Archive | May, 2014

The independence of the Education Workforce Council

30 May

The Welsh Government has recently opened a consultation on the appointment process for the Education Workforce Council.

The establishment of the Education Workforce Council is something that I supported. I think such a body, recognising the role of the whole workforce, is needed in reflecting the roles of the teaching profession as well as wider school support staff.  I’ve blogged on the rise in numbers of teaching assistants in the past.  With those individuals having a great role in school performance it is right they are regulated through a professional body. However, it has increasingly become clear that there will be a lack of support for this body from the profession if it fails to offer genuine democratic accountability. That is the current fear with the ministerial veto that is being built into the legislation allowing any Welsh Education Minister to be able to handpick who he or she wants to sit on the council.

Given the vitally important role the Education Workforce Council will play, it seems totally inadequate to have a situation whereby those education staff required to register with it do not feel that they have ownership of it. It simply cannot succeed if it is a body that is imposed on the profession rather than one working with and for it. The notion that the membership of the Education Workforce Council should be by ministerial appointment alone is totally unacceptable. The very perception this creates is in itself a threat to the future of the body. You can very well accept, or not, the good will of the current Welsh Government and Education Minister that the system will not be abused. However, there are no guarantees, and what is more there cannot be any guarantees given, that future governments and future ministers will not abuse this privilege.

How can the education workforce have any confidence in a body that is so clearly open to political manipulation and influence? How can teachers or support staff have faith in the decision-making of this body when they know that individuals can be appointed or removed at the whim of a minister?

We must also be wary of the dangerous precedent this sets, not just for education services, but for the wider appointments process within the public sector. Do we really want our national institutions to be so easily subjected to bias? A place where if your face doesn’t fit your credentials do not matter?

For a truly effective workforce group we must demand that it is open, transparent and vitally, accountable to those it is there to oversee. It is crucial that this is an independent council. I firmly believe the membership of the council should be determined via a process of election to ensure democratic accountability that secures the trust and support of the profession. Establishing a board via ministerial appointment will be met with scepticism and open to accusations that it is politically biased and lacks impartiality. There appears very little clear rationale for this structure other than to instil a political bias which will neither serve to enhance the reputation of the body or the incumbent Minister.

There is an opportunity to create a positive body here that will both ensure high standards and promote the professionalism of the education workforce. If we allow that to be corrupted from the very outset we do not only do an injustice to our school staff but also to the children and parents of Wales.

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OECD Report: Reflections Part IV

23 May

As part of this mini-series looking at the OECD report into Wales’ education system I have been working through the documents recommendations. You can find links to part I, II and III, as well as some other posts relating to the report, at the end of this blog. Today I am looking at recommendations that the OECD suggest will ‘define and implement policy with a long-term perspective.’

Develop a long-term vision and translate it into measurable objectives. Develop a shared vision of the Welsh learner, reflecting the government’s commitment to quality and equity, and translate it into a small number of clear measurable long-term objectives. These could include targets to raise attainment for all, reduce the proportion of low performers and/or ensure completion of upper secondary education.

Developing a long-term vision for education in Wales is an essential point to have come out of the OECD report. For too long teachers have seen flash in the pan policies imposed on them. A few years, or even months and weeks in some cases, after schools have spent a great deal of time realigning their work to embed initiatives into their practices, they are scrapped. It has not only led to a policy churn that has resulted in a constant state of revolution in our schools, it has also led to the profession having scepticism about new announcements. The initiative fatigue has left teachers unconvinced and cynical about any and all new Welsh Government policies.

The very fact that the OECD report highlights a concern at a lack of long-term vision, over six years after the Daugherty report did the same, goes to show how the Welsh Government have yet to get to grips with the issue.

As well as a long-term approach to the sector as a whole, there is a need to have a long-term commitment to individual policies. As Professor Iram Siraj’s recent Foundation Phase stocktake report shows, individual policies are suffering because the short-termism that dominates Welsh education. To quote the report:

“whilst gathering evidence the Stocktake found that many staff were concerned about the future of the Foundation Phase and whether it was to continue. This appeared to be related to concerns that it was not yet being implemented effectively across the country in all maintained schools and funded non-maintained settings, that the initial baseline measure had been withdrawn and, most notably, the recent introduction and formality of the literacy and numeracy tests in Year two which appeared to some to signal a governmental move away from the Foundation Phase philosophy.”

There is an inconsistency in the pedagogy behind different policies that do cause teachers to second guess the Welsh Government on a range of initiatives.

