Archive | November, 2013

Testing, Testing, 1-2-3

29 Nov

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” – Albert Einstein

This morning I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Wales on this story that children are not test-ready in Wales.  While it is still active you can hear it here. (37:10 in)  Ironically as I was driving in to the BBC they were playing a clip (22:40 in) of an exchange teacher from Finland who was shocked and concerned at the levels of pressure placed on teachers and pupils in Wales as she observed a classroom continually being directed to undertake work that was designed to focus them on passing a test.

I’ve previously blogged a few times on my cynicism that a regime of testing children will lead to better outcomes.  I continue to remain unconvinced that creating a generation of pupils who can pass tests will actually result in a generation that are better educated.  Improvement in the former does not necessarily mean an improvement in the latter.  In fact, excessive testing could very well result in undermined confidence; narrowing the curriculum; reduced independent thinking and other negatives that hinder the educational attainment of students.

We should not be surprised that this pre-test has thrown up some issues.  By their very nature pilot programmes will do just that.  The Acumina report itself makes a number of recommendations regarding the format of the tests; the preparation materials; the marking schemes and issues relating to learners with additional needs that those behind the test will have to take under careful consideration.  We should also not forget that this pre-testing was done with a small sample of pupils.

That being said, it is right to look at some of the underlying issues that may have come up regarding numeracy skills and their application, for example issues around the proficiency of students to use a calculator.  Are these anomalies thrown up as a result of a small group of individuals that have gone through the pre-tests? Or are they indicative of a wider concern?  That is something we must all evaluate.  However the top line of the report, as indicated by the BBC’s headline, ‘Pupils have no idea how to take maths tests,’ relates to how ‘test-ready’ pupils in Wales are.  If ever there was a headline that will lead to teaching to the test this is it.  As Gary Brace, Chief Executive of the GTCW said on twitter, “teaching children how to do well in these tests runs counter to their stated purpose.”

I am really concerned that instead of focussing on the knowledge and application of numeracy skills we will in fact see a rise in the focus of test preparation.  This is of course completely contradictory to the wider education approach in Wales.

On one hand we have the Foundation Phase, focused on an informal learning through play approach.  We are also undergoing a consultation on the curriculum that is suggesting that essential skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking, are to become statutory.  However, while those policies aim to make Welsh schools incubators for independent thinking the methodology of creating testing laboratories with pupils acting as guinea pigs for the PISA panic that has set in, creates a real danger of establishing competing aims that will undoubtably lead to both styles of education failing.  It really is hard to see how pupils will stand out if we are consistently training them to just fit in.  As education author Alfie Kohn said, “every hour spent on such exam preparation is an hour not spent helping students to become critical, creative, curious learners.”

The BBC online report following my interview can be found here.

PISA Preview

27 Nov

Next week we will get the PISA scores for 2012.  The tests were pretty much unknown to most people, including those working in schools, until the 2009 results were used to radically change the direction of our education system in Wales.  The big question, aside from how well we may or may not do, is what will the implications of this years scores be?

As of November 13th there are 117,000 people unemployed in Wales.  When those individuals next apply for a job and reach the interview how many do you think will put forward their PISA scores as validation for their credibility as a candidate?

Now my flippancy isn’t designed to totally discount the importance of PISA to our economy.  Clearly these international comparators are influential in demonstrating the strength and capabilities of the workforce of tomorrow.  PISA can be influential in attracting new investment and jobs into Wales as it gives an indication of the skills and abilities of the potential labour market.

However, is that solely reason enough to allow our entire education system to have become driven by these tests?  Reform after reform has been brought in to ensure that Wales climbs the PISA rankings.  Yet it is still the merits of GCSEs, A Levels and potentially in the future the Welsh Baccalaureate which are the measures by which university places are offered and existing employers evaluate CVs.  When it comes to these indicators in Wales we have seen steady progress

Still, PISA remains important, but is it actually a fair assessment? More and more, academics are beginning to question the methodology of PISA tests.  Test that have driven education reforms and millions in funding across the world, including here in Wales.  Concerns that different countries take different questions, or how the weighting given to different types of questions is determined, certainly raises fears that they are not valid comparisons.  Some academics believe the difference in these questions could account for huge variation in final positions.  Denmark for example could land anywhere between 5th and 37th depending on these factors.  That has profound implications for the way it’s Government and people react to their international standings.  From celebration and praise to chastising staff and draconian changes to practices.  Many in Wales would suggest that teachers in Wales have seen their fair share of the latter on occasion since the last round of PISA results.

