The Programme for Government: ‘Could do better’ – IWA Article

23 Sep

“Our future prosperity and stability depends on the skills and values of the people of Wales.  Education has a fundamental role to play in personal fulfillment, community development and wealth creation.”

The opening to the education section of the Welsh Government’s ‘Taking Wales Forward’ document makes a pretty important point.  Often, especially when commentators speak about education in relation to PISA, it can be all too easy to see our school system as nothing more than a factory for tomorrow’s workforce.  For today’s teaching workforce, who deal with pupils day in day out in classrooms across the country, it is far more than that.

Of course education is an economic driver and that is both reflected in this opening gambit, and indeed in the structure of our skills based curriculum, but it is also about personal development and building a socially responsible and creative community.  With that in mind it is pleasing to see a range of pledges focused on this aspect of learning.

There is a reaffirming of the commitment to the Foundation Phase (albeit that it is sometimes hard to qualify this against the introduction of age-related expectations and literacy and numeracy testing which has skewed the ethos of the policy); there is a very welcome extension of the pupil deprivation grant; early years intervention strategies and specific focus on looked after children.  This is not to mention the politically controversial “legislation to end the defence of ‘Reasonable Punishment” – or smacking ban to you and I, finding its way onto the agenda.

Aside from this we see the key Labour and Lib Dem election pledges of an additional £100m of investment for school standards and a reduction in class sizes respectively both featured prominently.  We also see some big thinking policies such as the new curriculum, new ways of delivering supply teaching and the roll out of the digital competency framework.

However, while the above is encouraging, what is apparent throughout the document is that this is not a list that is heavy on accountability.  There are plenty of commitments to ‘review,’ ‘examine,’ ‘promote,’ and ‘prioritise’ but few targets to measure how those policies will be judged as successful.  At a time where one of the biggest bugbears of the education workforce is the harsh accountability measures and implications that go hand in hand with them, we seemingly have a programme for government without the metrics of measurements to fully hold the Welsh Government to account. What in practice does ‘developing closer links between universities and schools’ mean? How do we determine if the Welsh Government has succeeded in ‘supporting families and parents to reduce adverse childhood experiences’ in practical terms and how is a review of the current policy on surplus school places a policy in itself rather than the action it wields?  Even on those key pledges we are not given the fine print on where that £100m comes from and how it will be filtered out to schools or when and how the class sizes policy will be implemented.

The IWA’s Acting Director wrote a pretty damning review of the programme for government this week.  I have to say I very much share her sentiments that we should hope that this is “just an initial document and more detailed policy plans will be published over the coming few weeks and months.”

If what the Welsh Government intended with this piece of work was to simply establish a roadmap to the next 5 years it may prove to be a useful reference point.  The skeleton of their body of work will have been established with meat  to be added to these bones throughout the term. In many ways that is a natural position to have. We have to remember that in education more than anywhere else, as a result of a coalition of ideas between Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos, it may take time to work through the practicalities of delivering these policies.  However, if this document is designed to be the measuring stick by which the government expects to be held accountable then it will have failed to build a sense of trust from the education sector or the wider public.

Few in the education sector would argue against the aims and objectives of the Welsh Government.  The ambitions of this document are right but in spite of its publications we remain somewhat unclear as to how they will be achieved or evaluated.

The above was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.  You can find the original here.

The Asymmetric School Week

14 Sep

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A couple of months ago I was at a Welsh Government event primarily looking at the ‘New Deal‘ programme.  At the conference, in what at the time appeared to be a remark made as an aside, the then Education Minister Huw Lewis touched on the potential of an asymmetric school week, he briefly noted it was something that was being piloted in Scotland, but there was no real fleshing out of the thinking.

There was no real discussion further about the idea until yesterday when the PPIW published its report on the system for Wales.

I’ve only read the report at a superficial level but on the surface it appears pretty balanced and maps both the primary potential benefits and concerns.  It is a report that has now been picked up by several media outlets and has sparked a fair amount of debate, not least on twitter.

The Benefits

I’m not going to go through all the reports identified benefits but simply touch on a few of the more crucial ones as I see it.

One of the biggest problems we face with regards to the teaching profession in Wales is a lack of access to professional development.  We want our teachers to constantly develop and renew their skill sets, as well as implement new policies and practices, but the truth is they simply are not afforded the time to work towards those ambitions.  One advantage of the asymmetric week, according to the report, is that it could help to establish ‘coordinated pupil free time could lead to more effective CPD, improved staff well-being and thus better teaching and consequently pupil performance.’ Anything that creates a better space for CPD should be given serious consideration.

The report also argues that ‘teachers and support staff could experience improved well-being through, for example, greater flexibility to schedule personal appointments on shorter days.’  Given we currently see over 50,000 teaching days lost a year through mental health issues, improving the well-being of the profession should not be underestimate.  Should it have a noticeable impact it could save millions and enhance the continuity of teaching in Wales.

The Concerns

There are a few clear concerns that are outlined in the report and certainly are not ones that should be taken lightly.

At the heart of the issue has to always be the impact on pupil well-being and standards.  If it works for pupils then it will have merit.  If it does not then it is simply not worth exploring.  One concern in that regards is that pupils will run into fatigue on the longer school days.  Most teachers will tell you that as school gets towards those last few hours and lessons children will become less engaged and become fatigued.  Extending the school day, particularly for the very youngest pupils, could undoubtedly result in a less productive school environment.

