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the country in all maintained schools and funded non-maintained settings, that the initial baseline measure had been withdrawn and, most notably, the recent introduction and formality of the literacy and numeracy tests in Year two which appeared to some to signal a governmental move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.

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