That the OECD’s response to the Times Education Supplement on the above issue was to confirm “large variation in single (country) ranking positions is likely” hardly fills anyone with confidence.

There is also the concern that PISA offers just a snap shot of one particular cohort of pupils, in much the same way as banding does.  There is no tracking of performance over a long-term period but instead just a brief picture of a particular set of pupils on a particular day of testing.  Again, this does not totally discount the findings but it is something that needs to be considered when developing wide-ranging new policies to be able to fit our education system to a PISA test.

The issues with PISA testing could fill a lengthy blog on their own, both arguments for and against.  However the main point is to accept that they have an important role to play in the ever-increasing globalised economy but that implementing radical reforms without questioning the detail behind the comparisons is, and has proven to be, foolhardy and somewhat short-sighted.  After all the nation who consistently top the PISA rankings, Finland, are the nation that place the least emphasis on doing so.  Their reforms are based on a whole child approach to doing what is right for their communities, not what is right to try to climb these tables.  That they remain high performers is a positive coincidence rather than a deliberate target.

(For more on this debate this programme on Radio 4 which recently examined the flaws in PISA’s approach and what the tests can actually tell us is well worth listening to).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the objective of the former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, to show  improvement in 2012 from the 2009 results.  That ambition was downplayed by the Minister and his officials before he left post.  While the First Minister reiterated the aim the current Education Minister gave a more realistic outline of where we may end up.

The reality about any education reform is that it takes time. This is a point that I discussed with the GTCW and Aled Roberts AM in recent ‘In Conversation With….’ pieces that I recorded.  The leading education systems in the world have all been developed over a 20, 30 or 40 year period. Those who have undergone that transformation will say that they are still developing and reforming. The problem is that we often confuse, much to the detriment of children’s education, the time it actually takes to change an education system and the desire to see short-term impacts of reforms alongside a political cycle. I of course appreciate that those politicians in the post of Education Minister, or opposition spokesperson, are working to election deadlines. Rapid improvements are demanded and expected of politicians and political pressures are exerted. However, for all that political bluster, educational change will not work to another’s timeline but at a rate of change that is sustainable and effective.

In Wales we certainly have not had enough time between the doomsday response to the last PISA rankings and next month’s publication. Now I am not convinced that some of the measures put in place by the Welsh Government are the right course of action to help support improving standards. In fact I think the dramatic increase in bureaucracy, workload, standardised testing and league tables that we have seen will act largely as a barrier to our national ambitions. These are measures that have been proven to fail in other nations by hitting staff morale, shrinking the curriculum and placing accountability measures high above collaboration and support. Indeed Finland’s educational missionary, the world-renowned Pasi Salhberg, has already stated that he believes the Welsh approach will fail.

That being said, ignoring my own cynicism, two years is simply not enough time to see the benefits, or indeed negatives, of policy changes on the overall picture of the education system as a whole. With that in mind it is certainly hard to expect to see rapid improvements in next month’s PISA scores. Further to that, the ambition that was stated by the Welsh Government that we are expected to reach PISA’s top 20 nations by 2015 is, to be kind, optimistic. To achieve such a feat Wales would have shown improvement on a level, and at a pace, that would be pretty much unheard of internationally.

There are other factors also acting as barriers to Welsh improvement in December’s publications.  Traditionally mathematics is the weakest PISA subject for Welsh students and on this occasion, unlike in 2009, this is the main subject that has been tested.  There will, inevitably therefore, be an expectation that results will not be as strong.

Of course, in years to come if we do improve we will have to ask the question if that has come about as a result of an improving education system or simply because we have aimed to introduced PISA style testing in schools designed to help us teach to the test? We may very well have pupils that will be better at PISA but not necessarily better educated pupils?