You need only look at Schools Challenge Cymru to see how short-term policies can create uncertainty. This policy has had an almost universal welcome from the profession. There is a lot of goodwill for the initiative, something not many Welsh Government policies can claim in recent years. However, schools are left to question how serious a commitment the project is when it is launched with just a two-year plan.

In fairness to both the Education Minister and the Welsh Government, budgets are extremely tight and there are no guarantees for funding currently available beyond that initial period. It is only right to also point out that there is no view to end the policy after that two-year period should it be successful. Still, the opportunity is there to make this a statement of intent. The start of a long-term vision could be the guarantee that Schools Challenge Cymru will still be going strong in ten years’ time.

Develop a focused and sequenced long-term education strategy. Together with teachers and other stakeholders, translate these objectives into an adequately resourced longer-term education strategy. The strategy should sequence the development and implementation of the various initiatives, bearing in mind implementation capacity. Invest in building research and assessment capacity at all levels of the system and use reviews strategically and sparingly.

We are ideally placed at present to launch a more thought through and sustainable approach to education in Wales.  The existing school improvement strategies of the Welsh Government coming to the end of their cycle.  Rather than a new two or three-year approach let’s create a ten-year proposal.  A plan that teachers know will establish accountability of the Government and continuity for the sector.

Developing this plan in conjunction with teachers, as proposed by the above OECD recommendation, is critical.  Teachers desperately need to start having ownership of the system.  Having that buy in from the start from the profession will ensure a united and collaborative approach.  The education workforce working with, not against, the Welsh Government.  Policies implemented in partnership with practitioners rather than imposed with prescription.

A key line in this recommendation is the need to bear in mind implementation capacity.  This is implementation capacity at both ends of the process.  For teachers this means ensuring any and all new policies are assessed against workload implications.  Are they going to increase the working day?  Will this policy fit into the school timetable?  What will potentially be marginalised if this policy comes in?  How will other school initiatives change for better or worse if a new policy is introduced?

It is also important that the capacity of teachers to deliver the policy is reviewed against existing skills.  There has to be a continued professional development commitment to any new policy.  You cannot expect new policies; new priorities; new subjects and new methods and focus of teaching to be introduced without offering new support to do so.  Upskilling to get the implementation right as an ongoing issue must go hand in hand with change.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Welsh Government’s own capacity to implement change.  We need to see with all future new policies, initiatives and projects that the necessary planning and preparation has been undertaken.  The profession needs to know that if a commitment is made by the Welsh Government they have already identified the funding, and that the time-table has been set in stone.  Again, going back to Schools Challenge Cymru, this is a £20m project but £7.9m of that is still yet to be found.

The real area where confidence was shattered has been in the development and delivery of the four regional consortia in Wales.  Education professionals were promised that consortia would be up and running and delivering support alongside the inaugural banding publication in 2011.  We’re now in 2014 and the so-called ‘support’ is still not being delivered effectively.  What is more, regional consortia are widely different bodies depending on what part of Wales you are in, with Ministers highlighting the failure to see tangible progress.

Ensuring capacity is built-in, on both ends, is of course once again bringing us back to the need for a long-term vision for education.

I fully agree with the final statement in this recommendation, Invest in building research and assessment capacity at all levels of the system and use reviews strategically and sparingly.‘  In regards to building research capacity it is essential that we understand the impact of education in a Welsh context.  Too often we have seen reviews that do not go far and wide enough.  The Estyn review into supply teaching is a prime example of proposals without thorough evidence.  In order to get an insight into the concerns Estyn visited just 23 schools from around 1,700 in Wales.  Hardly in-depth.

There is some excellent work being done by the likes of Wizard at Cardiff University, building a bank of credible research evidence.  Perhaps it would be a good thing to ensure that such quality preparation is undertaken to have an evidence based approach to all future policies in advance, rather than decisions often made in reaction to the political narrative.

To use reviews strategically and sparingly is also highly welcomed.  The Welsh Government have had a tendency in the past to react to any individual issue by simply sparking a review or report.  It has led to a position whereby at one point it felt like we were being told weekly that X, Y or Z needs to be a priority.  We want any reviews to be insightful; to make the sector sit up and take notice and to be commissioned on the basis of reacting to need not reacting to news.

Ensure governance and support structures are effective in delivering reforms. Invest in the professional capital of the regional consortia staff, in particular their pedagogical skills, and commission high-quality expertise. If, over time, consortia are found to not deliver quality improvement services, consider (re-)integrating them into the proposed new distribution of local authorities. The proposed integration of health and social services at the local level offers DfES an opportunity to integrate and strengthen education service provision, in particular for students with special education needs.

