Archive | September, 2013

In Conversation with…..Gary Brace & Angela Jardine

30 Sep

A few months back I posted about how I was planning to start audio blogs to get the views of different people within the education sector. I was very pleased to be able to start the conversation with Gary Brace and Angela Jardine of the General Teaching Council Wales. (GTCW).

Gary is the chief executive of the GTCW and has been since its inception in 2000, meaning he has been at the heart of teaching standards throughout the devolution era. Before this he was a history teacher for 15 years so there is little doubting his experience in the profession. You can follow him on twitter here.

Angela is chair of the GTCW. I also know Angela through her work as a Wales Executive Member at NUT Cymru and have been inspired by her passion and knowledge of educational issues. She has also given me a lot of encouragement with this blog, including the carrot cake side of things, and so I was delighted she agreed to take part.

Click on the below audio link to hear the conversation. We touched on the work of the GTCW, the challenges facing the organisation moving forward in relation to the impact of the forthcoming Education (Wales) Bill and the supply sector.

Alternatively you can listen to it on my soundcloud page.

Any constructive criticism on this new addition to the blog is very welcome, as are suggestions for people to approach to take part.

You can read more about the GTCW and its work at their website here.

The Carrot Cake

All interviewees will be treated to a carrot cake as payment, combining the two passions of this blog. Given this was the first of these audio blogs I went to the extra effort of baking this particular cake myself.

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I blogged on my own carrot cake here.

Oriel – Senedd – Cardiff Bay

26 Sep

The Place

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I love the Assembly building in general. Having worked for both a Member of Parliament and an Assembly Member in the past (well actually two MPs and a host of AMs) I’ve spent time in both the Assembly and the House of Commons. While I can appreciate the grandiose setting of Westminster and the imposing history that it has, I find the Senedd a far more open, transparent and ultimately welcoming building for the general public. Certainly a better setting for a cafe.

The Oriel is a nice open space for some time out of the pressures of the Assembly’s work for those that are there and an ideal relaxed meeting environment for those that are stopping by to view the work of our national legislature.

The Carrot Cake

On this occasion I didn’t have a slice, largely due to eating a huge amount of my own carrot cake during the week. The carrot cake on offer did look tempting mind and I am sure I will return to it in future.

The Hot Chocolate

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Sadly the surroundings of the Oriel are not really reflected in the drink. The hot chocolate was quite bland and watery. There was no real chocolate flavour and left me a little unfulfilled.

The Rest

I had this hot chocolate after appearing before the Children and Young People’s Committee to give evidence on the Education (Wales) Bill. You can view that session here. My section starts around 50 minutes in.

Has The Word Priority Lost Its Meaning?

26 Sep

Priority: A thing that is regarded as more important than others

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I’ve started to think that the word priority is fast losing any relevance within the world of Welsh education.

We have all heard the Welsh Government state that literacy and numeracy must be a priority. Yesterday a report said that we should prioritize the arts given not enough attention is placed on its benefits. A few days before that there was a call to make history a priority in schools and establish it as a core subject. Go back just a few weeks and you would have heard the demands that PE was given greater prominence as a priority, again with calls to make it a core subject.

Now I’m not suggesting that any of the above is unreasonable. I have previously blogged on the need to ensure a creative culture in schools. I’m also a firm believer in the merits and importance of PE in schools and believe History is an incredibly important subject. I would go along with the view that while the focus on literacy and numeracy is essential it can have the perhaps unintended consequences of narrowing the curriculum.

With all that said we simply can’t continue with an approach where any report or review into a subject returns a verdict suggesting it should be made a ‘priority’ in schools. Of course in focusing on improving literacy and numeracy standards we shouldn’t lose focus on the benefits of other areas of education. In fairness to the report on the arts it makes the case for using those subjects as a driver for literacy and numeracy. However, the simple fact is teachers cannot carry on being pulled in every direction due to the competing agenda’s of various organisations. If everything is to be a priority then by default absolutely nothing can be.

My First Ever Attempt At Carrot Cake

25 Sep

So after many a month of blogging about carrot cake I have finally got around to baking my own.

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I have to say the look of the cake when it came out of the over was pretty good. Well, it looked vaguely like it should which is always my barometer when it comes to success or failure.

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Despite following the recipe to the letter something about the icing didn’t quite sit right with me. It was far runnier than planned.

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Not that the Gryffalo was complaining.

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Indeed, I think I could have served that up on its own as a dessert and he would have been more than happy.

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After applying the icing the final product didn’t quite look as good as anticipated, or could have, but none the less I was pleased.