There are some key issues also on the periphery such as transport concerns, especially children to come to school on foot during the later darker evenings, and childcare costs that would make this a difficult move to sell to the general public.

I did a radio interview for Radio Wales on this and one point made very well by the teacher who was on with me is that this could lead to a further reduction in the commitment to creative subjects.  Teachers are already deeply upset that the intense focus on literacy and numeracy, while understandable and important, has negatively impacted on the more artistic pursuits in school.  The fear with the asymmetrical week is that it further narrows those areas of work, with a reduction in extra curricular activities and teachers cramming even more into their lessons due to the loss of a half day.

There is also a concern that while this may offer a short-term solution, and there is an uplift in the availability of CPD and non-teaching time initially when introduced, that over a longer period of time we simply see those spaces filled up with the usual story and instead of supporting teachers we end up creating a bigger burden on their workloads.

Summary

For a more in-depth review of the pros and cons I would recommend looking at the report in its entirety.  For me there certainly is some merit in having this debate.  I’m never against change if it can be demonstrated to enhance the educational offering to pupils.  At present however there just isn’t enough of an evidence base to convince me that this will work.  Of course on the flip side if that’s the attitude we have then we will always be afraid to be bold and innovative.  Perhaps I’m more reluctant to take a shot in the dark at the moment due to the curriculum, qualification and other reforms already setting the sector on such a radically different course than it has been on in the past that greater upheaval isn’t appealing.

Ultimately my gut instinct is that the majority of teachers and parents would be weary of implementing this.  There would be more resistance than excitement and there are more concerns than positives.  More importantly I feel the concerns would have a bigger impact than the benefits would provide.

Of course this was a report commissioned by Huw Lewis.  With a new Education Secretary in place and the past Minister no longer an Assembly Member this may all be a moot point anyway.

For Wales….Don’t See England

22 Aug

The IWA kindly asked me to pen something for their Click on Wales blog to coincide with the Education Week they are running.  Below is the article I wrote for them looking at the misguided obsession of comparing England and Wales on GCSE/A Level results day.  the original article as published can be found here.

There are a few constants with the publication of GCSE and A Level results.  We will no doubt hear one of two tired old lines.  Either “exams have got easier” for years were progress has been made or “our education system is a disaster” for years were there isn’t an uplift.  We can also count on tweets from someone saying something along the lines of “Bill Gates dropped out of school so don’t worry about your results” (we’ll ignore the fact his school was Harvard and he dropped out to found Microsoft), while stock photos of jumping students holding their results aloft will be in every newspaper.

The other constant, and one which I find increasingly frustrating, is the inevitable comparisons we will have with England.  It is almost as if we have got to a stage where our results only matter once they are placed in context with the education system on the other side of the bridge.

It is of course natural to look across the border and compare with our nearest neighbours.  This isn’t necessarily an issue exclusive to the world of Welsh education.  From Offa’s Dyke being described as the health service’s “line between life and death” to the respective performances of our national football teams at Euro 2016, there doesn’t appear to be many aspects of Welsh public services or culture that isn’t judged, at least in part, on its counterpart in England.

The truth is this approach is simply not healthy.  There are appropriate times to make comparisons.  Benchmarks, when they are based on reasonable comparisons can be useful.  These even exist in our education system.  It is not unfair to question why pupils in England received many hundreds of pounds per head more in funding than those in Welsh schools for example.  However, we have surely now reached the point that the qualification comparisons do not do our pupils, parents teachers or policies justice.

Of course we are our own worst enemy in this regards.  Successive Education Ministers have focused on the attainment gap between England and Wales rather than simply evaluating the Welsh results on their own merits.  At the end of 2014, when there was really little or no prompting to do so, the then Education Minister, Huw Lewis, said:

The historic gap with England is now down to less than 1% and I promise you this – if we manage to overtake our colleagues across the border next summer, you may well see an Education Minister who is rather the worse for wear the following morning.”

The actual result was that Wales equalled its best ever results at GCSE.  Sadly, instead of recognising the importance of that achievement, especially against the backdrop of ever tighter school budgets and the upheaval of major reforms, the story that dominated the day was that Wales did not close the gap on England.

It is perhaps a uniquely Welsh obsession to carry on making these comparisons which underlines our lack of confidence as a devolved nation after centuries of ‘for Wales, read England’. Press and Governments in other UK countries, including Northern Ireland, don’t even cast a glance at England’s results, let alone compare themselves in the way we do.  Even in jurisdictions where Education is devolved, i.e. Jersey and the Isle of Man, they seem to have more confidence in themselves and provide a commentary on their young people’s achievements without the reflections being framed by what the young people of England have done.  We need to develop the same level of confidence and do likewise.

Beyond the political we do see some more rational calls from Welsh Government.  Take this view on England and Wales comparisons from the Chief Statistician for example:

“Not only are the names and definitions of our performance indicators in England and Wales diverging every year as we each follow different approaches to education policy, but this is also changing the behaviour of school pupils and schools in terms of entry and curriculum changes. As with the year on year changes to our own data, the impact of this cannot be quantified.”

