Archive | April, 2014

Tackling Violence in Schools

30 Apr

Last night I did the ITV Wales news live on the issue of violence against teachers in schools.  It is something that has been given a fair bit of coverage in the last few days following the tragic event that occurred in Leeds this week.  (You can view the piece, with my interview starting at 2:42, while it remains online here)

The headline of the debate was centred on the fact there has been 1,000 exclusions for violence or abuse against staff in schools in Wales over a twelve month period between 2011-2012.  As I said in the interview this is an appalling statistic.  One incident of violence against staff, or indeed fellow pupils, is one incident too many.  A thousand is very concerning, especially considering there could be even more examples of such behaviour that have not led to expulsion.

We know that teaching is already a very challenging job.  Many teachers work in tough environments due to the nature of the buildings or communities that they operate in.  It should never be beyond expectations that in doing that job they are entitled to feel safe and secure in the workplace.  Not being physically, or indeed mentally, intimidated is the least any teacher, or any professional regardless of their role, should expect.  We shouldn’t also be fooled into thinking that these 1,000 expulsions would only impact on those pupils.  They have a profound impact on school discipline in general, disrupting lessons and the ability of other pupils to succeed.  There is also the impact it has on stress induced illnesses for teachers, something we know is already at alarming levels.  For any teacher subjected to such abuse it can often be very difficult for them to return to the classroom.

This all being said I think it is important that people are reassured that we do have very open, safe and respectful learning environments in our schools.  What happened in Leeds, while shocking, is a unprecidented incident that is not reflective of our school system here in Wales or indeed across the UK.

Part of the ITV piece looked at introducing airport style metal detector security to schools.  It is something that the Welsh Government changed regulations to allow schools to look at if they wished.  This was an issue also debated on the Radio Wales ‘Morning Call’ programme yesterday. (Again it is available here while it remains active on their website).

I have two very strong reservations about this proposal.  Firstly, I am not convinced that it is practical.  There will be a huge cost implications for bringing in these systems but ultimately they will only guard against a pupil brining in a metal weapon through that particular entrance.  There will inevitably be ways for pupils to smuggle weapons in through other avenues unless the whole perimeter of the school is manned.  Also, who will be charged with undertaking these checks.  Are we expecting teachers to also now act as security guards or will schools be looking to further diminish the tight budgets they have to employ additional staff in these roles.  That is not to say that cost issues should ever be considered above safety.  Far from it, but it is a factor as is the actual capability of schools to enforce this policy.  We want to prevent violence from manifesting itself in schools in the first instance not simply stopping it from occurring at a particular entrance.

The second concern I would have, and perhaps the more important one, is that in taking this step we would potentially be fundamentally changing the ethos that has been established in our schools.  I think in Wales we can be proud that schools a generally seen as safe, positive and open incubators for learning.  Children and staff should feel secure in their schools and see them as an extension of their community spaces.  Will installing such security measures change that perception?  I fear that introducing the notion of being on an almost prison level of alertness to our schools could actually have a detrimental impact on the relationships pupils, parents, teachers and the wider community have with their local school.

We have to be strong in response to any threat or incident of violence in schools.  teachers and headteachers need to know that if they take definitive action to address this sort of behaviour they will be backed completely by their local authority, regional consortia and the new education workforce council.  The safety of staff and pupils has to be paramount.  However, against that backdrop we also need to continue to encourage pupils to feel at home at school.  It is important that in the face of what we have seen this week we do not allow it to change our commitment to embracing an open and welcoming school culture.


OECD Report: Reflections Part II

28 Apr

I’ve been away on holiday for the past week or so. Lovely it was too. Before I went I posted part one of a mini-series looking at the recommendations of the OECD report. You can read that here. Below I am looking at the second section of the reports proposals to improve the education system in Wales.

The second area of recommendation was for the Welsh education system to:

Build professional capital and a culture of collective responsibility for improved learning for all students:

There were four more detailed recommendations for how this should be achieved.

Raise the status of the profession and commit to initial teacher training. Attracting and developing high-quality human capital in the profession will be essential to moving the system forward towards educational excellence. In addition to raising the entry requirements into initial teacher training, implement campaigns to strengthen the perception of the profession, continue the ongoing reform and improvement of initial teacher training and engage schools to offer trainees placements. In the longer term, consider raising initial teacher training to the level of a Masters degree.