The final recommendation of the report is a significant one.  It is putting the regional consortia on notice.  Improve or face being scrapped.

Clearly the failure of regional consortia to provide an acceptable level of support has tested not only the patience of the Welsh Government and the teaching workforce but also the OECD.

It is right that if we are to invest in the professional development of teachers, at present this is still a big ‘if’ of course, then that should also be extended to regional consortia staff as well.  One of the main complaints I hear is that those individuals who come into schools from regional consortia are not ‘education people.’  They are seen as recycled local authority education civil servants who are focused on management and challenge not children and support.  Having an improved pedagogical knowledge will hopefully help adjust the approach and create a more collaborative partnership between schools and consortia.

If this all fails then having the threat of (re)-integrating consortia into the new distribution of local authorities that is to be developed from the Williams review is right.  It really is time for the consortia to step up to the plate.

You can click on the following links to read my initial response to the report, comparisons with the 2007 Dougherty report , part I, part II and part III of the mini-series looking at the report’s recommendations and my article in the Western Mail on the importance of this piece of work.

Wales TUC Conference Speech

21 May

Below is my speech to the Wales TUC conference in support of the NUT motion calling for action on stress related illness in schools.  I’m pleased to say the motion was passed unanimously.

President, Conference,

It has been pleasing to see a lot of progress made in recent years in tackling the stigma that is attached to mental health issues.  As motion 18 notes the Welsh Government have taken some positive steps in the guidance and support they have offered in general terms.  This is an issue that has, for some time in Wales, been given prime political attention on a cross-party basis and I think we can say that there is a greater understanding and sympathy amongst the general public.  Tribute should rightly be paid to organisations such as Time to Change Wales, who have helped to break down barriers and empower people to come forward and seek help.  However, one place where we are increasingly failing to get to grips with this issue is in supporting our teaching workforce.

Between January 1st 2013 and December 31st of the same year, over 50,000 teaching days were lost due to teachers being forced out of work as a result of stress related illnesses.  A similar amount of stress induced leave was also taken in 2012.  In 12 of the 22 Welsh local authorities last year, we actually saw in increase in the number of days lost due to this concern.  Not only has this issue not been given the attention it deserves, it is becoming an increasing problem in many of our communities.  Yes, we may be talking more about issues of mental health and their impact, but are we really doing enough to prevent them where possible or support those that suffer back to work?

The human impact of this crisis, and it is a crisis, should not be underestimated.  Individuals off work due to stress related mental health issues do not wish to be out of the working environment.  For many of them it is something they struggle to overcome and end up leaving the profession all together.  Can we really afford to continue to lose high quality and experienced teachers with such regularity?  At a time where pay and pension cuts by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Westminster Government are making it increasingly more difficult to attract and retain the brightest and best to the teaching profession, we simply cannot allow a situation to continue where so many individuals are worked to the point of mental exhaustion.  This is not to mention those who are suffering in silence, too afraid to come forward and ask for help because the impact it may have on how they are perceived by colleagues, parents and pupils.  The stigma we can be proud of chipping away at within our society still exists in classrooms up and down Wales.

Let’s also make no mistake about how damaging this is to our education sector.  Those lost teaching days are the equivalent of having an additional 258 teachers working in classrooms in Wales.  Just image how that can help improve attainment.  The role it could play in reducing class sizes or ensuring greater continuity of teaching for pupils in Wales. 

The supply cost, at a conservative estimate, amounts to between £8.5m – £9m pounds taken out of our schools.  Given the underfunding we already experience, this is money we can ill afford to lose.  Knowing of teachers who are putting their hands into their own pockets to buy pens and paper for their pupils; who are teaching in dilapidated and often unhealthy buildings; who are teaching with outdated equipment no longer fit for purpose, I know they would dearly love to see some of that finance spent on more productive purposes.

The problem we are faced with is clear and needs to be addressed.  This motion is not asking for a revolution to take place.  It is simply a case of getting to grips with the core reasons why stress related illnesses manifest themselves in the first instance.  60 hour weeks are becoming increasingly the norm for the teaching profession.  This huge workload pressure is simply unsustainable.

The move to a target, rather than child centred policy agenda, is creating a low morale and an unmotivated workforce.  This does nothing to raise standards.  At the same time the high stakes approach of policies such as school banding and standardised testing are also contributing negatively.

The proposal to reduce Estyn inspection notice periods, which will only further add to the occurrence of stress related illnesses, does not bare thinking about.