Our education system is increasingly a different beast to that of England.  We may have the same name for our GCSEs and A Levels but their content and delivery are contrasting.  It is time we started looking more closely at our own results without the need for an English benchmark.

Of course international comparisons are always going to have a place in assessing the way our system works.  Of course we will always naturally gravitate towards seeking to see if our education system stands up against that of other parts of the UK.  There are lessons to learn from England and Scotland and lessons for Wales to share.  However, it can no longer be the limit to our expectations and ambitions and certainly we can no longer allow it to be a misrepresentation of success and failure for Welsh pupils.

Ron Davies said that “devolution was a process and not an event.”  Welsh education has undergone a process of both staggered, and at times, radical change over the past decade.  The foundations of our early year’s education bear no resemblance to the English approach.  Our focus on skills contrasts widely to the knowledge based rote learning that was at the heart of Michael Gove’s agenda.  Most importantly our qualifications are increasingly unique, in both their syllabus and their assessment.  It may be worth contrasting the merits of each system over time but viewing GCSE and A Level results side by side is not only impractical it is also selling a lie to the public.

Uncertainty hanging over Schools Challenge Cymru – IWA Article

5 Aug

Back in early 2014 the Welsh Government announced their flagship policy for school improvement.  Schools Challenge Cymru was set to be the Welsh version of the lauded London and Manchester Challenge initiatives which had seen some radical and inspiring results.

With an initial pledge of £20m for at least two years there was financial backing for the programme.  This proposal was introduced at the height of the policy fatigue in the Education sector we saw during the last Assembly term.  Thankfully the recruitment of some key personnel from previously successful challenge programmes, including the impressive communicator Professor Mel Ainscow, did help alleviate some fears.  A little over two years on inevitably people will ask the question “has Schools Challenge Cymru worked for us?”

It is essential with any project of this nature that we are continually reviewing its progress to ensure it is providing value for money.  When there is a large financial investment, especially considering education budgets are so tight at present, it is crucial that teachers in schools are seeing a tangible benefit for their pupils.

The evidence from the first independent review suggests that thus far progress is patchy.  Some had already voiced their uncertainty of the impact of SCC.  When data showed the 40 schools in the SCC programme were just 0.3% better than those not included, the then Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, said in October last year:

“The Labour government’s flagship SCC programme was intended to deliver swift, sustainable improvement to schools that face challenges – but it hasn’t delivered the results.”

However, putting those results into context the aforementioned Professor Ainscow, writing for this very website, stated that:

“Overall, the picture for the Pathways to Success schools is beyond my expectations.  Indeed, neither the London nor Manchester Challenges made the same progress after just one year.”

So what does the review tell us? Perhaps most worrying is that “interviewees, in just over a quarter of the visited PtS schools, indicated that they felt that, following inclusion in SCC, they had seen an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.” (Page 87)  By extension therefore there are a significant number of schools who are not seeing that same level of improvement.  Conversely however, “The majority of interviewees in 32 of the 38 PtS schools we visited indicated that they felt that participation in SCC had had a positive impact on their school.” (Page 92)

For me one of the key lines of the report is that:

“In most cases, interviewees welcomed the opportunity afforded to PtS schools by their inclusion in SCC and the availability of additional support to help clusters overcome their barriers to improvement. That said, in most cases, interviewees reflected that work undertaken to date was not dissimilar to that which had been undertaken prior to the launch of SCC.” (Page 5)

This is perhaps the crux of the concern.  Teachers are open to sharing views and building towards the promise land of a self-improving education system.  While I recall initial hesitation from some practitioners at the potential stigma of being included in the 40 SCC schools, they were also open to embracing support and cooperation.  Sadly, as with many past Welsh Government initiatives, implementation hasn’t always matched the ambition.  Where it has worked, it has worked well.  Where it hasn’t there is a need to examine why and to improve on the offer being made to schools.

Clearly there are some teachers and some schools who are seeing the positive effects of the Schools Challenge Cymru program while others are yet to be convinced.  What we do know is that similar initiatives, such as the London challenge, were delivered over a much longer period.  These were many years in the making and by comparison Schools Challenge Cymru is very much in its infancy.  It may be that we cannot fully make a judgement on how impactful this approach will be for a few years.  Education reform does not happen overnight.  The world’s leading education systems have taken decades to develop.  Wales will not be unique in that regards and patience with any new policy is very much a virtue.

I think in some regards teachers are reluctant to embrace a new proposal if they are uncertain of how sustainable the commitment to it is.  While the initial money set aside was promising, the lack of a long-term commitment, for whatever reasons, did perhaps hinder the buy in from the sector.  A profession that has have become jaded by policies announced to great fanfare one day only to be scrapped the next were always going to view a two year guarantee as short-term.  Even today, in light of a new Government and a new Cabinet Secretary, with the Minister who brought this project to life no longer an Assembly Member, the uncertainty continues to hang over the policy.

If it is to be a success then it will be important to communicate where there have been successes and replicate that action across schools and local authorities.  Perhaps the biggest question we can ask of Schools Challenge Cymru is if it will be afforded the time and investment to truly prove itself the game changing initiative it was announced to be.

This was originally an article written for the IWA Click blog and can be found here.