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As far as the taste goes I would say it was a mixed bag. The last cake I baked was a raspberry ripple Victoria sponge.

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While that looked great it had sunk and I was forced to fill it in with butter icing. Not that I was necessarily complaining about that. I love butter icing.

Anyway. As far as the carrot cake went the texture was really pleasing. It was moist and springy and I was quite proud of it. Unfortunately, while nothing was wrong with the flavor for me it was a little bland. I like a spicy carrot cake and I think I should have ignored the guide and doubled (at least) the recommendation for cinnamon and mixed spices. As for the icing I think it would have been better to make a butter icing rather than a cream cheese based icing. I think my good wife summed it up best when she described it as, “not enough cinnamon….too much orange.” Things for me to consider in future.

Still, all being said, as a first attempt I’d still give it a solid 6/10. The basics were there.

Cafe Castan – Llandaf Fields

23 Sep

The Place

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Cafe Castan is just off Llandaf fields. The park itself is somewhere that me and my good wife often visit with the Gryffalo. He loves to just run around entertaining himself and the cafe offers a good stopping point to grab a drink and a bite to eat.

There is seating outside and in but it’s ideal for getting some food and taking it to sit on the grass as a picnic.

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The Carrot Cake

I didn’t have any carrot cake, I’m not sure they actually do any. However, I will be posting a carrot cake review this week.

The Hot Chocolate

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It didn’t particularly entice me by the look. It is fair to say that as far as the visual goes it wasn’t one of the best hot chocolates I’ve had. I was also disappointed not to have been offered cream. Cafe Castan did, I discovered seeing someone elses hot chocolate, do cream but this was an additional option you had to ask for. Personally I think it should always be offered when ordering, even if it does cost more.

The above being said I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The taste was a strong bitter chocolate and very refreshing. It really hit the spot and is highly recommended.

The Gryffalo also got in on the act finishing off this hot chocolate.

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As you can see, with hot chocolate still on his little face, he was also impressed.

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The Rest

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The take away food we had took an age to come. While in fairness it was rather busy when I ordered the wait for what was essentially just a few sandwiches was far too long.

Still it was really nice. A tasty pannini and an excellent salad with a refreshing pesto and balsamic dressing.

Supply and Demand

17 Sep

I have previously blogged on some of the issues facing supply teachers here. In that post I touched on the frustration of waiting for the publication of the Wales Audit Office/Estyn report into the impacts of the current set up. I’m pleased that this report has now been put before the public.

On the face of it I have to say I am a little disappointed with the depth of research. As stated by the press release the Wales Audit Office/Estyn visited a total of 23 Primary and Secondary Schools. While I’ve no doubt they had a good indication of existing concerns through those discussions that is still only 23 schools from a total of around 1,700 schools in Wales. Of course the resources to go around each and every school simply do not exist, but I would have thought a higher percentage would have been necessary given the complexity and importance of this issue.

The report itself makes three key recommendations to drive up standards and reduce costs, which I will look at in turn.

Improving the management of cover arrangements in schools, including developing polices that focus on learners’ progress and more effective use of resources.

I would agree that improving the planning of cover could have positive impacts on both the budgets and quality of a school. However, much of this is often dependant on the sources that schools can access their supply cover from. Some local authorities in Wales have instructed schools to only access supply cover through supply agencies. In some cases specific agencies have been given a contract to cover all schools in that locality, essentially creating a monopoly on the service. This makes it extremely difficult for both schools and teachers given it has created a “sellers” market. Schools are well aware that they have to go to these agencies for their cover, and teachers seeking work know it is either through a supply agency (often a particular supply agency) or there is no work at all. This makes raising any concerns with the practices of those agencies very difficult for individuals to pursue.

A further concern is the practices that are employed by agencies to avoid their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR) 2010. Under these regulations any supply teacher that is in post for 12 weeks or longer is entitled to be paid at a rate equivalent to a full-time teacher, rather than the depressed terms and conditions they generally face that drives down morale and motivation. Unfortunately, we are increasingly aware of anecdotal evidence of teachers being pulled from roles as they near that time limit so that agencies can avoid paying this higher rate. Should a school, who will potentially have found that supply teacher to have been performing well and working with the right ethos of the school, wish to employ them directly they may have to pay a huge flat fee to the agency. What is more many teachers working through agencies are finding themselves locked into long-term restrictive contracts. You may ask why they would sign such contracts that impact on their take home pay and ability to find direct employment? The answer goes back again to the monopoly that these agencies have. Supply teachers, caught between a rock and a hard place, know unless they sign such a contract they may not be able to work at all.

