Archive | March, 2014

One Union

29 Mar

“One love, one heart . . .
Let’s get together and feel all right” Bob Marley

If Michael Gove has achieved anything as Education Secretary it is actually fostering a greater sense of professional unity.  This is not intentional on his behalf of course but the unintended impact of his policies.  Teachers at all levels and experience, irrespective of where they are at along their career path, will have seen the negative impact of his educational reforms.  It doesn’t matter if it is pay, pensions, morale or their general concerns for how teaching as a profession has been marginalised, there is a sense of united concern at what is consistently seen as a sustained and deliberate attack on the education sector.  Teachers from all unions have worked together closely in opposing these plans and have seen the benefit of speaking with one voice.

It has long been a key policy of the NUT to have just one union representing all teachers.  The more united the voice of teachers the stronger the case we can make.  Where teachers have had the most success in recent years defending education it has been as a result of doing things in partnership across different unions.

Every year the different teaching unions will attend student enrolment days to allow those going on to teaching training courses to sign up as members.  The question that is raised without fail at these events is, ‘why is there not just one teachers’ union?’

The truth is that the structures and roles of each union are very similar in offering support, guidance and representation for members.  In some cases the duplication of work in having different unions, at least at a local and school level, potentially detracts from the service that could be on offer if there was a more concentrated approach.

The four major teachers’ unions in Wales are all affiliated to the Wales TUC and all have representatives on workforce groups interacting with regional consortia, local and national government in various forms. Within these bodies, their voices are similar and mutually supportive.  There may at times be differences in approach but the general focus on policy is not too dramatically different. Joint proposals, attitudes and motions are more frequent than rival propositions.

Now, it is true there are differences in views and policies across the various unions.  However, many of these have become less and less visible as we have worked together successfully in opposing attacks on the education sector in recent years.  Such are the similarities, and so close are the parallels, that they would not present a mountain of difficulty to overcome in seeking to mould the conflicting bodies into one. Most mergers between commercial companies or amalgamations of unions face far more severe gulfs to span.

On Saturday, 1 March the NUT organised a very successful professional unity conference.  A packed meeting was addressed by speakers from the NUT, ATL and UCAC, Ritva Semi, OAJ the trade union for teachers in Finland and Howard Stevenson, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Nottingham.  Head teacher unions NAHT and ASCL also sent messages of support.

The case for professional unity was eloquently made by Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, who said:

“The unprecedented attack on the profession makes it more vital than ever that unity is achieved. Our organisations may have differences but what unites us is our concern for education and our desire to do what’s best for children and our members.  It therefore makes sense that we stand together.

“The high education standards achieved in Finland owe much to the voice of the profession being heard strongly through a single teachers union. The NUT is very proud of our history but we would be as proud to be part of forming one union for all teachers.”

The point about Finland is especially important.  There they have one teaching union who are always an integral partner for the Government when education policies are devised and implemented.  It is therefore no real surprise that they have an effective, efficient and harmonious education system that is revered around the world.

The message from the professional unity conference was overwhelmingly that this debate should be encouraged in schools, locally and nationally on how this can be achieved.  By working together we can win together.

What is the prize for such a commitment?  A single teachers’ union would be one of the largest unions in the TUC. It would be one of the largest teachers’ unions in Europe.  Its power to negotiate would be formidable and it could help secure long lasting improvements for teachers, parents and pupils.

Securing a single teachers union will not be an easy task but it is one where the benefits are huge for the profession and education as a whole.  A new body would truly be the voice of the teaching profession and could be the start of a historic period in education.

You can read the article as published in the Western Mail here.


Birthday Afternoon Tea: Pettigrew Tea-rooms – Cardiff

25 Mar

The Place

PettigrewTeaRooms 038

I’ve been meaning to pop into Pettigrew Tea-rooms for a while and always comment on it when passing. Fortunately my good wife must have been paying attention as she arranged for us to go there for afternoon tea to celebrate my 31st.

The place is lovely inside with a vintage look and situated in Sophia Gardens it is an ideal location where the Gryffalo could then run around in the fresh air after we ate.

The Hot Chocolate

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One of the reasons I have avoided going for afternoon tea is that I don’t drink tea or coffee. Thankfully the staff at Pettigrew were kind enough to substitute in hot chocolate.

The drink itself was very nice although maybe could have had a tad more of a chocolate kick. The cream was delicious. Very silky and smooth and did really lift the drink from your average hot chocolate.

The Gryffalo however is far more content with a cup of tea.


The Carrot Cake

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(My good wife was thoughtful enough to bring a birthday candle with her)

The cake was beautifully moist with a fantastic flavor. The right levels of spice with perfect frosting. Overall I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this carrot cake. Whisper it….it may very well be the best cake I’ve had yet. Highly recommended.

The Rest

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As part of the afternoon tea we also had finger sandwiches (Ham & Mustard; Beef & Horseradish and Brie & Chutney) and two huge scones with clotted cream and a selection of jams.

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All of these were very tasty and along with the accommodating staff made the day very special. Thanks to my good wife for organising.