The Savoy – London

1 Jun

The Place

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My good wife and I were lucky enough to head to stay at the Savoy over the weekend.  There is no way I would every consider paying £500+ a night for a hotel of any description but this was free so I had no problem saying yes to it.

I have to say I don’t think it is a huge step above some of the nicer, if far more reasonably priced hotels I’ve stayed in across the UK.  The attention to detail from staff was exceptional but beyond that the room and the food in general etc was all of a very high quality but not of the standard that I would think would make me stump up that sort of cash.

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There is a cake and patisserie shop at the Savoy called Melba and we stopped in for some carrot cake.

The Carrot Cake

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I had a carrot cake cupcake on this visit.  The decoration was great with a very authentic looking marzipan carrot topper.  There was a huge amount of cream cheese icing, perhaps a bit too much if anything.  This was extremely fresh and enjoyable.  The texture of the cake was excellent, very moist and bitty, but for my pallet not spicy enough for a carrot cake.

Overall it was very good but not quite great.

The Drink

Not hot chocolate was consumed on this trip sadly.

The Rest

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Not being such a fan of carrot cake Lauren opted for a salted caramel eclair.  I’m really sorry to say that this looked and sounded that bit better than it actually tasted.  Although the texture was nice it lacked the strong flavor to back it up, which was a shame.

 

Where Are Our Teachers Coming From?

27 May

The BBC ran this story yesterday on figures collated by UCAC highlighting that a third of secondary initial teachers training places had not been filled this year.  Sadly I was in Llandudno for the Wales TUC conference all week so I wasn’t able to react sooner to it.

One of the most pressing issues facing education in England is the crisis in teacher recruitment.  They simply are not training enough teachers.  Of course when you have a government relaxed about allowing unqualified teachers to be leading classrooms they may not see it as a crisis.  Why worry about attracting people to become teachers when you can just grab anyone off the street to teach!?  Who needs qualifications, skills and training after all!

We don’t have quite the same worries in Wales.  The Welsh Government have actively been reducing the number of teachers we train annually to address a surplus in recruitment.  Of course this is a relative notion.  If we were focused on funding schools to a higher standard and reducing class sizes in the process then we would require more teachers.

There is then not a crisis in front of us because figures are down this year.  However we should also note that, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree, we have failed to hit the targets on a number of other years.  The targets have a worrying trend of being missed and by a bigger and bigger margin each intake.  Also, as UCAC’s policy officer Rebecca Evans rightly points out in the online article, this doesn’t also take into account the number of individuals who may register for the course but not, for a variety of reasons finish it.  We need to guard against complacency to watch that this blip does not become a more fundamental issue.

Looking at the figures we should question why it is the case we did not recruit the desired number.  As I said it may just be a blip and next year could see an over-subscription.  That said it may not be.  It is also worth remembering we are losing teachers who are deciding to leave the profession altogether, some after only a few years in the system.

The first question we should ask ourselves is if teaching remains a desirable role?  Pay and pensions cuts have meant that teachers are generally paid less for their work, they will receive less when they retire and they will be retiring at a much later age.  When you factor in that year after year workload concerns are growing to such an extent that we are seeing stress related illnesses leading to thousands of teaching days lost annually people will inevitably question if it is a career worth entering.  Have we reached the point that the benefits of teaching, and they are plentiful when you consider the satisfaction teachers regularly tell me about in making a difference to a child’s life, are being outweighed by the pressures.

Secondly has teaching become a less respected role.  This is not only a case in terms of how is it respected in society in comparison to other professions but also how is it respected by pupils, parents and the media.  Being a teacher was once on a par with doctors in our communities.  We can’t be sure it commands that same respect.  Huw Lewis, I believe, recognised that in his ‘Reform, Rigor and Respect,’ speech and sought to renew the standing of the profession.  These figures suggests there is still work to be done in that regards.

The other possibility is that changes have been made to recruitment. You can’t train to be a teacher unless you have at least a B in maths/English these days. It could be we’ve barred potential good teachers from entering the profession by making that change without recognising the impact that it has on recruitment.

Overall we need to keep an eye on this.  It is not a crisis today but complacency around the figures could certainly spark a crisis tomorrow.

The Williams Deal

27 May

I found this Western Mail article really noteworthy this week.  Ignoring the politics of the alleged Labour fallout, albeit that is of course interesting, what struck me is the concessions negotiated by Kirsty Williams.  For someone who does not bring Labour a majority these 9 key announcements are pretty impressive.  Accepting of course that some will be policies that Labour are happy to deliver, and indeed may have done so regardless of the Lib Dem role in cabinet, there still remains some big areas for Kirsty Williams to claim as victories.

The infant class size reduction is a major win.  This was arguably the key election pledge of the Lib Dems in their election manifesto.  What is more it is a policy that has been criticised and opposed by both the previous Labour Education Ministers who disputed the impact smaller class sizes would have on standards.  It begs the question perhaps if such a deal would have been feasible had either, or both, returned to Cardiff Bay for this term.

The policy is a highly popular one among the teaching profession and so perhaps is an easy sell in coalition/agreement discussions.  I am delighted it is set to be introduced.  That said, it is not a cheap option.  Money will have to be found for this, and additional money at that.  To reach a 25 pupil cap the Welsh Government will have to ensure that schools have an adequate compliment of staff.  This at a time that when class sizes are increasing, partly as a result of schools having to make teachers redundant due to ever constrictive finances.