The Education Minister said in a recently Assembly debate that, “PISA is not the be all and end all of measures.”  Let’s all try to keep that in the back of our minds when the rhetoric reaches fever pitch next week.

Cafe Torre – Cardiff

22 Nov

The Place

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Cafe Torre is nice and spacious. I felt a bit self-conscious being the only person in there (it was 9:21am) and was outnumbered by the staff 2:1. That said they were very welcoming.

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There’s a good relaxed feel to the place, ideal to sit and read a paper over breakfast

Hot chocolate

The key thing at the start was that I was asked if I wanted cream. Increasingly something that’s forgotten about. That said I was slightly bemused that the cream was served in a separate pot? Still it was very nice cream. Firm, chilled and refreshing.

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I’m not sure if I like the way the hot chocolate was served or not. It’s either very odd or very cute. Maybe a bit of both.

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The flavour of the drink was full and thick and very tasty. Dipping the cream in as I went along actually worked well so maybe I shouldn’t have judged the serving of it separately quite so quickly.

The Carrot Cake

I didn’t have one as I stopped in for breakfast but the one on display did look lovely and may well be worth a return visit.

The Rest

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I had a real hankering for porridge and honey. Ideal on a cold day. Sadly this one was served a bit thin and I’m not sure the honey was actually put in?

In Conversation with….Sian Powell

21 Nov

I was joined for this episode of the ‘In Conversation with…’ series by my good friend Sian Powell. For various reasons I had to cancel the recording twice before we eventually got together so thanks to Sian for her patience.

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Sian is a PhD student studying the role of the media and devolution. She has previously written for the Huffington post on culture and democracy and is also a lecturer with Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol.

Amongst other things we discussed the way the UK media has reported divergence in the education systems of Wales and England and how Wales can sell its qualifications to a media that is disinterested. Unfortunately I accidentally stopped the recording half way through so it comes in two parts as a result. Click below for the audio.

You can also hear the conversation on my Soundcloud here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

The Carrot Cake

The accompanying carrot cake came from Kemis in Pontcanna. Very nice it was too.

Kemi’s Pontcanna

19 Nov

The Place

As some people will know I’m a massive fan of Cafe Brava. Unbeknown to me Kemi’s is located at the other end of the same street. I have previously blogged on carrot cake from Kemi’s from their now closed outlet in Cardiff Bay.

While I didn’t eat in, the place itself is lovely and light with a large window to watch the world go by. This is definitely somewhere worth visiting on a slow day or a quiet weekend. Ideal hangover recovery I’d imagine.

The staff member who greeted me was really friendly and welcoming. For the record he recommended the key lime pie to me. Maybe I’ll give it a try next time I pass.

The Carrot Cake

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They were out of the usual carrot cake and so I ended up having a slice of the carrot, rum and pineapple cake. My obsession with carrot cake is clear to see from this blog. I am also a big fan of rum. I do, however, hate pineapple. I would have passed it up but I was getting the cake for an ‘In Conversation With….’ piece I’ll be publishing later in the week so I was committed.

On the negative side the cake wasn’t particularly spicy. With the inclusion of rum I would have expected more of a kick so that was a little disappointing.

The positives, thankfully, far outweighed the negatives. The pineapple flavour was very timid but its inclusion was good as it added a different texture to the cake. The cake itself was moist and the frosting was up there the best I’ve had. Creamy yet firm.

All in all a very nice and refreshing carrot cake and well worth a return visit in future.

The Hot Chocolate

Sadly as I was on the way to do an audio blog I didn’t stay to sample any hot chocolate. Maybe next time, with a slice of key lime pie.

Rise Of The Teaching Assistant

18 Nov

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” Temple Grandin

Walk into most classrooms across Wales today and you will find a very different make up of staff than you would have a decade ago.

The numbers of teachers in Wales over the past decade has largely remained constant.

The total number of qualified teachers in nursery, primary, secondary, special and independent schools in 2001/2002 was 29,252.
The total number of qualified teachers in nursery, primary, secondary, special and independent schools in 2011/2012 was 28,153. A net difference of – 1,099

There are capacity issues with losing 1,099 teachers of course, and there are also fewer schools, but over the decade the total figure is roughly similar. However the pattern is very different when examining support staff.

