evidence base is not clear cut: “There is evidence that suggests the summer period contributes to learning loss, and … concerns around how we support those children for whom school is safer than home.

“But there is also evidence that shows the benefit of an extended break for the wellbeing of both children and the workforce, and how that contributes positively to family life.

“This is just one example of many.”

Ms Neagle said she will continue to explore a five-week summer, two-week autumn break and decoupling the Easter holidays, but no decision will be made until post-2026.

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