The Welsh Government, working with local authorities and regional consortia to put this right, can improve the mental health of the teaching profession and at the same time save money and ultimately create an ever improving education system for our children.  We can radically reduce the pressures on the teaching profession, thus avoiding so much lost time due to stress, while supporting those that do fall ill to ensure that they are able to get back into the classroom with renewed confidence and enthusiasm. 

Investing the effort to resolve this today will create a better more sustainable workforce for our pupils tomorrow.  Tackling this issue is a huge win-win for everyone.

I urge you to support the motion.

Thank you

Stress related sick leave

Conference notes that the number of teaching days lost to stress related illnesses between January 1st 2013-December 31st 2013 was a staggeringly high 50,277.22.  During this period 12 of the 22 local authorities in Wales saw an increase in the number of teachers that have been forced into taking stress related leave.

Conference is concerned that increasing workload pressure as well as cuts to pay and pensions are a significant factor behind these statistics.  Conference is further concerned that potentially reducing Estyn inspection notice periods will lead to further pressure being placed on all school based staff.

Conference calls on the Welsh Government to work with local authorities and regional consortia to tackle the causes of stress related illnesses at school level as well as examining what policies can be put in place to avoid such illnesses manifesting themselves in the first instance while supporting back to work recovery programmes.

In Conversation With…… Beth Davies

16 May

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It has been a while since I’ve done a ‘In Conversation With…” piece but I was pleased to have had the opportunity to sit down with Beth Davies.

Beth is an NUT officer and previously a teacher and headteacher with over 37 years in the teaching profession.  Beth was a Wales Executive member when I started working for the NUT, she actually appointed me, and up until the National Union of Teachers conference in April she was the President of the Union.

I’m sure I could have spoken for some time with Beth on any one of a number of issues, but while we went of on tangents from time to time, the focus of the discussion was mostly on her time as president.  We had a really good discussions about what she had seen in different areas of the UK and beyond as well as the diverging systems that we are seeing in England and Wales.

Sadly I had the mic on the wrong setting and so Beth’s response, until the last few minutes, are very quiet.  You can still hear them though, just, and given I think she made some really interesting points I didn’t want to waste the interview and so I’ve posted it anyway.

Please click on the link below to hear the interview.

 

I’m currently having a little technical difficulty with my soundcloud account but when it is sorted I’ll post a link to it there for anyone who can’t listen above.

Wish You Were Here?

15 May

Exotic-Holiday-Wallpaper

I did an interview this morning with BBC Radio Cymru.  It followed this story that half of all local authorities in Wales have instructed schools to no longer allow parents book holidays during term time.  While all parents know that they should not necessarily do this, there are actually provisions in Welsh Government guidelines to allow up to ten concessionary days a year.  However, the importance of attendance in the banding system has ultimately lead to councils clamping down on this practice.

Quite understandably local authorities, and schools, under pressure to show performance in the banding system have targeted one, almost easy, target to boost perceived performance.  How much of an impact, positive or negative, stopping a weeks holiday for a child will have in the long-term on actual attainment we will no doubt find it hard to see.  It something that is not easily disaggregated.  Attendance figures can however be quite easily summarised.

Improving attendance levels is a wholly important aspect of educational attainment.  Children can’t learn if they are not in school.  In that regards I am supportive fo the Welsh Government’s focus on it.  While I wholeheartedly disagree with the banding system it can be argued that in ensuring that attendance is one of the evaluation criteria it has had a positive effect on this issue.  We have seen year on year improvements in attendance levels, including before the introduction of banding, in Wales which is something that is not celebrated enough.  I do however continue to have reservations about the Welsh Government’s decision to introduce fines for parents in response to pupils absence.  There is a real risk that this could set parents and communities in conflict with schools.  What is more, in the context of taking a holiday in term time, how effective will a maximum £120 fine be as a deterent when there is a potential saving of upwards of £1000 to be had.

I do have a lot of sympathy for parents.  The difference financially of taking a holiday in the term time as opposed to in the school holiday is staggering.  In the majority of cases it is the difference between actually having a holiday or not.  I’m not even talking about a holiday abroad necessarily.  While the Gryffalo is not of a school age yet, given my good wife is a teacher, we’ve long been in the situation where we have to take our family holiday in the school holidays.  Looking recently at stay-cations in West Wales the difference between a cottage from one week to the next was around a £500 increase as it was during a school holiday period.

It is easy of course to attack travel agents, hotels and airlines for fixing their prices in this way.  However, it is a simple reflection that the tourism industry, like any sector, are ruled by the notion of supply and demand.  There has been discussion about changing the term time to adapt to this.  While there may possibly be an educational argument for examining the school structure, although not reducing the length of holiday, I’m not convinced this will resolve this particular issue.  Surely holiday operators will just react to the changes by restructuring their own prices.

