Archive | January, 2014

How volatile is school banding?

31 Jan

After the Western Mail broke this story about the possible end of banding I thought it was important to look at the legacy of the policy and its impact on schools.

I have argued before that one of the major failings of the banding system is its volatility.  It seems that banding publication day goes hand in hand with the phrase “yo-yo effect,” but just how bad is it?

I’ve looked at the difference in the standings of schools between their banding positions in 2013 and 2011.  The results have really highlighted just how unpredictable the system is and how poor, as a result, an indicator it is for teachers, parents and the general public at large to use as an effective measure of school performance.

Of the 216 schools that have three years of banding results 77 (35.6%) of them have moved up at least one band.  15 of those have moved up two bands while 14 have moved up by three bands.  On the face of it that could be seen as good news.  Progress is being shown as those schools move up the bands.  However, as many people warned with the introduction of school banding, the nature of the system means that schools within the bandings can only improve if others decline.  It is no surprise then to see that a similar number of schools have moved down at least one band as have moved up.  87 (40.2%) schools made the reverse journey with 30 of them moving two bands lower, 5 moving three bands and 1 moving down by four bands.  Of course this is just comparing the positions of 2013 and 2011.  In any given year 2011-2012 or 2012-2013 there could be a greater number of schools that went up or down 2, 3 or 4 bands.

Over the three years of banding a total of 52 schools are in the same band in 2013 that they were in 2011.  However, of those 29 moved at least one band up or down before returning to their starting point.

Overall 164 schools (75.9%) are either up or down on their original banding positions with 193 (89.3%) schools having moved at least one band at some point during the three years.

It is quite clear that there is a huge amount of instability in the system at present.  I hope banding is scrapped.  The Education Minister has tweeted that this is not going to be the case and banding is here to say. The Minister has given a welcome commitment to a review of how the system operates which is essential as in its current form banding simply cannot secure the confidence of teachers, pupils or parents.

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The Lake Room Roath

21 Jan

The Place

On this day it was very busy. The first day without rain will do that. The surroundings are great for Gryff in that he fed the swans and there’s a nice park to play in.  The Lake Room is a nice place to stop and have lunch if you’re spending the day in Roath Park.

Ignoring the rush indoors when we were there it has some lovely views in the conservatory section and you can imagine it being idyllic on quieter days

The Hot chocolatephoto 1

I was dissapointed that cream was not offered when buying. The drink was done by machine but it tasted like it was from a packet. There was a decent chocolate flavour but it wasn’t strong enough for me. Overall this was pretty average.

The Carrot Cake

The carrot cake looked very good but I resisted as I’m trying to diet a bit.  Hot chocolate was enough for one day.  (4lbs lost this week – almost back to pre Xmas levels!)

The Rest

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My good wife had a chocolate brownie slice which looked amazing and she assured me it was. Dense and moist.

While walking in the park I was impressed with Gryff’s impression of Jesse from breaking bad.

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In Conversation With…….Simon Thomas AM

20 Jan

The second politician that I’ve spoken to as part of the ‘In Conversation With….’ series I met with Simon Thomas AM

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Simon is an Assembly Member for the Mid and West Wales Region and Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Education, Skills and the Welsh Language.  Prior to taking up these positions Simon was a special advisor to the One Wales Government and a Member of Parliament representing Ceredigion.

We discussed the recent PISA results and issues around that test in general.  We also discussed banding, the curriculum review, standardised testing and supply teaching.

You can hear the conversation in full by clicking on the following .

Alternatively you can hear it on my Soundcloud here.

Clydach Lakeside Cafe

11 Jan

The Place:

As a family we spend quite a bit of time up the lakes in Clydach.  The Gryffalo loves to walk around the lake and feed the ducks.  Inside it is a bit basic but the staff are always friendly.  There is a bit of an odd atmosphere in that they also sell alcahol so there is always a mix of families like ours and the odd person who is boozing.  Somehow that works though?

The Carrot Cake:

There wasn’t any carrot cake on this occasion.  Me and Gryff did split a very nice Welsh cake mind.

The Hot Chocolate:

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First things first I was offered cream when ordering which is the first time that has happened for a while.  Always pleasing.  The cup itself was slightly too full which did cause it to spill over sadly.  The cream was nice and chilled and the chocolate dusting gave it a strong taste.  The drink itself was a bit on the watery side but still quite satisfying, especially as we had been around the lake and were freezing when sitting down.