The decline of how teaching as a profession is respected has been an increasing factor for practitioners for quite some time. It almost feels that the days were teachers were held in high esteem within the community are gone. Partly that is due to the political rhetoric around education within the UK.

That is not to say the trust in teachers isn’t still very high. They remain one of the most trusted professions in the UK according to regular opinion polling. Yet at an individual and school level that is very much an eroding picture. For example, no longer is it the case that when teachers identify problems with pupils are they met with parents who are keen to work with them to resolve them or improve the child’s capabilities. Now it is a case of “well what are you doing about it.” That is a generalisation of course, there are examples of excellent parent-teacher-school relationships, but there is a growing sense that it is only teachers and teaching that is responsible for standards. That all plays into the narrative of the blame game and the diminishing respect for the profession as a whole. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve taken part in phone in radio programmes where the topic is something along the lines of “are teachers lazy/useless/stupid” (delete as appropriate).

The report is absolutely correct to state that any educational system is only as good as its human capital. To an extend this is a truism widely acknowledged. You can’t read a statement by the Welsh Government, a policy advisor, Estyn, etc. that does not state that teachers are the main driver in performance. It remains absurd therefore that there has been so little emphasis in supporting morale and professional development amongst this key component. Recognising the importance of teachers while systematically undermining their professionalism is wholly counterproductive, yet it is something that many teachers feel has taken place in Wales since 2011. Indeed, it is the sort of approach that has taken place across many of the world’s education systems in recent years.

Implementing campaigns to enhance the standing of teachers is a very worthy and worthwhile approach to follow. It is no surprise to see that those nations that lead PISA, be they in the Far East or Scandinavia, value their teachers both within the education system itself and in their wider society.

Increasing the entry requirements for teacher training is one way to build in respect but there does need to be a level of caution applied to this recommendation. Firstly, we must already acknowledge that this is already taking place in Wales as the GCSE levels for English and Mathematics for individuals starting the teacher training programme have very recently been raised by the Welsh Government. Some of this work is therefore being done.

My one concern with the idea of making entry to the teaching training programme harder is how reflective it is. Will this hinder high quality candidates from applying or getting on the course? Potentially there is an aspiring teacher of 30 years who has a 2:1/1:1 university degree, and years of experience in another profession, that would have developed skills ideal to empowering that individual to teach. However, as they had a C grade in their GCSE 14 years previously, they would not be allowed onto the course.

Furthermore, there is a need to recognise that teaching is more than just relaying information. It is making that information come alive and establishing relationships with a classroom of pupils so that they are enthusiastic about developing their skills and knowledge. Teaching is as much a creative art as it is a science. Not all teachers will necessarily have a first class degree from Oxbridge but having an innovative approach to teaching that translates well to the SEN pupil from the valleys can often be far more valuable.

There may be scope to look at the entry requirements, including interviews and assessments, but we need to be careful that we do not create a system that filters out talented teachers.

Finally, for this recommendation, I think the Masters issue is a very important one. The Welsh Government has been right to look at developing teaching into a Masters profession. It will undoubtedly enhance the quality and respect of teachers. What is concerning is how it currently works.

One of the most difficult periods for a teacher will be their first year, working towards achieving qualified teacher status (QTS). This is where they are essentially thrown to the wolves. The arduous prospect of preparing lessons and dealing with the almost 24/7 nature of teaching is made even more daunting by working towards that all-important QTS. That practitioners are now also expected to complete a Masters programme at the same time is creating even greater pressure. It does feel like this is a policy with the right intentions but questionable implementation.

Not only does it place huge pressures on newly qualified teachers (NQTs) it is also restrictive. Those already in the profession are not allowed access to undertake this Masters while those that do are given a very difficult choice of signing up straight away or lose any opportunity to have it funded. There must be a better way?

Ideally, I think it would be better to potentially extend the teachers training programme, or to enhance the level at which it is taught, so that those undertaking it compete their Masters studies before going into schools full-time. Not only will this enable those individuals to have a less intensive first year in the workplace as NQTs, it will also ensure that they have the solid grounding the Masters provides when starting out. An alternative approach would be to open the Masters up at a later date. This would be for any and every teacher to access but in the long-term as we move towards a full Masters profession it could be for those of 3-5 years’ experience. These individuals will have undertaken their first few years, they will have achieved QTS and will have become accustomed to the demands of the role. Then, having found that solid base they could take on the Masters with greater confidence.