There is also a case to look at the educational value of going on holidays.  The personal and social development of having a proper holiday, especially if that holiday is based in experiencing new environments, cultures, weather and language can be significant.  We shouldn’t necessarily dismiss the education, both social and academic, of a family holiday.

One point that was made by another contributor to today’s interview on the BBC, that I admit I hadn’t considered, is the impact working in specific sectors may have.  If your business is tourist or seasonal orientated it may be that taking a holiday outside the school term is impractical.

Now I am not suggesting that we should allow families to take a holdiay at will.  There is a clear educational impact that is not to be underestimated for missing school.  Those children out of school not only miss out on lessons themselves, but the time teachers will have to spend aligning their lesson planning with enabling absent children to catch up has wider implications for the rest of the pupils.

I do though think there is need to have an element of flexibility.  While during the crucial exam period, from ages 14 and above, it may be unacceptable to allow any time off school, at a younger age there may be scope to look at individual cases on a discretionary basis, considering the family circumstances, previous attendance records and potential educational value of the holiday.

What appears a straightforward issue is actually a far more complex one which sometimes needs a more subtle response.

 

 

 

OECD Report: Reflections Part III

9 May

As part of this mini-series looking at the OECD report into Wales’ education system I have been working through the documents recommendations. You can find links to part I and II, as well as some other posts relating to the report, at the end of this blog. Today I am looking at recommendations that the OECD suggest will ‘create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.’

Ensure that student assessments support learning for all and align to national objectives. Ensure objectives and targets are inclusive for all students and reflect the country’s focus on quality and equity. Investigate the impact of national tests on narrowing the curriculum. In the longer term, consider reducing the number of years covered by the Reading and Numeracy Tests, and consider the use of sample-based assessments to measure wider skills.

It is timely to look at this recommendation given it is this week that schools in Wales are undertaking the annual standardised literacy and numeracy tests for 2014. NUT Cymru launched a survey of members following last year’s tests and the results were not encouraging. The minor changes that the Welsh Government have brought in may have an impact but we won’t necessarily know how much until the teachers survey is replicated at the end of this test cycle.

The OECD are perfectly right to warn that the tests risk narrowing the curriculum. More and more the focus on literacy and numeracy, as valid as it may be, is driving out support for other subjects. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the time for teachers to develop the social, emotional and creative elements of the school curriculum. More than just the tests this is an impact of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) in general. Between the tests and the LNF we are seeing the fundamental ethos of the Foundation Phase eroded. Many schools have admitted to re-introducing formal literacy and numeracy sessions in the morning to ensure children are able to perform well in the recently introduced Year 2 reading and numeracy tests. It is therefore clear to see that the tests are changing the very nature of the well received and respected Foundation Phase. You can hardly blame those schools when so much importance is being placed on these high stakes tests in evaluating school performance in the primary sector. Furthermore, moves to introduce assessment against the LNF in the Foundation Phase will only add to the marginalisation of the ‘learn through plan’ approach to education in our early years.

I also think the OECD are correct to suggest that the number of years covered by the tests should be reduced. I would argue that the age at which students start the tests should be increased. Again, referring back to the NUT Cymru survey, teacher’s feedback suggests that these tests had an absolutely terrible impact on the wellbeing of pupils. Children, who through the Foundation Phase should not have undertaken any ‘formal’ education, are being tasked with sitting in an alien environment and placed under high pressure. The very concept of sitting at a desk is new to those pupils who are extremely young taking the tests, yet they are put in a sterile environment with no support from their teachers. What does that achieve other than damaging the pupil-teacher relationship and disengage pupils with school.

The statement about ensuring student assessment supports all learners is also a very valid one given the concerns that were raised with the first round of testing last year in relation to their accessibility for pupils with special educational needs.

Simplify professional standards. Simplify and reduce the number of professional standards and base them on a vision of the Welsh teacher and leader. Revised standards should cover all career stages, beginning, intermediate and advanced, and be extended to teaching and learning support staff.

As with most things in education less if very much more. It feels as if with every review we have added things into the system without either taking things out to make space or considering the consequences of that action. Simplification should really be the mantra of any Welsh Government when looking at changes in policies in future. That certainly is the case with professional standards. The Welsh Government’s revised standards of 2011 had 55 separate areas for teachers. This is not only far too prescriptive it is time-consuming and does not benefit teachers or pupils. A more streamlined set of standards will give greater focus while not changing the fact that teachers will undertake the additional expectations on their own performance. That the OECD suggest the standards should be looked at in the prism of what we want a Welsh teacher to look at across the length of their career is also positive. Hopefully this will lead to professional standards being far more aligned with the requirement for career long continued professional development.