Rhondda prices are great.  We had two hot chocolates, a tea and a Welsh cake for £3.60.  You would struggle to get the tea for that in Cardiff.

6 hopes for Welsh education in 2014 (amongst many others)

10 Jan

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” – John Lennon

1.  The Banding Review:

The Education Minister’s commitment to reviewing the banding system is one that has been welcomed across the sector.  After three years the flaws of the policy are all too apparent.  You can count on one hand the amount of people who really have any faith left in it.  Descriptions of it being a useless and misguided tool that create more problems than solutions are standard rhetoric come publication day, and from pretty much all corners of the education lobby, be they teachers, headteachers, parents, pupils or politicians.  Few people remain confident that the current banding approach works.

In addition to the review of secondary banding bringing about a system that can work it would be great if the sensible approach was taken and the implementation for primary school banding went from being delayed to being scrapped.

2.  Stop Testing Children Who Are Not Ready:

When NUT Cymru conducted a survey of its members last year into the impact of the standardised literacy and numeracy tests one of the main concerns, amongst many, was that the tests targeted children who were far too young.  I spoke last year about the impacts of these tests on the ethos of the Foundation Phase at a Policy Forum for Wales Conference.  Some of the children sitting these tests, coming out of the Foundation Phase, are not even familiar with the idea of sitting at a desk let alone the sterile conditions of a testing scenario.  Some of the anecdotal feedback the NUT Cymru survey heard about the impact on children, especially the very young pupils undertaking these tests, was horrifying and there is no telling how far it could have put their development back.

The tests as a rule are something I oppose.  My thoughts on standardised testing can be found here.  Hopefully, for the very youngest at least, the evaluation of the last round of testing will offer some progressive changes.

3.  Consortia Start Working

It seems an awfully long time ago now that teachers were promised that the four regional consortia would be up and running and support was on its way.  Indeed, this was supposed to go hand in hand with the first round of school banding in 2011.  We are now at the start of 2014 and I doubt there are many people out there content with the current consortia picture in Wales.  It is beyond time to sort this issue out once and for all.

4.  Professional Development Is Taken Seriously

Teachers Continued Professional Development (CPD) has almost become a myth for many schools.  The funding and access to good quality training has been denied to teachers for too long with most schools expected to implement a DIY approach to professional development.  This has a major impact on the ongoing abilities of teachers to keep pace with new initiatives and improve their skills.  It also hits morale for those teachers who are left to stagnate rather than grow with the role.  There are obvious knock on effects for pupils as well.  It is pointless talking about the quality of teaching being the primary driver in pupil performance unless you are committed to ensuring that quality is maintained and improved.

The Education Minister has already made some positive comments on this issue and does seem to be very aware of the need to address the issue.  In his keynote speech last year the Minister said:

“If we want to instil more respect in the profession, then we must take the issue of teacher training – and continual professional development – more seriously than we have to date.”

He has also made an early announcement following that up this year.  Hopefully this is a theme that will develop further over time.

5.  Time To Tackle Supply:

The issues facing supply teachers are numerous and are well documented.  While they have been well-known to the teaching profession for some time they were brought into mainstream consciousness with the publication of the Estyn and National Audit Office Reports last year.  I’m pleased the Minister has indicated that he wants to get to grips with the continuing concerns about the current supply system.  The existing supply model is a huge problem which disenfranchises teachers and negatively impacts on pupils.  It is a key issue in creating a fairer profession and improving standards.

6.  Pause For Thought:

Over the past few years the education playbook in Wales has been completely ripped up and replaced.  There may, in some cases, be positives in that.  Some of the measures that have been introduced may be beneficial to teachers and pupils.  However, so much has been introduced in such a short period of time that there has been utter chaos in schools.  Teachers have been left in a state of constant revolution with the need to get to grips with such a dramatic and intense level of new consultations, initiatives, programmes and policies.  So many in fact that it will be almost impossible to determine in isolation what has been a success and what has been a failure.

What has been even more disheartening about these policies is that in many cases the funding and support have been non-existent.  I’ve already touched on Regional Consortia above.  Further to this presentations on the introduction and training for the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) we so badly botched that huge numbers of teachers lost confidence in it as a learning tool.  The associated support package has not done much to recovery that credibility.

What the profession, and indeed pupils, really need is for a year where everyone catches their breath.  We need to play catch up with the policies that have not been implemented properly; to allow those that are taking place to bed in and a proper evaluation of their impact to see what works, what doesn’t and how they can be improved.  More knee-jerk reactions will only lead to more people left in limbo.