Scotland’s model is one where teachers begin accruing credits towards a Masters diploma during their initial teachers training. They then have a period of time over a number of years in which to complete different modules, which can be accessed through a range of different universities, to fulfil the Masters. This offers a far more manageable workload while encouraging practitioners to access a broad range of materials and experiences.

Getting the thinking right around this issue could become even more critical in future if, or maybe when, teachers’ pay is devolved. We would all expect teachers in Wales to be paid at least the same as England. If that was ever not the case it would be astonishing if our Masters qualified profession would remain committed to Welsh schools when they would be more qualified but less rewarded than their counterparts across the border.

Ensure quality continuous professional development at all career stages. Work with schools, training institutions, and school improvement services to strengthen the provision of high-quality professional development aligned with national education priorities. Consider phasing in the new literacy and numeracy strategy and the new teaching skills required.

This is an absolutely crucial recommendation. For far too long, as admitted by the Education Minister at the back-end of last year, Continued Professional Development (CPD) in Wales has been marginalised. The ability of teachers to access CPD is almost non-existent at times. The cut to INSET days by the Welsh Government has not helped in this regards. The quality of the training is also questionable, especially when it is initiated by the Welsh Government directly. It is also a concern that increasingly schools are feeling unable to provide CPD that is not literacy or numeracy focused. While both are extremely important this is leading to the narrowing of the curriculum.

The best education systems in the world have CPD at the very core of their success. I could write for hours on how this is not being done correctly at the moment and why it would prove massively beneficial to do it better. Instead I’ll just say that the Welsh Government have recognised the failings through the Minister’s speech. Now the OECD has put it in hard cold evidence. It is time to stop with the dithering and start to get on with making a markedly improved investment in this area. I know this is something the Welsh Government, and the current Minister in particular, is keen to make progress on. Hopefully they will get their ambitions aligned with the OECD’s standpoint as it could very well be the single most important deficiency we have in our system at present.

The phasing in of the literacy and numeracy strategy is an interesting line. Or rather the word ‘phasing’ is an interesting word. That approach would be welcomed. Too often we have seen, indeed with the literacy and numeracy framework being a prime example, policies that are just dumped on schools with the expectation that they will be implemented and embedded in school’s DNA within a matter of hours. Polices that may have a great deal to offer in theory have been hampered by a lack of foresight in their delivery. It takes time to change a culture in education. The Welsh Government would be wise to take a phased approach with all of its policies in future and working with the profession on time tabling and resource requirements would also be a major step forward.

Streamline and resource school-to-school collaboration. Develop and implement a Welsh strategy for school-to-school collaboration, creating an architecture which encourages schools to select appropriate partners, in an atmosphere of transparency, awareness and support.

Schools and teachers are the first to say that the best way to improve is to work with, and learn from, one another. School to school collaboration is vital. One of the problems in Wales is that we haven’t just developed one policy for such collaboration to take place but have duplicated and thus confused the picture.

A few months back the Central South Wales consortia announced that it was to establish a Schools Challenge programme that was focused on schools working together to improve standards, similar to the successful London and Manchester Challenges. A matter of a few days later we heard about the Schools Challenge Cymru project launched by the Welsh Government which will be doing much the same thing. These are both, on paper, laudable and ambitious schemes but did we really need two? Thankfully it appears as if there will only now be one project, the Welsh Governments, progressing. However, that doesn’t hide the fact that working completely in isolation to each other, despite being integral partners, there was duplication in development that no doubt exhausted resources that would have been better spent on supporting schools. The fact that aside from these policies we also still have the lead and emerging schools programme in existence arguably focused on much the same thing just goes to show how it feels as if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to when it comes to formation and delivery of policy in Wales. On the positive side there is the potential for these initiatives to deliver strong and supportive action. The proof, as ever, will be in the pudding.

What is even more worrying is that as well as the policies to support school to school collaboration we also have in existence in Wales systems that totally undermine that approach. While the lead-emerging schools programme and Schools Challenge Cymru may be focused on collaboration; school banding (a policy that comes in for heavy criticism within the OECD’s report) pits schools directly in competition with one another. Under that system no school can improve and move up the bandings without another dropping down. It is extremely hard therefore to expect two schools to work together on improving when each knows that the others success could very well mean failure for them by the banding judgements. Unless this aspect of the existing education system in Wales is radically re-examined then collaboration is highly difficult, if not impossible, to fully achieve.