Build school evaluation processes that support school improvement. Ensure the two external school evaluation systems (Estyn’s and the school banding system) have greater coherence. In particular, consider making the school banding calculation method more transparent, reducing the frequency with which schools are banded and judging schools on mutually agreed criteria for quality.

This is a recommendation that should be extremely high on the Welsh Government’s agenda. No one is opposed to parents, or for that matter teachers themselves, having information about school performance. Accountability is crucial in any walk of life and education is no different in that regards. The major problem we have at the minute is that we have far too many indicators and often they are competing and inconsistent with one another. We not only have School Banding and Estyn Inspections but a host of other data driven evaluation models. Now the Welsh Government are also proposing the introduction of categorisation while the other forms of performance indicator prevail. Quite frankly something has got to give.

Realistically how can any parent honestly make an informed decision about their local school within the current confusion of the system? Ignoring the many faults that exist with banding as a performance indicator, how can a parent seriously decide if a school is doing well on banding scores when in many cases those scores are completely undermined by Estyn inspections, and vice-versa.

What the OECD has said here about the need for greater coherence between banding and Estyn, which you could easily add other indicators to, was echoed by Robert Hill in his review of the system. What we need is a far clearer picture of performance focused on a fair and transparent assessment of the facts and ideally in a single format. The evidence banding looks at is not necessarily wrong but the way it is presented, boiling down a host of different data into one single figure, certainly is.

The report is absolutely correct to say that what evaluation processes must aim to achieve is a structure that supports school improvement. I have written previously about how banding is currently hindering that ambition. If it is to stay, and with the introduction of categorisation I do believe that is a real question that needs to be addressed, banding has to change. The Welsh Government has recently announced it will be reviewing the implementation of the banding policy. As the OECD suggest, and as I have previously argued, reducing the frequency of the publication of banding is a starting point to that review.

Strengthen evaluation and assessment competencies at all levels. Develop teachers’ capacity to support students by assessing them against learning objectives using a range of formative assessment methods. Develop data-handling skills among school leaders to inform their school improvement efforts and to appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes.

I do wish to excercise a little caution at the idea of “Develop(ing) data-handling skills among school leaders.” Yes let’s help schools interpret data better and CPD on that as well as any issue is always welcome.  However we don’t want to marginalise the creativity or professional judgement of the workforce at the same time. It is important that teachers still see children in their class not just numbers and targets.  Equally when assessing students, at least at the very early years, it is important to retain the stage not age principle.  Not all learners develop at the same pace or in the same way and we need to be mindful of that.

I welcome the proposal to “appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes” if what that means is identifying how CPD can be utilised in a development plan.  There is currently a Welsh Government consultation open on school development plans and it is positive to see that they believe identifying CPD is an integral part of that process.  If this recommendation is viewed in that context then it can potentially be a good thing.

The final part of the mini-series looking at the OECD’s recommendations will examine how the Welsh Government can ‘define and implement policy with a long-term perspective.’

You can click on the following links to read my initial response to the report, comparisons with the 2007 Dougherty report , part I and part II of the mini-series looking at the reports recommendations and my article in the Western Mail on the importance of this piece of work.

 

The Piccolo Bar – Porthcawl

7 May

The Place

The Piccolo Bar is located along the Porthcawl seafront and so is ideally placed as a stop off point when enjoying a nice walk with the view.

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The cafe does have indoor seating if you wanted to shelter from the weather.  With large glass windows it allows good views of the sea and would be a lovely location to enjoy a hot chocolate on a day with rough seas I’m sure.

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On this occasion, while it was a little windy, the weather was nice enough for us to carry on walking so we had the drinks to take out.

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The Carrot Cake

I’m not sure if they do offer carrot cake but as we were walking I opted not to have anything to eat.

The Hot Chocolate

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I chose the advertised “thick deluxe” hot chocolate and I’m pleased to say that the drink lived up to its reputation.  The texture was thick which is always a good thing in my book.

There was a strong bitter dark chocolate flavour to the drink which was well appreciated, although with the bitterness it may have been worth also having a water to follow.  That isn’t necessarily a complaint of the drink just an enhancement that could be made if I was to return.

Often, take away hot chocolates are served luke warm but this one was absolutely boiling.  If anything it was too warm. That being said, as it was being drunk while walking along beside the sea, it was great for keeping me warm.