The total number of support staff in 2001/2002 stood at 14,058. When you consider only those that actually had a role in the classroom it is closer to 9,600.
The total number of support staff in 2011/2012 is 26,644. A staggering increase of 12,586 individuals. If again you take out the non-classroom support staff the figure is 20,378. An increase of 10,778.

These figures show there has been a complete explosion in the role of teaching assistants over this period. The positive impact of this is that it has reduced some aspects of teachers workloads and helped support learning outcomes where teachers and TAs have effectively worked in tandem. However, where the big concern begins is when schools become reliant on teaching assistants to cover teachers PPA classes, illnesses and other leave. Not only are teaching assistants not supported or paid to do that role, quite simply, they are not qualified teachers and are not prepared for the challenge. While correlation does not always simply equate to causation, these statistics do raise questions as to potential the link between the supposed dip in Welsh educational attainment and the rise in number, and responsibilities, of teaching assistants in the country over the past ten years.

Research here from the ATL Union shows just how widespread the reliance is. Of the 1,400 people polled it was revealed that 32% of support staff took classes for absent teachers and 60% of these said they did the same work as fully qualified teachers. Even greater concern perhaps is that this is a growing trend. The poll also showed that 22% of support staff said they took more classes this year than last.

The fact that teaching assistants will be brought into registration by the successor body to the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) through the Education (Wales) Bill is a further demonstration of the growing role this section of school staff have.

Let me be clear. There is a role for teaching assistants in schools. I am not doubting the important contribution they make. Ask any teacher how vital their teaching assistants are and they will say they are integral to the workings of a classroom. However, what we are increasingly seeing is the abuse of teaching assistants in expecting them to ‘deliver’ lessons to whole classes of children. This is neither fair on teaching assistants, the teaching profession and certainly is not for the children. The fact that on a daily basis across Wales there will be people other than qualified teachers teaching lessons is a scary thought when considered against the ambition to see us rise to the top twenty nations in the PISA rankings. If those rankings have taught us anything it is that those nations who invest in the quality of their classroom leaders who are the most successful. Having teaching assistants delivering lessons is detrimental to that goal.

Nowhere is this concern more evident than in the Foundation Phase. The Welsh Government put in place child to adult ratios in devising this policy. That is a good thing in ensuring that there is support for children and that they receive attention on an as individual as possible basis. What isn’t guaranteed is that this support will come from a qualified teacher. The ratios are adult-pupil not teacher-pupil and so the Foundation Phases has naturally become dominated, to an extent, by teaching assistants who can ensure those ratios are maintained but at a lower cost. We have to also accept of course that lower costs will inevitably equate to reduced pedagogical expertise. Is this one potential explanation as to why the Foundation Phase, for all its obvious successes, has been said by some to have variable delivery?

Another area where we see teaching assistants given more responsibility is in working with students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). As a result of funding cut backs to SEN services, as well as services being lost along the way with the move towards a regional consortia system, it is increasingly teaching assistants that are providing the one to one support in classrooms. This is an issue that will become ever more noticeable if the Robert Hill review’s drive towards federalisation is delivered. We are essentially allowing a situation to exist whereby those pupils who require the most help and who are hardest to reach are being taught by the staff with the least training and qualifications. This is not to belittle the skills of teaching assistants. It should be noted that there are teaching assistants working in Wales with years of experience but without the pedagogical, academic and professional qualifications of teachers, it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect TAs to have the professional insight to be able to plan and deliver effective lessons of whatever nature. What is more, from their point of view they are also not paid to do so. It is unfair and unacceptable to those teaching assistants to put them in this position. It is nothing short of exploitation.

Teaching Assistants, properly utilised to their capabilities in supporting teachers can provide a big boost to performance, but qualified teachers they are not. Expecting them to be able to do the job of a teacher is akin to expecting a theatre nurse to perform the role of a neurosurgeon. Their roles are somewhat related but worlds apart, and parents and the public at large need to understand that difference.