What would help both schools and supply teachers in acting on this recommendation is if the Welsh Government and local authorities worked together to establish in-house services. These would provide a list of well-trained and motivated teachers that could be available to schools without the difficulties of operating through the agency system.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning in covered lessons by making sure that work is set at an appropriate level

In an ideal world this would be a recommendation put into action tomorrow. In some cases where supply cover is anticipated (maternity leave/training purposes etc.) it is an issue that schools can look at and see if improvements can be made to their current set ups. Of course illnesses can not always be well planned. Teachers, like anyone in any walk of life, can become ill. Common illnesses are actually more likely to be spread in a school setting than the vast majority of other workplaces. Where this happens again we go back to the need to ensure that there is a ready, available and motivated supply structure. Another reason that local authorities and the Welsh Government must revisit the current approach to allowing supply agencies to run roughshod over standards, pay and conditions.

A second consideration to this recommendation is how we can reduce the amount of sick days. While I have stated above that often sick days can not be planned, and general infections can spread easily in the classroom environment, one area of sickness that does hit the teaching profession more than most is stress induced sickness. Teachers, as a profession, have some of the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression respectively. Teacher support estimate that as many as 40,000 people working in education, right now, could be experiencing some kind of mental health issue. In 2011 Channel 4 News reported the high number of teacher suicide rates, including an 80% increase in 2009. With recent hits to teachers pay and pensions to be factored in I dread to think if there could be an increase in coming years. (The mental health impact of teaching is an issue I think I will return to in a separate blog post another time).

You need only look at the recently independent TES survey to see that changes over recent years in Wales have hit morale amongst our practitioners. If not just for the scandalous mental health impact of teaching and the wellbeing of the profession, tackling the cause of stress related illnesses at a classroom level will help reduce the costs of supply cover for schools and ensure a greater level of consistency for pupils. It doesn’t take an educational expert to make the connection that reducing the pressure and workload placed on teachers, something that could quite easily be done by examining some of the unnecessary aspects of a teachers role, will create a more motivated and fulfilled workforce. This in turn reduces the teaching days lost to health concerns and improves standards for pupils who benefit from that prolonged relationship with their teachers. It is a very easy win-win.

Providing better access to training and development for supply teachers and increasing access to national training programmes that are available to permanently employed teachers

This is a very timely and particularly important argument. One of the biggest problems facing supply teachers is the inability to access any continued professional development. We are often told how it is quality teaching in the classroom that makes the biggest difference to the ability of pupils to improve standards. However, we are allowing a situation whereby supply agencies are gaining a monopoly on cover and are not investing in training or CPD for those individuals. This is particularly damaging when it comes to ensuring teachers on supply contracts are up to date with all the newest initiatives that are introduced by the Welsh Government. The amount of new policies that have been introduced in Wales recently, coupled with the decision to cut the number of INSET days, has left many full-time teachers playing catch up. For those working through agencies with no access to training it is an ever more difficult challenge.

Until the powers of agencies are curbed and a system is developed to support training and fairer conditions for those undertaking supply work this problem will only continue to snowball.

Finally, it is a little alarming to see the reaction to this report centred on a perception that employing supply teachers is causing poor standards and getting ride of them is the answer. The reality is there will always be a need for supply teaching. Teachers, like any profession, will always have a certain amount of days off with sickness; there will always be a need for maternity cover as well as cover for training. If the response to the report is simply to lambast supply teachers then we as a nation will have missed a major opportunity to look at how we can better support the supply system and ensure a fairer deal for both teachers working in that environment and pupils.

Learning Through Play: Teaching children to ask why

13 Sep

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

Yesterday I was on the Radio 5 Live’s Drive programme discussing the Foundation Phase (While it is still active on the BBC site you can listen back to the interview here around 1:36:12 in). The reason I was on is because of this story covering a letter sent to the Westminster Government from academics and teachers arguing that children should not start formal learning until after the age of five in England.

Although it is becoming almost a bit of a cliché to quote examples of the Finnish approach, there is no escaping the fact that they continue to have the world’s leading education system. There, children do not start school at all until the age of seven. In fact the very idea of sitting children down younger than that for a formal education is deemed cruel.

Michael Gove, unsurprisingly, was dismissive of the notion of learning through play, instead insisting on the knowledge based route he has so far mapped out in England. In response to the letter the English Secretary of State for Education said;

“We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer.”

The main problem with his argument is that what he proposes does just the opposite to what he wishes to achieve. Problem solving is actually at the heart of a learning through play environment. In contrast, the more ‘traditional’ model educates that individual thinking out of students.