I didn’t have cream as I don’t think it works for the take away experience. However, my good wife did and gave it a good review.

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I’m also pleased that my continuing mentoring work is going well. My young hot chocolate apprentice is developing quite the palate.

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The Rest

Overall the Gryffallo had quite the day out.  As well as the marvels of a nice hot chocolate we also took him to the height of Welsh sophistication.  Porthcawl fair.

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I’m not too sure how much he will thank us for that mind.  At one point he went on a caterpillar rollercoaster (a children’s one obviously).  To say he hated it is an understatement.  I think I may have scarred him for life.  I’m not sure what was worse for him.  Being shunted around in terror or seeing his mammy in tears of laughter at the face he pulled coming around every corner.  For those concerned about him a quick ice cream seemed to sort him out.

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Western Mail Article – Saturday April 26th – “Education report heralds time to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ in Wales.”

6 May

Below is an article I wrote for the Western Mail on the OECD report and the need to act on the criticisms it makes of existing Welsh Government policy.

If the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results were described as a “wake-up call” to the education system by the former Education Minister Leighton Andrews, then the recently published OECD report into education in Wales is very much the smell of a strong cup of coffee.

Firstly, we should not ignore the positives.

In Wales we are far too eager to berate ourselves, rather than recognising what we have got right.

It is not all bad news and indeed some of the excellent strengths of our system, that are often overlooked during the rush to assign blame for perceived poor performance, are highlighted here.

Central to this is the acknowledgment that “schools offer positive learning environments with good teacher-student relations and classrooms conducive to learning.”

The basics are there for a progressive and positive education system.

It is also good to see that the OECD recognises the Welsh Government was right to reject the ideologically-driven and educationally unsound academy programme seen in England.

The report reflects that “a comprehensive school system emphasising equity and inclusion” is a key strength in the existing set up. However, we also need to be realistic about just what the report tells us.

It pulls no punches and is clear that there are some things that need to change. Ignoring those warnings would be foolish.

Overall, the report does chime closely with many of the things NUT Cymru and other representatives of the workforce have been saying for some time.

Specifically, that literacy and numeracy tests narrow the curriculum and the years covered by the tests should be reduced; that the pace of reform has been high and lacks a long-term vision; that access to continuing 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; and that school banding undermines collaboration.

To the vast majority of teachers, and indeed parents and pupils, that list will actually read as nothing more than common sense. But the report should 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 implemented.

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.

Therefore, that the initial re-sponses from the Welsh Government seem to suggest they believe this report vindicates their approach is quite worrying.

The OECD makes some very clear recommendations and some very hard hitting, but important criticisms.

The easiest thing for the Welsh Government to do would be to carry on regardless; re-imagining the content of this report as supportive of the current direction of travel and filing it away, doubtless never to be seen again.

But while it gathers dust, children, parents and teachers in Wales will not be getting any better service.

Schools will not improve and the problems with existing policy that the OECD have uncovered, both in its focus and implementation, will persist and increase.

It is easy to find with reports of this magnitude – 143 pages long – that we look at the headlines on the day they are published and then they are forgotten, consigned to only be mentioned again as a reference point for any potential future failures. That the Daugherty report, presented to the Welsh Government in 2007, made many of the same points about the need to establish long-term strategies and invest in teacher training is testament to the need to take action on these issues. We cannot waste another seven years.

Furthermore, given this report has cost the taxpayer a significant amount of public money, and more importantly the comprehensive independent analysis it provides of the Welsh system, to marginalise it would be a real shame and prove a disservice to all pupils, parents and teachers in Wales.

It will hurt to take an introspective look at the performance of the Welsh Department for Education.

It will not be an enjoyable task to sit down and say we got this, that or the other wrong.

No-one at the Welsh Government will realistically take any pleasure in saying their reforms were implemented too quickly; without the right levels of long-term planning, support and simplicity; or that they, in the case of standardised testing or banding, have just been wrong in their implementation. However, it will be the right thing to do.

Changes in approach are never easy but this is one that will be based on independent international evidence, supported by the profession and which could lay the foundations for a system shaped from a united agenda.

You can read the original from the Western Mail here

Battle of Hearts and Minds: The role of health and education at the next Welsh election

1 May

battle_hearts_minds

One of the chores delights of my annual diary is attending the four political party conferences in Wales.  The past month has seen me travel to Cardiff (Plaid), Llandudno (Labour), Newport (Lib Dem) and Llangollen (Conservatives).  One thing that did strike me is that despite there being a European election on the horizon, and a General Election next year, we are very much beginning to see the battle lines for the Welsh election of 2016 take shape.

