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What education in Wales could learn from Spanish football giant Barcelona

This article was first published in Wales Online

La Masia is a converted farmhouse located near the famous Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium that has turned the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez into superstars.

When Albert Capellas, former head of La Masia, was asked whether Barcelona are simply lucky in the players they develop, he said: “It’s not luck. It’s work. It’s our model, which has been honed over many years by lots of people providing specialist skills and all working in the same direction, with the same objective: to prepare players for the first team.”

That relentless focus on clear, and shared, objectives could provide a blueprint for the Welsh Government in its education policy.

One of those shared objectives should be to place more emphasis on developing talent in the sectors that will be critical to the productivity of the future economy (data analytics, computational science, life science, robotics and digital manufacturing).

Raspberry Pi

There is a real need to enthuse young people about the potential of careers in these areas and one highly successful initiative that is doing just that is the Raspberry Pi computer.

Each year a national competition asks students from primary school to sixth form to develop their programming skills to solve an everyday challenge using the Raspberry Pi.

This year the challenge was to identify innovations that would improve the lives of people who have conditions that limit their ability to do things. Among the range of hugely impressive innovations was S Mary’s Primary School Horsham’s door entry alert system paired with a wearable device that enables deaf-blind people to identify visitors to their homes.

The Raspberry Pi initiative has a particular link to Wales as the computer is produced by Sony in Pencoed but the number of entries from Welsh schools remains in single figures.

Whilst the announcement by the Welsh Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, of £1.3m to set up clubs to teach computer coding is very welcome, it is clear more needs to be done to give pupils the skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.

Wales has a rich history of heavy industry and, in more recent years, an enviable national strength in its small business sector.

Those small businesses will need a strong skill base to scale up to compete on the global stage. So they, along with the rest of industry, should play their part in identifying future skills, stating their needs, mapping the gaps.

This will help the Welsh Government gain a more complete view of how to structure learning policy.

This must include a focus on developing practical business skills at a young age – learning by doing, formulating, presenting and solving problems.

That means optimising the impact of initiatives such as coding for schools (perhaps embracing the Raspberry Pi) in mainstream schools and perhaps extending take up to projects where pupils have been excluded from school.

Learning from Finland too

In developing its education policy, the Welsh Government should not try to be all things to everyone, but should focus on doing fewer things where Wales can be a true global leader.

Finland is a good example of how focused future planning can achieve sustained economic outcomes. Forty years ago Finland set out its key sectors of focus and invested in narrow but productive educational initiatives such as requiring that all teachers have an MA.

The universities that train teachers also encourage experimentation which helps cultivate best practice. By 2006, Finland was ranked first in the world for science in the Programme for International Student Assessment, and has remained among the leaders.

This has enabled the Finnish government to put in place the building blocks to support the skills needs of the digital economy.

The Welsh Government is beginning to deploy a similar approach: investing in skills-based programmes and facilitating links between industry, academia, education and SMEs.

This includes Innovation Point’s (the government backed innovation agency) two academies in software and cyber skills based in Newport. These provide students with both an academic and industry experience and practical placements with industry.

This is not just a re-hash of an old style sandwich course but a new model of learning.

The courses are aimed at undergraduates but could be applied earlier in the education cycle.

Pierce McDaid is an economic development expert at PA Consulting Group 

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