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.”

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