Recently the Welsh Government announced that there would be greater access and investment in training for teaching assistants. Given the above detail of the growing presence and role of teaching assistants in the classroom then this is a good thing. The more training provided for those that are contributing to the education of children in the classroom the better. However, this must be matched by an equal commitment to ensuring proper continuing professional development for teachers. In fairness the Education Minister openly accepted in his Reform, Rigour and Respect speech that this is something that has not been delivered properly in the past in Wales.

It is of course right that we upskill and provide ongoing support for teaching assistants. Research by the Institute of Education argues that pupils are more likely to have active and sustained interactions with teaching assistants than they are teachers, yet TAs are often focused on task completion rather than learning outcomes. With that in mind it is essential that if we are to make the best use of TAs in the classroom environment they received support in developing the right skills. However this is no substitute for supporting professional teachers whose qualifications, pedagogical training, knowledge and skills have been proven to have the greatest impact on to a child’s development in the school environment.

We all know why the current situation exists. Welsh education is underfunded and that has forced schools to resort to ‘teaching on the cheap.’ The reality remains that unless we deal with this concern there is simply no hope of breaking into that ever elusive PISA top twenty.


Figures for numbers of teachers and support staff provided by Stats Wales.


More on the IoE’s work and realising the value of teaching assistants can be found here.

Do our staff rooms reflect our communities?

7 Nov

On Monday I blogged on the gender imbalance that exists in our schools. 8 years since the GTCW highlighted how only 26.9% of the teaching workforce is male, that figure currently stands at 26.28%. It is hard to have much confidence that the gap is going to close anytime soon.

In that blog post I briefly touched on how our schools need to have diverse staffing arrangements that reflect our local communities. This article by GTCW Chair and NUT Cymru Executive, Angela Jardine, highlights the issue very well. You really get a sense of the size of the challenge we face in representing our communities when reading the content of the article.

Overall, less than half of 1% of registered teachers in Wales are from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, black African or Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. By contrast the census shows that around 3% of the Welsh population as a whole are from these origins.

If you are a young boy of any of the above ethnicities chances are you’re very unlikely to actually see a common connection looking back at you from the front of the class. Now that isn’t always a bad thing of course. We don’t want individuals of those backgrounds coming into the school system just to teach people of similar race, colour, creed or gender. Just as we do not want to see exclusively white females teaching a class of white school girls. It is equally important that our schools present different cultures as it is they reflect ourselves.

If you go into schools in Wales I’m sure you will see pupils and teachers embracing cultural diversity. Children in Wales are learning about the world and its different identities, regularly taking part in activities to embrace different religions; ethnicities; backgrounds and cultures. NUT Cymru have done fantastic work in supporting the excellent Show Racism The Red Card Wales in their projects raising awareness of cultural differences with children. I’ve attended one myself and can say it is inspiring to see the open-minded approach of Welsh students. However, while that excellent work is ongoing, and schools are aware that they are developing the social and emotional consciousness of their pupils as well as the academic, the make up of the workforce remains stubbornly ‘traditional’.

In her article Angela Jardine makes the point very well when she says;

Schools are a microcosm of society and, as society changes, schools need to do the same

The reality is that Wales, like much of the UK, is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. The way we embrace multiculturalism is actually something on a community level we should be proud of. But how reflective are we of it in public life? The truth is teaching may not currently reflect our population or communities but it does perhaps reflect general Welsh public life. There are only two black or ethnic minority Assembly Members in Cardiff Bay. There are no such individuals sitting in the House of Commons on behalf of a Welsh constituencies nor, to the best of my knowledge, leading any one of the 22 local authorities in Wales.

There is a need for much more work to be done on this issue amongst the public bodies of Wales. There’s no reason why that can’t start amongst the staffing of schools. The key barrier to break down is making teaching an attractive career choice for ethnic minorities who have traditionally not given it consideration. Respect for teaching as a profession needs to be given greater prominence across society in general and placing it on the same platform as medical, legal, financial and scientific pursuits for individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds is certainly an aspiration we should have.

A Few Good Men

4 Nov

One of the questions that periodically raises its head is why it continues to be so difficult to attract and retain men into the teaching profession. It was an issue that TES Cymru covered in April this year as figures showed the percentage of women in the profession was at a ten-year high.