A further problem with banding is that it actually hinders the final recommendation here, namely a push for transparency, awareness and support. The Welsh Government’s My Local School website provides all the detail that makes up banding. Any parent can go online and read up about the attainment levels; free school meal figures; per pupil spend etc. of any school in Wales to make an informed evaluation about performance. The problem with banding is that it takes that variety of information and boils it down into one single figure. In doing so instead of getting a transparent picture of performance across a series of indicators, parents instead get a simplistic banding score which they judge a whole years’ worth of work. It is quite simply not a true reflection of performance. With it comes disengagement. We’ve already seen how parents have voted with their feet moving pupils to different schools due to misleading banding scores which are having a significant impact on the quality of community relationships for schools.

Given banding features later in the report’s recommendations we will return to that again.

Treat developing system leadership as a prime driver of education reform. Offer potential school leaders better career development pathways, including a qualifications framework, mentoring and additional professional development, as part of a coherent national leadership development strategy. Invest in developing leadership capital across the education system, so that school improvement can be led from within Wales by schools, local authorities and regional consortia.

Treating teachers in general as the prime driver for education reform needs to be central to policy formation, but certainly the quality of leadership within the system does have to be given focus. There is much to say for revisiting the existing development structure for individuals within their career paths, if they are interested in entering leadership or not. It is vital that those that decide that they wish to remain as classroom teachers without taking on leadership and management roles are still given CPD throughout their career to help ensure that they refresh and renew their skills and remain motivated.

For those wishing to pursue leadership positions then mapping out a clear and progressive career pathway, which includes access to opportunities as well as the quality of training on offer, is crucial.

The Hill Review did make recommendations as to how to encourage greater levels of leadership within the system but time is still to tell if those initiatives will have the desired impact. One aspect of those proposals was to look again at the effectiveness of what is currently offered through the NPQH. There is sometimes a criticism that it is a qualification that is little more than a hoop that teachers have to jump through. The quality of the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) is, to an extent, questionable. There is a distinct lack of investment in developing personal skills and staff-management abilities. Some individuals have gone through the NPQH qualification but have found headship challenging, in part because the soft skills of management are not integrally embedded within the process.

If we are to look at leadership perhaps we also need to look at it in the context of how in touch it is with the academic side of a school. Very often individuals will reach the heights of Headteacher because they are excellent classroom practitioners and want to take on more responsibilities in leading schools. However, when they get there they realise that the administrative burdens of running a school; the data entry requirements; health and safety; accounting; personnel management etc. result in them having little contact with the delivery of education either directly or indirectly working with staff and or pupils. Is there a recognised need to look at the business management side of schooling, separate to the role of a Headteacher who is delivering the educational lead to an institution? Currently the combination of the roles does place huge amounts of pressures on individuals and often it creates a situation where not everything can be done to the desired standard.

Part III of this mini-series will look at the recommendation to “create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.”

For 2014 see 2007

24 Apr


The BBC are running an interesting story today about a confidential report in 2007 that makes similar warnings to this years OECD report.  Namely, that the Welsh Government has failed to establish a long-term vision for education in Wales.  There are some key findings in the report, authored by Professor Richard Daugherty, which while written in 2007 are very much still relevant today.  These include:

  • the lack of “a consistent set of messages” about the governing principles of the curriculum

This is a major issue still for teachers in Wales.  Even at a policy level there are some very confused messages being put forward.  We have the lead-emerging schools programme and the Schools Challenge Cymru initiative which both aim to foster a sense of collaboration amongst schools.  At the same time we have the School Banding system pitting schools against one another in competition.  These two aims are quite clearly contradictory and have left headteachers in a state of limbo trying to understand how best to work the system.

We also have confusion on a pedagogical level.  The Foundation Phase empowers children to learn through play, developing their critical thinking and problem solving abilities in an open and creative setting.  However, the very first year they are out of that setting, despite not having even sat at a desk previously, the standardised testing regime places them in a sterile environment under strict exam conditions.  The whole clash is counterproductive and has fundamentally threatened the nature of the Foundation Phase.  With such competing agendas teachers are left to question if the Welsh Government has a fully coherent vision for what it wants teaching to look like in Wales on a long-term basis.