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Wicked Carrot Cake – Bar One WMC Cardiff

24 Mar

The Place

I have previously blogged about Bar One at the Millennium Center. I’m a big fan of the place.

The Hot Chocolate


The last time I blogged on the hot chocolate from the WMC it was a very nice drink. On this occasion I did find it a tad bland in flavor. It wasn’t necessarily bad but just average which was a shame as usually Bar One hot chocolates are very good.

The Carrot Cake

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This was the first carrot cake I’d had for a long while so I;m pleased to be able to report that it was good. The cake itself was not quite as spicy as I like but the texture was moist.

The frosting was delicious, creamy yet firm, and really made up for any shortcomings with the flavor of the cake.

The Rest

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I was at the WMC with my good wife, equally passionate about her hot chocolates although very often far less critical than me.

We were at the center to watch Wicked, which was excellent, and we also enjoyed a caramel slice.

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I’m a big fan of Bar One’s caramel slices. This one was very good but a bit too much of a biscuit base.

GCSE English – Why it is not just today’s problem

19 Mar

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do” – Henry Ford

Last year I wrote an article for the Western Mail arguing that developing Welsh qualifications was only half the battle, with the real test being how exactly we sell the merits of them both inside and outside Wales.  At the time I said it was ‘crucial that the quality of those qualifications is promoted and explained within Wales, the UK and beyond.’ 

Given the importance of ensuring confidence in our qualifications the on-going debacle surrounding this January’s GCSE English exam is increasingly worrying.

The rights and wrongs of the individual issue will no doubt come out in due course.  Today the WJEC seemed to have batted the matter back to the Welsh Government with their statement that essentially says they were just following orders.  We await the Welsh Government’s own internal review.  Clearly there are still questions to be asked, specifically around what was agreed between the Welsh Government and the WJEC regarding the marking scheme; how that was translated to schools and why there has been such an unexpected impact given previous assurances this would not happen.

However, regardless of what comes out of the Welsh Government’s review, and how we ensure such a situation doesn’t happen again, there is a perception problem that will have damaged the work being done to sell Welsh qualifications.  Teachers who have been supportive of the positive way the independent qualifications review panel went about their work have been left shocked and upset by these results.  The profession in Wales, that by and large supported the direction of travel of the qualifications divergence with England, are worried that confidence is being lost in the system.  If we have teachers in Wales losing faith in our own ability to deliver Welsh specific qualifications it is extremely hard to project a view of rigour to universities and employers both inside and outside Wales.

Aside from addressing the immediate travesty for those individuals who have been caught up in this current problem we must also ensure that there cannot be a repeat in future.  This newest GCSE English fiasco has to be the last, and it must sharpen minds as to the need to make sure Welsh qualifications are seen as sector leading.  The communication of that objective is not beyond achievable but it has no doubt been made that little bit harder due to the events of the past few weeks.

Can we afford to lose another 50,000 days to stress?

13 Mar

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.” Richard Carlson


I have previously blogged on the worrying impacts of stress related illnesses associated with teaching as a profession. That is an issue that I am returning to in light of figures that I have uncovered through freedom of information requests to local authorities in Wales.

Of the 22 local authorities in Wales over half (12) have seen an increase in the number of days lost due to teachers being forced into taking stress related sick leave. The blunt statistic means that if you are a teacher working in Blaenau Gwent; Caerphilly; Cardiff; Carmarthenshire; Ceredigion; Conwy; Flintshire; Gwynedd; Neath Port Talbot; Powys; the Vale of Glamorgan or Ynys Mon you are more likely to be affected by stress related illnesses in the period between January 1st 2013 and December 31st 2013 than you would have been for the corresponding period in 2012.

In total 50,227.22 teaching days were lost last year due to workload pressures impacting on the health of teachers in Wales in 2013. Overall this was actually a reduction of around 700 on 2012 but in the grand scheme of things it remains stubbornly high above the 50,000 mark. It is little wonder really when workload surveys indicate that the average teacher’s working week is nearly 60 hours at primary level and nearly 56 hours at secondary*. Worryingly this is an increase in working commitments which will no doubt result in an increase in individuals who are mentally and physically driven to illness.

A NUT/YouGov survey of the teaching profession, published in January 2014, showed that two-thirds of teachers (63%) said that more than a fifth of their workload does not directly benefit children’s learning. There is clearly scope to reduce the workload of teachers. This is not even to consider other avenues such as reducing class sizes; taking out arbitrary and ever changing performance indicators from the sector and re-examining the impact on teachers wellbeing of fundamentally flawed polices such as school banding. The delivery of many other policies can also be called into question.

No teacher wants to find themselves placed on sick leave due to stress related illnesses. They are physically, emotionally and mentally demoralising and very often the reality is that those individuals find it incredibly hard to return to work.