In Wales we have the Foundation Phase. Many, myself included, would argue that it is the definition of what devolution can achieve. A courageous policy that seeks to develop the whole child. From instilling greater communication and self-confidence in pupils, to enhancing their personal, social, physical and emotional development, the Foundation Phase is focused on ensuring that children approach education in a different way to the often sterile and rigid, ‘sit at your desk and do as you are told,’ attitude of old. While a true evaluation of the success of the Foundation Phase can not really begin to take place until the first years who went through it have left school, anecdotal evidence suggests we are on the right track in producing a more inquisitive, creative and independent thinking generation of school children.

Anyone can be forced to recall facts, but at the core of the Foundation Phase is the ambition to provide the skills to put that information to use. All children need the knowledge they get through education but retention of the when, where, what and who facts achieves little unless we empower pupils with the application to also ask why.

What’s wrong with banding – Part II

9 Sep

Following the post I did examining the problems with the criteria by which school bandings are established I thought I’d return to look at a further problem. In this post I’m looking at the impact of boiling the banding scores down into one single figure.

School bandings are established by collating a series of scores across numerous indicators. These include Level 2 threshold including English/Welsh and Mathematics; Attendance; English/Welsh and Mathematics etc. with relative performance to previous years and free school meals playing a significant role.
Schools are then given scores based on performances in these categories. Where a fundamental flaw in the process takes place, which is creating a lot of tension for teachers and confusion for parents, is the point at which all these results are boiled down to give just one final result to determine the banding of a school. This often gives a misleading perception of a schools performance. A parent may for instance think a school is struggling to deliver high standards in their English and Maths departments because they are in band 4 or 5. The reality of course could be that they have excellent results but not when FSM or previous years, and cohorts, are factored in. However, having that single score indicator, which will be the only detail the vast majority of parents will understandably look at, does not scratch the surface of the work that is actually going on behind the school gates.

What is most frustrating about the decision to opt for a final figure tally is that there already exists a format by which parents can access the information that makes up school banding. The Welsh Government produced My Local School website allows anyone to look up the data that makes up school banding, and more. Here, parents can have the transparency and accountability to know how any school is performing but without the added complication of deciphering what a cobbled together banding figure means. It really begs the question why come up with an open resource like the My Local School website only to undermine it with the flawed final banding scores.

No one who argues against banding is against accountability in schools. Indeed, I would say that this is something professionals expect and encourage. However we must ensure that the accountability is provided in terms that make sense to parents and that are a fair reflection of the hard work we see in classrooms. You have to ask if stamping a single score to cover all aspects of school performance achieves that ambition?

What’s wrong with banding – Part I

5 Sep

In a recent post responding to TES Cymru’s poll of teachers in Wales I noted that only 10% of the workforce believed that the school banding policy had been positive. In reality the only real shock about that figure is that it is as high as it is. The confusion it has created for parents, especially due to the yo-yo results it throws up and its conflicting analysis to Estyn inspections, coupled with the damaging impact it has had on morale amongst teachers has created chaos. It is hard to really see where the positives could come from with the way the policy has been set up at present.

Like the vast majority of the profession I would like to see the whole banding policy scrapped. It offers little in terms of standards and has had a negative impact on the implementation of other aspects of Welsh Government policies.

There are a great number of problems with the theory and application of the banding system, indeed league tables in general. However, in this post I am just going to concentrate on one aspect which is to look at current way in which schools are separated into bands.

When banding was first proposed most people assumed the process would be based on a criterion referenced system. This would mean that there would be a baseline to each band (presumably established by the first round of banding) which would provide every school with the yardstick to aim for in order to progress up through the bands. In an ideal world, with standards being as high as possible, the numbers of schools in Band 1 would increase and eventually we could see an emptying of Bands 4 and 5.

However, and this is something the vast majority if not all parents do not understand, what we have currently is a norm referenced system whereby the scores required to get into each band are not a constant, but instead change each year depending on the average performances of schools. As a result we are left in a scenario where each year we will essentially end up with the same number of schools in each of the five bands.

So what are the major problems with this? Well firstly it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for teachers and the Welsh Government to demonstrate improvement on a national level. Hypothetically, it could be a case that each year there is an improvement in standards and that 5/10/15 years down the line the school at the very bottom of Band 5 is performing at a better standard (according to banding criteria) than the best performing school in Band 1 was when the system was first introduced. However, the national picture would still show roughly the same amount of schools in each of the five bands. The picture, to those who will just be dipping into the results each December, will look largely unchanged. How then, as a parent, are you supposed to make a qualified judgement on the state of Welsh education performance? Instead of comparing performance on a year by year basis the current system simply averages out the scores across one year, and crucially given the impact of exam results and free school meals (FSM) data, one cohort of pupils.