  • no full evaluation of the effectiveness of education strategies in terms of pupils’ results

It is the case in recent years that we have seen policies put in place without the foresight to examine how they will be implemented; the impact on teachers and pupils of that implementation and how they will impact on other strands of education policies. Often it has only been when policies have been rolled out have the pitfalls been recognised. That needs to be addressed to reinstall future confidence in new initiatives.

In terms of the long-term approach to evaluating the effectiveness of education strategies you need only look at what is happening to the Foundation Phase.  Not only are standardised testing narrowing the culture of the policy the Welsh Government is to introduce annual expectations from the LNF into the Foundation Phase, further eroding its objectives.  It genuinely feels to many practitioners as if Wales is loosing its nerve with the Foundation Phase despite the fact that the very first cohort of Foundation Phase pupils are yet to complete their path through the school system.  This is no doubt a reflection that education policy has been developed, perhaps understandably from a political perspective, on election cycles rather than a 10, 15 or even 20 year cycle like it should.

  • aspirational language of policies not accompanied by clear targets for improvement

It is still the case that the aspirational language of the Welsh Government on policy formation is not always interpreted in the same way by local authorities, regional consortia, Estyn inspectors or support partners at an implementation level.  Too often the picture painted by the Welsh Government as to their expectations for policy outcomes are markedly different to what teachers are told by those that come into their schools to challenge them.  That does create a great deal of problems, which are not necessarily the Welsh Government’s failing, but more the failing of people further down the chain to follow that message consistently.

In terms of targets I do think that the Welsh Government has began to match the aspirational language with more clearly defined targets.  What the more important question we must ask now is if those are the right targets and what will meeting them actually mean for learners if and when they are achieved.

  • outdated teacher training not designed to meet the needs of a “rapidly changing school system”

I could wax lyrical about the failings to provide continued professional development all day long but I’ll aim to be a little more concise.  The fact is we have seen a perpetual revolution in education policy over the past Assembly term.  A whole new stream of policies and initiatives have been introduced into the system but the support and training for it has been almost non-existent.  The regional consortia developed to provide this support are still far from being able or willing to deliver it, almost three years after they should have been ready.  If you truly want a new system with a new focus and new ideas then you have to accept that the profession need training and support to implement it to the desired standards.  Cutting the number of INSET days available to schools to provide CPD at a time of rapid change in itself shows how badly the training element of the workforce has been managed.  The Education Minister has recognised publicly that his predecessors got this part of education policy wrong in the past.  Now is the crucial time to get it right.

It does appear that some of the recommendations from this leaked report seem to have either not have been acted on at all or at least not with any particular degree of urgency.  What we cannot allow to happen is that a similar complacency is seen in regards to the OECD report published this year.  There is a lot of concern that the criticisms the OECD have made in regards to issues such as the Welsh Government’s approach to standardised tests; school banding; policy implementation and CPD provisions will go unheeded.  These recommendations have to be given priority and worked through in partnership with the profession.  Hopefully any inaction from the 2007 report will act as a learning curve for dealing with these most recent recommendations.

OECD Report: Reflections Part I

12 Apr

Following my initial post relating to the OECD report into the Welsh Education system, this is the first piece looking in more detail at the individual recommendations.

The first area of recommendation was for the Welsh education system to:

“Meet the learning requirements of its students and deliver equity and quality.”

Within this area there are three more detailed proposals.

Set high expectations and promote the use of differentiated teaching.  With a high proportion of low performers, about one in five students living in poverty and the same proportion with special education needs, and low proportions of high performers.  Welsh schools need to move towards more personalised learning while still setting high expectations for every child.

I doubt many people would have a concern with this proposal.  It is absolutely essential that we are setting the bar high for pupils and pushing them towards high achievement.  Equally, differentiation is a key competent to lesson planning.  Few teachers will ever approach a lesson with one blanket plan. Setting different goals and shaping lessons so that there are different levels and structures for pupils to progress is a standard approach.  Where this is done correctly it will allow a teacher to push all pupils regardless of ability but in a way that appeals to the capabilities of each individual group and student.