One of the big pledges from Labour at the election was for an additional £100m investment to improve school standards.  It may be natural to earmark park of that £100m spend for this policy thus seemingly killing two birds with one stone.  Or delivering two pledges with one budget if you will.  I wouldn’t find that a fair proposition.  Given this money was never intended for this purpose it would be slightly disingenuous to mesh these two policies together.  I think it is a reasonable expectation to expect both policies to be delivered in their entirety and separate to one another.

It will also be important to monitor how this policy impacts on other funding streams.  This includes money already set aside for the curriculum review and implementation, the New Deal continued professional development programme and schools challenge cymru, to name but a few.

The other area of interest with the 9 agreed that relates to schools is a review of the school surplus places policy.  This is somewhat ironic given that it is a policy that led to the end of Leighton Andrews tenure as Education Minister.  It will be interesting to see what comes of this, particularly with the emphasis on rural schools in light of much of the unrest in Powys given Kirsty Williams own constituency allegiances.

Why are we not having the education debate?

29 Apr

Someone recently asked me why education hasn’t had more airtime during the election.  That is not to say that broadcasters haven’t given it focus but simply a question why it hasn’t been center stage of the election in the way maybe it would have been expected to be.

At the start of the year I blogged my 4 main hopes for education in Wales.  One of those hopes was that we wouldn’t see education used as a bat to hit the Welsh Government.  It is perfectly right that opposition parties scrutinise the record of delivery, and criticise where appropriate, but I wanted it to be an election of ideas.  Having reviewed the manifestos I think it is fair to say that all parties have brought ideas to the table, but sadly, for a few different reasons we haven’t quite had that debate.  So what are the reasons education has, thus far, been sidelined.

Steel

Unquestionably the steel crisis has dominated news agendas in Wales over recent weeks.  The future of the Port Talbot Tata plant in particular, as well as the impact on other direct and indirect jobs across Wales, has been the primary focus of the political narrative.  This was evidenced by the fact the whole economy section of the ITV leaders debate  was basically a Q&A on the future of steel.  For the early part of this short-election campaign steel has been the only game in town and as such education has taken a back seat.

Policy consensus

On some of the real meaty areas of education delivery we are in a little bit of limbo.  On curriculum reform, on qualifications and to an extent on continued professional development, the direct of travel has been set and there is a lot of consensus around where we should be going.  Added to which pioneer schools are in the process of shaping that outlook, parties have been understandably reluctant to preempt the decision making process.  There isn’t a whole lot of debate to be had around these issues that hasn’t already taken place prior to the election period.

Given that policy consensus there was never going to be any major changes on the big picture areas and so creating differences in approach would need to be more subtle.  There are some signature policies that have been put forward by the parties but not on radical change.

Building Bridges

I think if Leighton Andrews had still been in post we would have seen a far more fiery education debate going into this election.  I dare say that even if all was quiet on the political front the wider teaching profession would have been far more vocal and combative in its review of the role of the Welsh Government.  I also think it is a little hard to believe we would have reached quite a mutually supportive position on those policy issues outlined above.  The hostile relationships and aggravation that existed during the early years of the 4th Assembly would have provided a more direct platform for opposition parties to launch their education attacks.

Huw Lewis deserves a lot of credit for rebuilding relationships after he took over the post.  There is still a lot of disagreement on policy.  National testing is a prime example of where teachers remain critical of the Welsh Government.  However, the tone of those discussions are far more conciliatory.  There is an environment now where the workforce can be constructively critical of the Welsh Government while the Welsh Government are more constructive and respectful when implementing policy.  This bridge building work has taken a lot of the potential heat out of the debate and allowed a space to breath for the Welsh Government in entering the election period.

The Figureheads

Perhaps one of the big issues is that we haven’t had the big names clashing.  Neither UKIP or the Green party education spokesperson has any real recognition value.  With Huw Lewis standing down as an Assembly Member there’s a sense that he isn’t really central to this election.  That leaves Simon Thomas and Angela Burns who are themselves somewhat sidelined by the fact that they are engaged in a head to head fight for the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency, and Aled Roberts who is fighting for every last vote in the North Wales Regional List.  These are spokespeople without the luxury and freedom of safe seats.  That will have demands on their ability to take time off from individual campaigns top give wider focus to a policy area.  While it has happened it has not happened quite as prominently as would have been the case if their own elections were not so tight.

That is not to criticise the individuals, and in fairness they have all come together for education debates at hustings for NUT Cymru and for the BBC, but it has taken the edge of the debate as it could have been.

Do the parties want that focus?

I think it is fair to say that Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems do want an education focus.  Plaid have done a lot of work on their manifesto and their Teachers Premium policy is potentially an attractive vote winner with the profession.  Equally the Welsh Lib Dems have gone into the election with cutting class sizes as a key pledge and championing their pupil premium negotiations as a way of showing their effectiveness at the last Assembly.  That said I’m not sure the enthusiasm extends to the other parties.