The second, and perhaps most crucial problem with this system, is that it pits schools against one another. If one school progresses up to a higher band, that will have the inevitable consequence of seeing a school from a higher band travelling downwards. A school cannot move up unless it essentially does so off the back of another institution.

Some may believe that competition is a good thing. Let’s allow the market sort out the weak from the strong and drive up standards. The problem is that education doesn’t work on the same principles as a mobile phone company or a sports retailer. Every leading education system in the world has collaboration at its heart. Those nations know that it is by working together, sharing expertise and resources and creating a community of educators, that standards are truly driven upwards. Indeed, rather ironically, many of the Welsh Government’s other initiatives are focused on this principle. We have consistently heard about the need to share best practice. There are, for example, the lead and emerging schools programmes and lead/emerging practitioner initiatives that have been introduced by the Welsh Government. These are focused on high performing schools and subject specialists working with partners to achieve a collaborative approach to education delivery. Sadly, banding in its current format is acting as a huge barrier to both of these policies, and indeed numerous more, being successful. Why would a school in Band 2 wish to send its English specialist to a school down the road in Band 4, knowing that the improvement in their performance as a result would almost certainly lead to the Band 2 school’s loss of status in the banding ranks? Why would a head teacher in a Band 3 school wish to support a rival school’s leadership development for example if it will essentially result in a poorer reflection of his or her school’s performance come the next round of banding? Banding actively discourages collaboration to the point that it is creating an insular and isolated culture in Welsh education.

A criterion referenced model of banding of course would eliminate part of this issue. While a lot of the problems with this league table style system would still exist, that barrier to collaboration would not necessarily be one of them, or at least not to the extent it currently is. If a school knows its standing is a reflection of its performance relative to set banding scores, and not a reflection of its performance relative to another school, it could open up its expertise knowing that helping others does not mean punishing itself. Indeed that’s when we get to the point that the shared best practice, and the personal development of individuals through mentoring and support, can truly start to transform the ethos, morale and performance of the system in Wales.

No doubt I will return to other aspects of the banding system that have caused concern at a later date.

Time to pause and take stock- TES Article

2 Sep

Below is the article I wrote for TES Cymru following the survey they conducted with teachers in Wales recently.

TES Cymru’s survey of teachers has thrown up some very interesting talking points. While the detail of the poll opens up discussion on a wide range of factors, two things really stand out amongst the responses collated from the almost 1,000 members of the education workforce that took part. School banding as a policy has been almost universally rejected by the profession and the constant revolution that has been on-going within Welsh education over the past few years has had a noticeably detrimental impact on morale.

That only 10% of teachers in Wales believe school banding has been positive is not a shock. The evidence gathered here by TES Cymru is consistent with the high volume of feedback we at NUT Cymru have been receiving from our members since the system was introduced.

Banding has proven to be a divisive initiative that has caused widespread problems for teachers in their attempts to raise standards, with particular consequences in engaging parents and the wider community. The yo-yo results we have seen over the past two years have not only left teachers demoralised but caused confusion for parents also. When you see schools dropping from the very highest ranking in Band 1 to Band 4 over the course of one year; or a school placed in Band 3 in the same year it became the first ever to achieve outstanding scores across the board in its Estyn inspection, it is hard see merit in the banding process.

NUT Cymru has urged the Welsh Government to review the banding approach. No one is opposed to transparency or accountability, but the current policy is not working. This survey, as part of a growing body of evidence detailing classroom concerns, should help address the flaws that exist at present.

It is a concern to see the upheaval created by a convey belt of policies having a detrimental impact on morale. 73.2 per cent of teachers and 75 per cent of heads, responding to the survey, felt the changes had hit attitudes and motivation.

Teachers in Wales have seen huge numbers of policies, initiatives and programmes introduced in recent years. Often these have been seen as being imposed on schools rather than changes that have taken the profession with them. Sometimes the rush to make changes has led to a confused and conflicting pedagogical approach.

Wales has a new Minister in place and there have been a number of changes to leading officials in the Department for Education and Skills. It is an ideal time to pause and take stock of the current situation. There is a lot of upheaval that needs to settle to allow the policies that have been introduced to bed in before being reviewed. Then we can see what is working, what needs to be altered and potentially what needs to be scaled back or scrapped.

Hopefully those decisions will be taken with consensus that can ensure teachers take ownership of Welsh Government proposals and feel part of the process.

The origional article as published by TES Cymru can be found here.