Doing this of course does take a lot of planning.  The vast majority of this leveling within the lesson planning process is done during those phantom teaching hours.  Between 7-11 at night.  The time that Michael Gove thinks teachers usually have their feet up relaxing.  Knowing what we do about how unsustainable workloads are costing us over 50,000 teaching days a year, putting the success and failure of differentiation down to how fatigued an individual is on any given day is not a wise basis for the system.

A further concern in this regards is the worrying trend in class sizes in Wales.  Since 2004 there has been a slow, but steady, increase in the per pupil numbers at junior and infant classes in Wales.  Not only do higher class sizes create more workload for teachers, thus leading to less time to develop the specifically tailored lessons, it also means less time spent with individual pupils during the school day.  It is harder and harder for practitioners to monitor, evaluate, and on occasion adapt, their lessons while they are in progress.  Differentiation of lesson plans may often need to be changed or refocused as they are delivered if pupils are struggling with concepts or standards.  A teacher who can’t work around their full class because the numbers in front of them is restricted in drilling down into that personal experience.  We do need to monitor this increasing class size trend if we are serious about empowering teachers to push pupils to their highest achievements through personalised lesson planning.

Simplify and stabilise the use of targeted funding for students.  Reduce the complexity of funding arrangements for the support of disadvantaged students and move towards simple, financially stable and efficient mechanisms.

The hoops that schools have to jump through in order to get funding grants is something that is a real problem.  The Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) is a prime example of this.  That funding stream has made a huge difference to schools and pupils and has the potential to make a massive difference to attainment levels of the most disadvantaged students.  However, the administrative challenges that go hand in hand with it are acting as a disincentive for schools.  I have heard many headteachers say that the time and effort the paper work entails, which often takes school leaders away from their duties for a not inconsiderable amount of time, have led them to not pursue the application.  Essentially, schools are missing out on funding because the roadblocks that are put in place to accessing it.

This is not the only funding area where this happens.  The £10,000 support provided for schools in band 4 and 5 were also associated with the burden of creating detailed project proposals for how it would be spent, and the impacts it would have.  For a sizable school the reality is that £10k does not go a long way.  Now, of course it is entirely appropriate that schools should be accountable for the funding they receive, but balanced against the labour cost of losing a staff member to the task of the application is there really a fair cost-benefit split here?

It is important in this instance to recognise that while in many aspects of the report the Welsh Government are at odds with the recommendations, in this regards they appear to have already grasped the nettle.  The Robert Hill review made recommendations, accepted by the Education Minister, to better streamline funding systems.  The PDG in particular was highlighted.  There is a recognition at Welsh Government level that reducing the red tape is critical if we are to see grants utilised effectively.  It is important now to ensure that this recognition of the problem does in fact result in delivery of a solution.

Recognise and invest in support staff involved in teaching and learning.  Provide support staff with continuing professional development and a coherent career structure and move gradually towards the introduction of minimum qualifications, prioritising teaching and learning assistants.

In essence the Welsh Government are moving towards this recommendation as well.  The new Education Workforce body, the successor to the General Teaching Council of Wales, will in future also regulate teaching assistants in a similar way to how teachers have been regulated in the past.  Given the increasing role that teaching assistants play in a modern school that is a good thing.

Equally it is a good thing to look at improving the skills of the teaching assistant sector and investing in their professional development.  Often teaching assistants are utilised on a one to one level and so are working with the pupils most in need of support.  Quite frankly it is worrying that financial constraints have created an environment where this happens.  Providing on-going professional development for teaching assistants to help them in those tasks is a step in the right direction.  A minimum qualification for doing that job makes sense.

However, I do approach this section with a little trepidation.  Studies have shown that teaching assistants, utilised properly, can support teachers in making a difference.  Yet on their own teaching assistants do not drive up standards.  We cannot, however much focus is given to the professional structures of that sector, expect or accept, teaching assistants to undertake the role of a teacher.  We have seen an explosion in the numbers of teaching assistants in our schools but they simply do not compensate for a qualified teacher.  Any investment in training or increasing the professionalism of teaching assistants should not, under any circumstances, be with a view of them taking on the traditional roles of a teacher.  They are there to supplement not supplant teaching.

In just the same way investment in teaching assistants should be encouraged this should not take away from the absolutely crucial, and criminally overlooked, issue of access to continued professional development for teachers.  This final point is one that we will touch on in the next part of these report reflection pieces.