Welsh Labour will argue that they have a positive message on education.  They do of course have a spending pledge central to their major policies going into this campaign.  Looking back on their record I think there are some real successes they can point to.  That said after such a long period of being in government there is also a lot of areas that opposition parties can exploit.  For any party of government riding out the election without a significant policy debate is a far more comfortable prospect than daily scrutiny.  I’m not accusing Labour of actively avoiding those engagements.  Indeed Huw Lewis kindly took part in national NUT hustings and we have had Labour candidates participate in several others across Wales.  However, it is no doubt electorally advantageous for them not to seek them out.

For some time the Welsh Conservatives have had a major focus on health which somewhat marginalises their focus on education.  As well as this the acadamies policy in England has left them vulnerable.  Just as the junior doctor strike has put them a little on the back foot in discussing the NHS, the fallout emanating from a series of Tory MPs questioning the effectiveness and rationale behind the acadamies roll-out leaves them open to criticisms here.  While the party in Wales have ruled out acadamies, some of their policies around how schools would be funded and how they are democratically accountable have been jumped on by rivals as an acadamies by another name approach.  You get the sense that these factors have partly lead to fewer engagements on education from the party.

UKIP, as I have said, proposed some interesting ideas on education.  However, the one that stood out has been a disaster for them.  Pretty much the only education debate that has cut through has been UKIPs commitment to grammar schools.  It is an unpopular and ill-thought through standpoint and you sense that being constantly on the defensive has not been a comfortable position for the party.  It is no wonder this is therefore an area that they have perhaps chosen to only discuss when prompted.

The real shame about the fact we have so far not had this discussion is that there is a real debate to be had.  There’s a lot of consensus but also a lot of differences between the parties.  There is a real choice for the electorate in terms of what they want the future of education in Wales to look like.  Where there have been clashes on education in the leaders debate it has been punchy and challenging.  What’s more the likes of Huw Lewis, Simon Thomas, Aled Roberts and Angela Burns are all up there some of the best in their parties and really bring out the best in Welsh political discussion.

Reflections of Election Day

28 Apr

Next week Wales goes to the polls to vote for the make-up of the next Welsh Assembly, and as a by-product its next Welsh Government.  On that day I will be in work as normal.  I will go to the gym as usual before getting in.  I will work until 5pm; drive home; put my kids to bed; walk up the polling station to vote; have some food; watch some TV or read and probably go to bed and to sleep by 10pm.

On Election Day five years ago things were very different.  I had some fantastic results nights during my previous life working and consumed by party politics.  I worked for Plaid Cymru the year they went into government and on a constituency scale having worked for Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards I knew only winning.  In the case of RGT, if I recall correctly, we won the highest majority in Wales outside of Dafydd El in 2007.  However, to repeat a sentence already used in this blog post…..five years ago things were very different.

There’s a sense of optimism on any election day.  I think over the course of the campaign there has to be so much positive reinforcement and outward looking promotion that you almost inevitably become a little indoctrinated.  By consistently having to talk up your chances, regardless of the actual state of play, for the sake of the media and your own party campaigners, it is easy to start believing it.  There’s something of a self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome taking place.  Party activities, members, staffers and candidates all brainwashing themselves into thinking that this is their year.  This is their election.

Five years ago I was realistic going into election night.  I don’t think anyone in Plaid Cymru was under any illusions that the election would be anything other than tough.  In fact, it was the commonly held view that there would be a trade-off in electoral success for the positive referendum result.  That was a view accepted before even the One Wales agreement had been signed.  During the campaign I flagged up quite early that I thought Llanelli was in trouble.  That said, you live in hope more than expectation at times.

The saying ignorance is bliss is certainly true on election day and there’s a sense of euphoria in knowing that you’ve always got a chance to win while the polls remain open and, after such an exhausting period of work, whatever happens it is at least coming to an end.  Having spoken to a few people working in different parties during this election it is clear the race to the end is still an existing phenomenon and not confined by political colours.  The pressure and hours that staff, and of course candidates, put in over not just the election period but the months leading up to it shouldn’t be underestimated.  Even ignoring the stupidly long days, the lack of time away from work and the constant over analysing ridiculously minor issues, just think about the toll a month or more of stodgy on the go food has on your mental and physical outlook!

Come 10pm on May 5th 2011 I was exhausted.  As well as the weeks and months of work that had preceded it I’d been up since about 4am delivering ‘Get the Vote Out’ messages.  If I recall I think I slept for about 45 minutes, if that, under a desk at Ty Gwynfor (Plaid HQ) after the polls closed before waking ready for feedback to start coming in from election counts.

History will tell you that it wasn’t a good night for Plaid and no doubt you can imagine the atmosphere.  The only comparison I could make would be the loneliness of the changing room of a losing boxer.  You put so much work and effort in and ultimately there is no consolation for coming second.  There were a few positive rounds.  Seeing the Plaid Cymru Ministers from the One Wales Government returned, quite comfortably, despite strong constituency challenges showed that there was an appreciation of what had been accomplished previously.  From a personal perspective it was also great to see my former boss and friend Rhodri Glyn back.  Still, there was no doubting it was a unanimous points defeat.  The Llanelli result perhaps tipping the analogy over into a late TKO.  That seats like Llanelli and some regional swings came down to such fine margins was a bitter pill to swallow.  A couple of hundred votes spread in different ways and the narrative drastically changes.

