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.


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