We should not hide from the huge benefits of tackling the causes of this problem. Not only can those teachers who suffer from ill-health be supported in the classroom and this problem be reduced it will have knock on benefits to the school, pupils and education finances. Millions of public funding is spent annually on supply cover. Often that is a legitimate requirement to cover training for teachers, meetings or planned leave such as maternity cover. Teachers, like any other profession, are also naturally susceptible to getting ill. However, tackling leave taken through stress related illness can of course be one area that this figure can be reduced with the right changes in policy. If you take a rough figure of the cost of an average supply teacher to a school being around £170 that is close to an £8.5m spend in Wales on stress related illness cover per year. Addressing this issue will also improve school standards by ensuring a greater consistency in staffing arrangements as well as, no doubt, a happier and more motivated workforce.

Unfortunately, this remains an issue that is not only failing to be addressed but one that is increasingly being pushed to breaking point. Instead of reducing the workloads of teachers and investing in support we are seeing ever-increasing pressures on teachers and little backing given to those that suffer as a result. Instead of an understanding of why a teacher suffers due to these over burdened workloads they are criticised, attacked and placed on capability procedures with their livelihoods put at risk. The inevitable and saddening consequence is that the matter is made worse. Quite simply, that cannot continue without pushing the whole system to breaking point. The question we have to ask ourselves is can we really afford to lose another 50,000 teaching days by not doing something about the causes of stress-related illness in school?

*The workload survey is not a Welsh specific indicator. However the per pupil funding gap and increasing class sizes in Wales would suggest at the very least similar working patterns if not higher. In relation to stress induced concerns a TES Survey noted worryingly low levels of morale amongst the profession in Wales.


6 Mar

The Western Mail ran an article recently that discussed possible plans on the horizon from Estyn to move towards a no notice inspection period.

Now on the face of it you may think this is a good idea. It will, theoretically, ensure that schools are evaluated in an organic environment and, again theoretically, allow teachers to be free of building up towards an Estyn inspection. So, in theory, great. However, the picture is not quite that rosy.

Anyone who has come into contact with a teacher heading towards an inspection will know that it puts a huge amount of pressure on them. Already ridiculous working hours extend beyond anything remotely resembling acceptable. The pressure during these weeks can cause mental, physical and emotional exhaustion which impacts not only on them as individuals but also on their pupils and families.

Inspections are an increasingly high-stakes activity for schools with increasing numbers of teachers responding negatively to the experience that they have had. Particularly when dealing with contracted inspectors (rather than those employed directly by ESTYN). It may appear superficially attractive therefore, to remove or reduce the notice period to seek to minimise the stress and to do so by being far more flexible in the scheduling of inspections. However, anecdotal evidence from England state that the effect of very limited or no notice inspections has been to increase stress because an inspection is anticipated at almost any time. We know that stress at work is disproportionately high amongst teachers with impacts on standards. Do we really wish to create a policy that adds to those existing issues?

Equally importantly I’m not convinced that making schools ‘inspection ready’ at any time is likely to enhance the quality or regularity of self-evaluation or performance. No doubt one particularly negative consequence which is that schools would either be obliged to, or would feel obliged to, constantly upgrade their performance data, given that inspections are now so heavily data-driven and that data governs lines of enquiry with which inspectors enter schools. In England reducing the notice period created a significant bureaucratic and administrative burden on senior leadership that did little to enhance the school’s performance.

An open letter to Michael Gove

5 Mar

This is not my own work but I thought it was worth sharing wider after it was sent to me in work.  It is ten minutes but it is time well spent.

Putting the hours in

4 Mar

The Wales TUC held its annual work your own hours day last week. They noted that on average workers in Wales were putting in around 6.2 hours a week of unpaid time.

I know from personal experience that this is the case for teachers. In one of the early entries for this blog I covered how many hours my good wife, then a part-time teacher returning from maternity leave, had put in. The results when added up showed that despite the fact she was only supposed to be working three days a week, she had accumulated 38.5 hours.

Now that she has returned full-time she finds herself much more aligned with the teachers reporting in the workload survey, finally published by the Westminster Government thanks to NUT pressure, a huge increase in their workloads. That survey shows that the average primary school teacher is working close to 60 hours a week while secondary teachers are on average racking up close to 56 hours. All of this while the pay and pensions of teachers are being reduced. The slogan work longer, receive less and pay more has never been more accurate. Not only are the Westminster Government expecting teachers to put in more years they are expecting them to put in more hours per week as well. All for the gratitude of a reduced pensions at the end.

While the survey doesn’t show Welsh specific data it wouldn’t be a shock to expect those figures to be at least as high here. The £604 per pupil less funding does have implications in terms of spreading teachers even thinner on the ground and therefore having to cover more workload. We also know that junior and infant class numbers in Wales have been slowly, but steadily, increasing year on year since 2004 and with that comes additional workload pressures.

There’s little doubt that this current trend is unsustainable. It is leading to high quality and enthusiastic teachers leaving the profession early, while those that remain are burning out. It is beyond belief that anyone looking at these statistics could be naive enough to ignore the potentially drastic impact they will have on teaching as a profession and the quality of education available to pupils in Wales and across the UK as a whole.