I was particularly upset with the Llanelli result as there wasn’t a challenge.  There had been a bundle recount but when there was only 80 votes in there I couldn’t believe no one called for a full recount.  I’m not suggesting the result would be different.  The recount could have returned the exact same result, it could also have returned an even bigger win for Keith Davies.  However, not asking for it just became a little symbol of a defeatist attitude to me over the course of that night.  Then again, sitting in a room in Cardiff it was perhaps easy for me to take a more objective view than those more fuelled by the emotions of the night on a local level.

Politics at its worst is a tribal game.  I speak from the perspective of someone no longer involved, directly at least, with politics in Wales, and certainly not in any party political capacity, but it’s the very reason I decided to want out.  I’ve no doubt my younger self was just as petty and tribal as some of the politics we see today, but I am so glad to be out of that environment and have had the opportunity to work with and challenge politicians from all parties since that election.  Just seeing some of the individual and even official twitter accounts involved in Welsh politics is enough to make me despair.  I really hope that come 10pm on election night we see some grown up interactions.  Remember that someone who has put their life on hold to campaign will be feeling the loss more than anyone.  It is a personal rejection of sorts.  For some it will also mean the end of their livelihoods, perhaps even careers, and that includes support staff.

I doubt very much I would ever be involved in politics in the same way again but if I ever was then I could only hope it was with a view of cross-party working.  That the Assembly has lost in Jocelyn Davies on of its greatest political collaborators, someone so skilled at finding resolutions across the political divide, is a particular sadness for me in looking forward to the 5th Assembly.  The likely make up of the institution post May 5th mean politicians of her caliber and approach are needed more than ever.  They exist in every party and hopefully they set the tone for the next five years.

One of the things I really remember from that night in 2011 was a text from Adrian Masters.  It may have been a throwaway line and I am sure, knowing how nice a person Adrian is and his political fairness, that he would have text around contacts in all the parties.  However his message just simply saying (don’t quote me verbatim but something like) “hope you’re ok” meant a lot at the time and still does. He may not remember it even. I do.

I haven’t gone through the various discussions, fallouts and feelings from that night.  Partly because I’m not sure what good it would do; partly because it may not actually be that interesting and partly because those conversations where not mine alone to disclose.

I’m sure there are many a story from the different political party HQs that both mirror and contrast with my own experience.  Indeed, I have many others of my own that do.  All I will say is that to everyone who is sitting down with such an investment in this election good luck, and don’t forget to take a step back and appreciate the wider landscape when the dust settles.  Life inside the campaign always feels that bit narrower, that bit more pressurised and that bit more immediate than it should.

P.S.

One final piece of advice that has helped me.  Whatever you do, hold on to the friendships and relationships you make in politics, but make sure you have some outside that world to get some real perspective on what is happening around you.  No one else is constantly discussing anywhere near the things you are, and only talking to the same people about the same things will eventually drive you mad.

What next for Welsh education? – Western Mail Article

28 Apr

I’ve written pretty in-depth reviews of the manifestos for the Welsh election.  The whole lot are collated in this blog post here.  However, the Western Mail kindly gave me the chance to pen a more condensed version of each.  The below article was the best I could edit down to.

Plaid Cymru

The first out of the blocks to publish their manifesto, Plaid Cymru has made education a key plank of its electoral pitch.

There are some exciting and innovative policies that will be very well-received by teachers, parents and pupils alike.

There is a strong focus, as has been the trend over the past few years in Wales, to ensure that the teaching profession are at the heart of the decision-making process.

Plaid has put forward a series of policies that aim to challenge the status-quo and the dreaded buzzword “Pisa” does not escape these pages.

However, the polices around childcare, school improvement, self-regulation and teacher training all offer a clear path to how the party believes it can work with the teaching profession to achieve success.

Perhaps the most eye-catching, head-turning policy in the Plaid manifesto, and arguably of the election for teachers, is the offer of a 10% annual bonus to all teachers who reach certain CPD (continuing professional development) standards.

The party’s aim is two-fold. Firstly, to reinforce the status of teaching as a profession on the same formal standing as doctors, lawyers and engineers and the like.

Secondly, to build professional capacity to ultimately have a master’s level workforce.

As with any policy implementation, of course, will be critical to its success. How can you guarantee all teachers the ability to secure a 10% CPD bonus if we currently have a system where you can’t guarantee all teachers access, or at least equal access in relation to time and quality, of CPD?

Any future Plaid Cymru government would need to win that debate. Certainly, however, the promise of a pay bonus and training will be a combination that plays well on the doorstep with teachers who have seen their pay cut and access to CPD eroded over many years.

Welsh Liberal Democrats

The Welsh Lib Dems have traditionally had a strong focus on education and you can see that influence in their manifesto.

Their lead policy is a commitment to establish a “class sizes reduction fund” of £42m over the next Assembly term to ensure that infant classes normally contain no more than 25 pupils, to give teachers the time to focus on a child’s individual needs, which we believe is central to raising standards.

Class sizes are an issue that are always top of the agenda for the profession, particularly in light of increasingly tight school budgets actually resulting in class sizes going up more often than not.

Aside from this the other big Lib Dem proposal for schools is the expansion of the Pupil Premium.

The pledge is to continue to expand the Pupil Premium and increase the early years’ Pupil Premium every year to reach £1,000 per eligible child by the end of the next Assembly.