The qualifications of Welsh teachers

9 Jan

The Western Mail yesterday ran an article that noted 48% of teachers in Wales had a 2:2 degree or less.  We should not forget that this does mean 52% of teachers have at least a 2:1.  For those that are interested there were actually more individuals teaching with a First Class Honours degree than with a Third Class.  For the record I myself have a 2:2.  You can see some comments in response from me in the piece but I thought I’d flesh them out a little further in a blog post.

When?

Not all people go straight into teaching after they leave university and often the teacher that starts the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course will be a very different person to that who went through university fresh from under mam and dad’s feet at home.  I know from personal experience how you can develop.  As I said I had a 2:2 in university.  There are many reasons people do not get a 2:1 or higher.  The quality and difficulty of the course; the standard of teaching, the ability of the candidate to apply themselves or maturity of the individual.  In my case it was a simple reflection of my lack of application.  There is no excuses here.  I have since however compleated diplomas in Journalism; Crisis Communications and in Marketing.  I have also reached Chartered Status in the later.  I’m a far more driven and qualified person now than when I left university over a decade ago.  I’d also like to think I would bring life experience to any future role.  Yet if I undertook ITT now and passed it I would fall into that category of teacher that ‘only’ has a 2:2.

All this being said even those that do go straight from completing their university degree into teaching don’t end their development there.  More on that below.

Is a degree all that counts?

Absolutely not.  It is often said that teaching is an art not a science.  The truth is that perhaps it is somewhere in between.  However, what is certainly clear is that to be a successful teacher you really need the inter-personal skills that foster creativity; empower students and motivate a class.  These are often things that are not taught in a textbook and are even more difficult to tangibly evaluate.  A teacher that inspires a class is one that can build relationships with students based on their communication skills, experience and personality.  Unless I have overlooked it I don’t recall anyone walking out of Oxford with a PhD in charisma.  It takes a special character to be a teacher, or at least to remain in the profession for a length of time.  I’m married to a very good one so I should know.

Of course that is not to devalue the importance of good qualifications but as a teacher you are never off the clock when it comes to development and training.  If you go into teaching straight from uni or not the vast majority of individuals will undertake the ITT course.  Teach First candidates unfortunately will not.  In going through this course the application of knowledge and character previously acquired will be paired with practical teaching skills.  Beyond this teachers will continue to develop those practical skills in working towards achieving their Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) status in their first year of teaching.  More and more new entrants into the sector in Wales will also complete the Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) qualification.

The reality is that teachers, aside from their degrees, ITT, NQT and now MEP qualifications will always be seeking to gather more skills.  Sadly one of the great problems teachers in Wales face is an inability to access Continued Professional Development (CPD).

The future?

This to me is a major concern.  The already outlined issue with access and funding for CPD means that those currently in the profession are seeing their ability to develop skills further, or add a specialism to their teaching abilities, stifled.  We are increasingly being expected to follow some sort of underfunded DIY approach to training where schools are not supported.  That will have a long-term impact on the up-skilling of the workforce and the delivery of objectives for our schools.

Further to this, in the past few years the role of the teacher has become less and less attractive to top graduates.  The workload of teachers has increased to the point it is having a noticeable impact on the mental health of practitioners.  Changes introduced by the Westminster Government mean teachers are paying more into their pensions; working for longer but at the end of it all receive less.  At the same time the introduction of performance related pay will almost inevitably create volatile working conditions that over time threaten to drive down teachers terms and conditions.  We can only be thankful that the Welsh Government have taken the correct steps in ruling out the effective privatisation of education through the Academies system seen in England.

With all the above taking place it is increasingly more difficult to see how teaching can attract the best graduates.

PISA Reflections

6 Jan

There was an inevitable media frenzy following the publication of the latest PISA results.  Who can blame journalists when these tests have been held up by governments across the world to justify reforms, often for ideological reasons.

No one pretends PISA 2013 was positive news for Wales, or indeed any nation in the UK.  That said, given the almost divine status they have achieved in the eyes of some advisors; reporters and politicians, it is only right we look closer at some of the concerns with the process.

There is a growing body of evidence casting doubt on the methodology that underpins the PISA test.  Teachers, employers and academics are all beginning to question the tablet of stone that PISA results are written on.

In the first instance there are concerns at the different cultural diversities in dealing with such a wide ranging test.  Does the test evaluate truly the mathematics, reading and science skills of pupils across the world, or evaluate them against a background of cultural and societal niches.