Current statistics show just how unbalanced the sector is. Of the 28,153 teachers in Wales, as of Stats Wales figures for 2011/12, only 7,399 (26.28%) were men. Women accounted for the remaining 20,754 (73.71%) qualified teachers. Why this is the case I am not really sure. It is no doubt a combination of factors. Teaching is perhaps seen as a “female” profession; the lack of male teaching role models for pupils going through the system may discourage them from taking up a career in education; there is a very real fear amongst men of being stigmatised for working with young children or maybe it is the treatment of male teachers as shown by this 2008 NUT survey highlighting that pupil disruption is more likely to occur with a male teacher.

Why is it important? Well, schools should be about opening up children to a host of different experiences. In that sense it is right to also look at the representation of the workforce and try to get a range of different backgrounds. While in this instance I’m looking at the gender balance of teachers it is equally important to look at the race, ethnicities and social backgrounds of the profession. To clarify this isn’t a plea for positive discrimination but a blog about the need to ensure that the merits of teaching are presented to the widest section of society possible.

One of the major issues that we have in education, and this extends well beyond the confines of the Welsh boarders, is the problem of attainment amongst boys. Year on year results show that girls are outperforming boys. Significantly so in some cases. The 2013 A level results, for example, show girls continued to outperform boys in Wales in all but the highest A* grades. Girls achieved a 98.1% pass rate compared to 97.0% for boys. We have seen some success in the engagement of boys through the Foundation Phases. It is one of the key successes of that policy. An Estyn report into the Foundation Phase highlighted how the approach is improving motivation and attitudes of learning with boys, in particular, benefiting. That is work that over the longer-term will hopefully help improve the performance of boys at end of key stage qualifications.

However, there is more that can be done. One argument for a solution to this issue is to increase the number of male teachers. There is some evidence, although more detailed work perhaps does need to be done in this field, which suggests boys work better under the tutelage of male teachers, or at least the presence of male staff in a school can be beneficial to the performance of boys. In 2012 Westminster’s All Party Group on literacy argued that the lack of male role models in school was hampering the engagement of young boys in reading. I’m not sure I buy the argument of the group’s chairman in the article that female teachers are less likely to know what books appeal to boys because of their gender. I’m sure they can objectively propose literature that appeals across gender and interests. I do though believe there may be something in the fact that a male role model encouraging reading as a past time to boys can be effective in stimulating interest. Figures show that young boys are less likely to read than young girls which in turn has a long-term impact on literacy standards between the genders as they progress through school. I would say it should be primarily the role of parents to encourage their children to invest time in reading. However, the effectiveness of male teachers is even more noticeable where there may not be a strong male role model in the home environment.

In targeting more male recruits we naturally have to guard against undermining women who wish to pursue a career in teaching. That being said this issue is one that has just not seen any viable long-term solutions. It is by no means a new concern. Back in 2005 the GTCW were calling for more men to be recruited into Welsh teaching posts. They were alarmed only 26.9% of the workforce were men. As stated above that figure has fallen further, albeit marginally, since then with no real plan in place to counteract the problem. One point this GTCW link raises is the underrepresentation of female head teachers. This is equally concerning and perhaps a consequence of a lack of men in the profession resulting in them being fast-tracked to leadership roles. An issue worthy of a separate blogpost perhaps?

There clearly does need to be work done to attract and retain more men into the teaching profession to address this gender imbalance, even if it is just in better promoting the profession to that section of society. It is of course a very difficult task to do with increasing workloads coupled with slashing cuts to pay, pensions and respect. Nonetheless, teaching remains a profession that provides a lot of satisfaction to those that enter with a passion for contributing to the betterment of future generations and their communities. Other nations are already taking steps. Estonia, who admittedly have even further to travel given male teachers only make up around 15% of their workforce, have created a national strategy to increase the numbers of men (and young) professionals in the classroom. The establishment of the new Education Workforce Council, and the remit placed on that body for promotion of the profession and training could be a good spring-board to start this work, but there could, and perhaps should, also be a role for the Welsh Government and regional consortia to look at this gender gap and put in place proposals to address it.