The pupil premium was one of the big wins for the Lib Dems during the past Assembly term.

Their negotiations with the Welsh Government secured a major boost for schools and the money was a huge relief for school leaders.

Underfunding of Welsh schools is not a new problem sadly – and it is one that is seemingly getting continually worse.

Any additional funding is always going to be critical and having a continuation of the pupil premium, let alone the proposed increase, is certainly a policy that will register with those on the frontline.

Green Party

The general policies in the Green Party manifesto are to be welcomed. They offer a positive overview of Welsh education with support for parents and teachers.

The main concern is that while they are a list of ambitions, there doesn’t appear to be that much detail about how they will be achieved.

For example, there is a statement to ensure that all pupils have access to mental health support but no explanation of how this will happen, in what capacity or through what funding.

That said, I think the aims of what is being put forward are more than laudable and would make any Green AM an attractive collaborator to other political parties on education policies at least.

There is a strong support for the Foundation Phase, including a pledge to raise the starting age of formal education, as well as plans to reduce the bureaucratic burden on teachers.

However, perhaps their signature education policy is for class sizes to be capped at 20 in Wales.

This undercuts the Lib Dems’ pledge slightly, going for an even smaller class size number.

Notably, these are the only two parties who have given such prominence to this high-profile concern.

UKIP

It would have been easy to expect Ukip to produce a manifesto ignoring devolved issues and simply publish an EU referendum campaign document under another name.

However, it has to be said within their manifesto there is a series of thought-provoking, if at times detail-light, education policies.

The Ukip manifesto has some very attractive policies around supply teaching, where the party advocate ensuring that supply teachers are paid in accordance with their position on the salary spine and receive pension rights, cutting out the 30%-50% cost of agencies and saving taxpayer money.

There is also a commitment on tackling the workload crisis including a pledge to decrease the amount of paperwork teachers’ deal with, such as unduly elaborate individual lesson plans, excessive data collection, overly prescriptive internal assessments and dialogue-based marking schemes. Teachers will also welcome the focus on better funding.

However, the headline policy of this manifesto is Ukip’s calls for a return to a discredited and backwards-looking grammar school system, which sadly jettisons the legitimacy of anything else they are putting before the electorate.

Determining the life chances of children based on their perceived ability, as if this is fixed at such a young age, ignores the fact that some pupils develop later than others.

While Ukip cling to that narrow-focused policy, it is pretty hard to give them credibility on other areas.

This manifesto has some interesting themes with polices that should push the other parties into thinking about their offerings.

Ukip have put in work on some areas of interest that should lead to a further debate when they elect AMs.

It is just a shame that there are also some policies that have been shoehorned in here and which would be disastrous for Welsh education, that have undermined the total package on offer.

Welsh Conservatives

What we have had from the Welsh Conservatives is a series of policies that are constructive, are largely positive and offer a collaborative way forward.

They are, for the most part, in line with what the profession has been doing and focus on some of the gaps that are already identified and would be welcomed by the profession.

At the same time, they are detail-light and perhaps in some instances do not move the debate on.

The objectives and ambitions put forward by the Conservatives will be welcomed, but may leave readers questioning how exactly they will be achieved and to what end.

Calls to ensure a greater proportion of funding reaches the classroom will be well-received, albeit there will need to be more discussion on what that means for the link with local authorities.

The promise of a veto on school closures for parents and governors will also be attractive in some parts of Wales, particularly in rural communities.

Equally, calling for regional consortia to be scrapped, a plan that has consensus across a number of the manifestos, will certainly register with some teachers who have been left unimpressed by those services.

One big concern is the commitment to “deliver a sustainable and effective school building programme, by embracing elements of a public–private partnership model”.

There is some confusion about how similar this would be to a PFI (private finance initiative) approach, which would naturally send alarm bells ringing.

The timing with the Edinburgh PFI school scandal is not ideal either, putting people once again on edge about the safety and sustainability of such schemes.

Welsh Labour

Labour were the last of the parties to publish their manifesto and in some senses had the most difficult job.

As the party of government running education in Wales for the past 17 years, it is hard to package a manifesto as offering fresh, new ideas.

In many cases, what we see is a commitment to continue some of the programmes already in place and build on what the party deem to be their key achievements.

The main Labour manifesto was very light on policy but what they have done is produce a separate, education-specific manifesto, to provide a more in-depth breakdown of what they are proposing for the sector if returned to government.

It is a little disappointing there’s no reference to class sizes or workload. There is also a little bit of a vagueness running through the document.

For example, there is a welcomed commitment to a new supply model but no detail as to what Labour believe that should look like.

That said there are some real positives contained within these pages and I think it offers a far more constructive vision than we saw from the previous minister’s “Education Makes a Difference” plan.

This manifesto has a good amount of encouraging policies around supply, curriculum reform and teacher training that creates a platform for greater collaboration with the teaching profession in future.

It appears to build on much of the work that has already been taking place and suggests a continuity of policy.

Some of the key new policies consist of an additional £100m for school standards; pilot “lunch and fun” clubs in the summer school holidays to improve the nutrition of disadvantaged young people; and a “Music Endowment Fund” to help youngsters access music services and instruments.

You can find the original version online here.