The fact this is a test conducted in 65 different nations naturally throws up translation issues.  There is a genuine debate about the interpretations and conclusions pupils will have in reading questions phrased differently in different languages.  This is of course not the fault of the OECD, the organisation behind the test.  Papers have to be translated and there is no such thing as a word perfect translation.  That, however, does not change the principle of the concern.  There are questions here also about the inherent bias for nations, such as Finland, whose language has a simpler structure than English with its irregular patterns.

How exactly does the sampling skew any results?  Can you really compare the results of a huge city region like Shanghai with more rural areas across the world?  What about the subjects that are sampled? Can you determine the success or failure of an entire education system based solely on three subject areas?  How questions relate to the current curriculum being taught is also open to creating wide variations in results.

Does the above mean that we should ignore PISA’s findings?  No not at all.  Everyone in education sit up and take notice of PISA, but as part of an overall package of measurements not as the be all and end all of our evaluation system.  Unfortunately across the world these tests are being used to drive wholesale reforms.  Indeed the Welsh Government has overhauled the education system here to ensure that we are more PISA focussed.  Even if we climb the PISA ladder in future there is no telling if that approach will have unintended consequences on our wider education and community ambitions.

PISA tells us only a limited number of things.  They do not say if there’s consistent progress only providing a snapshot of performance from one particular cohort, at one particular time, using one particular test.  PISA will never tell us if we are creating happy; socially responsible or creative pupils.  They will not help show if we are developing people who will become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, artists or community leaders.

In our response to PISA we do need to question not just what type of education system we want but what type of society we envisage for Wales.  In introducing the Foundation Phase, a system whose first cohort of children is yet to be evaluated by PISA, we embarked on a new style of teaching.  It’s designed to ensure pupils had a space to think; to develop essential critical thinking, creative and problem solving skills.  It’s also a system centred in engaging children; allowing them a freedom to learn, making school a place to want to be.  This is a stark contrast to the ethos of education of, for example, South Korea.  While children in Seoul may currently be high amongst PISA rankings the school routine of punishingly long hours; excessive testing and extra study well into the evening, would be abhorrent to many Welsh parents.  Indeed, these pupils languish at the very bottom of indicators evaluating the happiness of school children.

Finland, who may have slipped below East Asian nations year, still remain the highest performing Western country for both reading and science and continue to perform well in mathematics, all with a system based on teacher and pupil wellbeing at its core.  This shows there is another way to the data driven rigid conformity of the East.  While we can, and should, look at their system we must also recognise that in many areas such as gender equality, UN happiness index and income equality, Wales is far behind the progress of our Scandinavian counterparts.

Neither end of the spectrum will you find a system that can simply be transported to Wales.  We have to find a Welsh solution by evaluating what works in other countries, but recognising the specific challenges not only within our schools but within our society.  What works elsewhere will not always work for us here.  We all need to pay attention to what PISA tells us about education, but in doing so we must also accept the flaws in its approach, and the realities of what it isn’t telling us about the cultural drivers of performance.

 

The Welsh Deli – Porthcawl

2 Jan

The Place:

The cafe was pretty basic in its appearance.  The staff were pleasant enough and the facilities were ok.  You wouldn’t come here for the decor but neither would you really be put off either.

The day itself was freezing and made even colder by the wind of being down by the sea.  The ideal time to have a hot chocolate.

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The Carrot Cake:

I didn’t see any for sale sadly, or perhaps fortunately as I am trying to lose this Christmas weight.  Not that hot chocolate is a good basis for a diet.

The Hot Chocolate:

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The first thing to notice is that there was a biscuit  accompaniment.  It is a bit sad I know but I’m always pleased when this is the case with hot chocolate.  It’s the something for nothing of it all I’m sure.  That said given the size of it I did wonder what was the point.  However, I took that cynicism back when I ate it as it has a very strong amaretto flavor that went really well with the drink.  I did feel somewhat sorry for my good wife who lost out on trying hers after the Gryffalo scoffed it.

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The drink itself was very good.  I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have cream on top, especially after asking for that.  The taste did somewhat make up for it with a strong and full chocolate burst with each sip.  As stated above I am trying to detox after Christmas and so am on a diet consisting of pretty much just meat, broccoli, spinach and eggs at the moment.  When that is taken into account a swift hot chocolate is a much needed pick me up.

The Rest:

The Gryffalo has started taking a fancy to tea and so he sat with his dad to share a hot drink (tipped into his little bottle) and warm up.

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