As the two biggest portfolios, and traditionally seen as the most important, it is no surprise that health and education are taking centre stage.  Yes there is discussion about the economy but not so much in a Welsh specific context.  Ultimately the power of the Welsh Government to transform the economic outlook without financial levers is limited at best. However, there is no hiding with health and education given they are essentially fully devolved and so all praise/criticism falls on the 5th floor of the Senedd.

What has been quite striking is the different approach that speakers on these two policy areas have taken.  On health there has been an arms race to inflamed rhetoric.  The emotive language, which make no mistake has been coming from both sides, reached a crescendo when David Cameron described Offa’s Dyke as the line between life and death.  We’ve actually had few ideas on the NHS but the soundbites and headlines have come thick and fast.  That they now regularly dominate Prime Minister’s question time as well as FMQs show how politically important this has become, even in a UK context.  More interestingly perhaps, in the scheme of an election campaign, the fact the Welsh NHS is the focus of so many UK news outlets demonstrates just how much of an issue this is.

From opposition parties at the Senedd, the Westminster Government and the Welsh Government the focus on the NHS has often gone hand in hand with a sense of who can shout the loudest while actually saying the least.  That may not be an entirely fair statement, I am sure many have approached the issue sensibly, but there is a feeling that health is not to be a battle of ideas but one of emotion.  While you wouldn’t expect parties to be publishing their Assembly manifestos yet, and no doubt each will stand on a platform of polices on the NHS, at present the landscape is one focused on winning with the public on a fear factor.  Contrast that with the education debate and you begin to see a different type of battleground.

I am of course not suggesting that there isn’t that element of soundbite politics involved in the education debate.  There most certainly is.  However what is also clearly emerging is that in this particular field we are seeing the development of the battleground of ideas.  If health is to be about who can shout the loudest education is potentially going to be about who can speak the clearest; who can be the most insightful.

Opposition parties have already started setting out their stalls.  At Plaid Cymru’s conference Simon Thomas AM detailed policies about addressing the bureaucracy of teaching and a full-time education system for children at the age of three.  Plaid have also published a paper on creating a multilingual Welsh nation.

Language is also a focus for the Welsh Conservatives who have their own policy on creating a trilingual Wales.  Angela Burns AM’s speech to the party conference was also policy based outlining a new deal for teachers.  This included proposals for teacher exchange programmes, changes to teacher enrollment and properly funded sabbatical programmes.

The Welsh Lib Dems have not detailed as much policy in my own area of schools as yet but it is again driven by education.  At their conference the party passed their ‘Future for Further Education’ paper which proposed, amongst other things, creating a Welsh National Cyber College and reviewing post-16 qualifications and curricula in Wales.  A Higher Education paper was passed the year before, while they have remained committed to rolling out free school meals to all pupils in Wales.  Let’s also not forget that education was central for both Plaid Cymru (apprenticeships) and the Liberal Democrats (pupil deprivation grant funding) during their budget negotiations with the Welsh Government.

Agree with the sort of alternatives the opposition are putting forward or not they are, which is in contrast to the perception of the debate we are seeing around health, offering what they believe at least are valid solutions.  It does not change their entitlement or ability to scrutinise existing delivery from the Welsh Government.  Indeed, if anything, it strengthens it.

For the Labour (see the Welsh Government) it is of course a tad more difficult to be pushing policies for after the next election publicly given they are currently in a position to implement them.  That the Schools Challenge Cymru programme has recently been unveiled does show that creating innovative solutions drawing on the experiences and success of other nations is in their own thinking, even if the delivery of such policies is still yet to be evaluated.  However, the fact that the Diamond review  will be reporting back at least the preliminary findings I believe before the next election, and the OECD report now in the public domain has potentially forced a rethink on some key policies, we should have a full slate of key pledges to review.

To be fair, someone more closely aligned with a policy role in health may pick me up on work that is being done.  I do not claim to be up on existing issues at the moment.  What is, I think, a fair assessment is that the public nature of how these two areas are being debated are quite different.  The emotive language in the health debate is making it harder and harder to cut through the sensationalism.  This is a battle for the hearts of the Welsh electorate.  In education we are at least having a more constructive debate with the ideas, the battle for the publics mind, being waged.

If the road to the next Welsh election is a yellow bricked one leading us to the emerald city in Cardiff Bay, the education passion in me hopes it is the tin man’s search for brains that wins out.  I am somewhat of a pessemist mind and sadly to me it looks like we are already too far down the straw man argument to turn back.