Newsnight Cymru: No more cliches

11 Apr

As someone working in the education sector you may think that I am the last person who would need to support a campaign for the establishment of a Newsnight Cymru. Let’s face it; compared to other policy portfolios in Wales, education is far from ignored. There are nightly news items on the delivery of education in Wales. When you add in that the focus very often seems to be solely on negative headlines, do we really want more?!

The truth is that what we do need is an informed discussion. Raising the awareness of Welsh issues in education, in a way that fosters constructive debate, is ultimately the best way to ensure engagement at a local level. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. After all, we know that the schools that perform best are those that have good relationships with parents. Engaging them is vital.

The reality we face in Wales is that the vast majority of people get their news through a UK prism. They read UK newspapers and watch UK TV news. Where Welsh education is given a UK-wide focus it is rarely done in a proper Welsh context.

The two major Welsh education discussions in recent years that have been covered in the UK press have been the decisions to provide tuition fee support for those wishing to go on to higher education, and the decision to provide an exam regrade for pupils who had been unfairly treated during the 2012 English GCSE fiasco. Both of these policies have been generally well received and have benefited greatly the students directly affected. However, both were reported in a negative light solely looking at the perceived unfairness of how English pupils were treated conversely. It was almost directly implied that if something positive was done for Welsh students there had to be an inverse impact on those studying the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

A few weeks back we did see Newsnight’s own approach to Welsh education as they sent John Humphrys to report on the state of the nation’s academic performance. The piece was driven by clichés (yes we know Wales used to be famous for coal thanks very much) and with such a superficial overview of the issues it was very difficult to appreciate what it added, if anything, to the current understanding of education in Wales.

It does nothing for the Welsh public that their interactions with such important issues come via irregular packages from policy tourists, dropping in to cast a gaze over an issue about which they simply haven’t built up a knowledge base worthy enough to comment.

So why do we need a Newsnight Cymru? In Wales there are actually some fantastic journalists with depth of understanding of education issues that enable them to tell an interesting and engaging story about our system. From highlighting the problems to celebrating the successes. Individuals with that focus can truly empower the public to engage in this issue but they don’t always have the platform to do that. What is more, the weakness of the Welsh media has created a democratic deficit that has allowed complacency at all levels of government which in turn hinders progress. Quite frankly, until the scrutiny improves it is depressingly difficult to believe the quality of support on offer to schools will either.

You can see the original blog on the Newsnight Cymru site and more on the campaign here.

Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective

10 Apr

The OECD report commissioned by the Welsh Government looking at our education system has been published today, and to quite a bit of coverage.  No doubt it will continue to be a topic of debate when the Assembly is next in session.

Overall the report does chime closely with many of the things I have been saying on this blog.  Specifically that literacy and numeracy tests narrow the curriculum and the years covered by the tests should be reduced; that access to continue professional development is not good enough; the esteem in which the profession is held needs to be increased; that the frequency of school banding should be reduced; that school banding undermines collaboration as well as the nature of the agreed criteria for assessing quality. I’d like to believe the OECD are big fans of the carrot cake diaries but the truth is much of this is simply just a matter of common sense.

The report will make uncomfortable reading for the Welsh Government.  It is critical of the speed of its reforms as well as, in places, the nature and quality of what has been implimented.  It is fair to say from the report that the OECD is suggesting that the Welsh Government, at least to an extent, is part of the problem rather than the solution.

I am pleased that there are some clear strengths recognised by the OECD including crucially the line, “a comprehensive school system emphasising equity and inclusion.” This is a major recognition that the Welsh Government were correct in their approach to ruling out Acadamies in Wales.

There are also recommendations as to where improvement can be made. These have been broken down into the following headings.

  • Meet the learning requirements of its students and deliver equity and quality.
  • Build professional capital and a culture of collective responsibility for improved learning for all students.
  • Create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.
  • Define and implement policy with long-term perspective.

Each of these headings contain three or four recommendations.  Over the next few weeks (it would be days but me, my good wife and the Gryffalo are off to Spain on Tuesday) I’m going to work through each of the particular areas and their recommendations in detail.  It is easy with reports of this magnitude (well over 100 pages) that we look at the headlines on day one and then they are forgotten about.  Given this report cost the Welsh taxpayer over £200,000, and more importantly the comprehensive analysis it provides of the Welsh system, I think that would be a real shame.