Archive | July, 2014

Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

29 Jul

The Place

The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama is a simply stunning looking building from the outside. It is fast becoming a real Cardiff landmark. Inside there is a lovely open space. It is fresh looking, modern and inviting and you can really sense that it is a hub of creative work. It is a pretty ideal area to take five minutes out to just stop and have a cake or drink.

The Carrot Cake

I was there for a 10am meeting so carrot cake was not really a consideration. They did offer a carrot cake muffin however. I haven’t seen that before so maybe worth a return trip.

The Hot Chocolate
Firstly there was no cream offered which is always a dissapointment.The drink itself had a strong, deep and rich dark chocolate flavour which was very nice.  Bitter but also full of flavour.  While nothing special it was still a good hot chocolate that was worth a short stop.


In Conversation With……Bethan Jenkins AM

22 Jul

I was very pleased to have been joined on this edition of the ‘In Conversation With…’ series by Bethan Jenkins AM.


Bethan is the regional Assembly Member for the South Wales West Region having first been elected to that position in 2007.

I asked to sit down with Bethan to discuss the Financial Literacy Bill that she is taking through the Assembly at the moment.  You can read more about the Bill here.  We had a good discussion on the implications for the workforce; why it is needed; what it will hopefully achieve and how it can fit in with the curriculum.  We also touched briefly on the consultation that Bethan and Plaid Cymru have recently launched on getting people active in Wales.  I kind of sprung that on Bethan mind so perhaps it is a topic to return to in future.

You can listen to the discussion here

Western Mail Article – Michael Gove’s Sacking

21 Jul


“Michael Gove is Commons Chief Whip. He’ll have an enhanced role in campaigning and doing broadcast media interviews. #Reshuffle.”

That was the tweet David Cameron published to seal the fate of the former Secretary of State for Education. To the layman you can just as easily read; “Michael Gove has been sacked.”

It appears that the Prime Minister and his team have finally woken up to the reality that many people already knew; Michael Gove and his policies have been incredibly unpopular amongst not only the teaching profession but also the wider general public.

YouGov polling shows that between March 2010 and December 2013, support for the Conservative party amongst teachers, who are generally individuals motivated to exercise their right to vote, dropped by -17%. An opinion poll in January this year showed the Conservatives 41% behind Labour amongst teachers. The gap was just 8% going into the last general election.  A few months on and no doubt that gap will be widening further still.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the NUT highlighted that just 8% of parents thought the Westminster Government’s reforms were a good thing for education. Only 6% of parents said they trusted the former Secretary of State with education compared to 58% support retained by teachers.

These are of course UK figures. Through Huw Lewis AM Wales has its own Education Minister setting the priorities and direction of our policies. However it is still clear that Gove has become electoral poison for the Conservative Party.   The statistics make sobering reading for David Cameron and they were no doubt an important factor in the cabinet changes he made. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while the MP for Surrey Heath may still be seen in the papers from time to time, an enhanced broadcast media role he will not enjoy.

In many ways Michael Gove’s departure from post is an important step. Teachers across Wales who have seen their pay and pensions slashed, and policies introduced that threaten the very sustainability of the role, will be celebrating. Michael Gove has presided over a crushing attack on the professionalism of teachers with his consistent, and highly misguided, views being a key reason that we have seen plummeting morale, motivation and engagement in the sector.

While we are fortunate enough that devolution has helped shield us from some of the more ludicrous approaches that are evident in England; namely the development of Acadamies, Free Schools and classes lead by unqualified teachers, the areas that are still in the gift of the Westminster Government have meant that Welsh teachers have been equally hindered by Michael Gove’s approach. While the vast majority of education decisions come under the responsibility of Cardiff Bay, Westminster remains responsible for pay and pensions. Policies around those issues have, unfortunately, been implemented to the detriment of the teaching profession here and are directly responsible for the decision of many to pursue alternative careers outside the sector. Schools in Wales have already lost enthusiastic and intelligent practitioners who have become disillusioned at the way they have been treated.

With all the above being said it is very important that we remember that while the personalities may have changed at the Department for Education the policies, for now at least, remain the same. Where teachers have been taking strike action; arranging lobbies of parliament; discussing concerns with MPs or holding street stalls in town centres to speak directly to parents, they have done this not in opposition to Michael Gove but in opposition to what Michael Gove has been doing.

It is not the name on the door of the Secretary of State’s office that is troubling classroom teachers but the implementation of policies which have little evidence to support them and that will not improve standards. In fact policies such as performance related pay have been widely discredited within education systems across the world with no recognised proof that they will support better teaching. Even Conservative MPs have come out in opposition to these reforms.

While Michael Gove’s sacking does not mean there is a change in focus for those campaigning against changes that mean teachers are working longer, paying more and receiving less in return, it does at least offer a little hope. Discussions have in the past been solely focussed on the implementation of policy rather than why representatives right across the education debate have grave concerns about them. This is in contrast to the Welsh Government’s Education Minister. Since Huw Lewis’ appointment there has been clear dialogue. It is true to say that there are disagreements on the areas that are devolved. It would be foolish to suggest the profession is supportive of school banding or standardised tests for example. However, these are concerns that have been debated in a rational fashion. This has enabled relationships to be developed that where agreement is found there can be collaboration and support. In losing the confidence of the workforce Michael Gove failed to build those bridges.

Nicky Morgan MP has it in her power to rebuild some of the damage her predecessor caused. She can become a proactive and progressive voice in listening to the teaching profession and addressing the failures that past policy mistakes have created. That is the challenge now facing the new Secretary of State and the Westminster Government. Failure to do so will not only be a failure for the Westminster Government but a failure for all the teachers, parents and pupils who remain invested in creating a world class education system.

You can read the article on the Western Mail website here

Norwegian Church – Cardiff Bay

15 Jul

The Place

I was down Cardiff Bay with a group of friends and our children to enjoy the International food festival.


It was a spectacular day.  The sun was shining and it was boiling hot.  On a day like that Cardiff, and Cardiff Bay in particular, can measure itself favourably against any capital in Europe in my opinion.

The Norwegian Church is a really beautiful looking building just off the main area of the Bay.


The setting is ideal for a cake stop.  There is an outside seating area, which is where we based ourselves.  Inside there is a nice space.  I’ve been there for a few conferences and presentations in the past and it does lend itself to that environment as well as the more relaxed setting like we enjoyed on Sunday.

Due to the food festival being on during this visit it was all a tad manic and overcrowded.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be a fair reflection of an ordinary day but I have to say as a result service was incredibly slow when we were there.

The Carrot Cake


I bumped into a friend and former work colleague Rhuanedd who had just had the carrot cake and recommended it to me.  I couldn’t really say no after that.  Me, my good wife and the Gryffalo shared one piece between the three of us (at this stage we’d already had a fair helping of what the food festival had to offer).

It was well decorated with little icing carrots.  The thickness of the icing was impressive and it carried a lot of flavour.  The frosting inside the cake was delicious. Fresh and creamy. The cake itself was moist and full of flavour with great texture.  All round it was a really good carrot cake and certainly well worth a visit.

The Hot Chocolate


To look at the hot chocolate I was expecting big things but sadly I was disappointed.  The cream was a bit fluffy but without any real quality. The drink was watery and lacked any proper chocolate flavour. It was a shame as it really didn’t measure up to the cake.

The Rest

As with any visit to Cardiff Bay the Gryffalo forced me to ride the carousel with him.  I have no idea why he enjoys it so much as he never goes on the horses but would rather sit on the chariot.  Dull.  Still, he clearly has the time of his life so I can’t begrudge him.


A world without Estyn?

14 Jul

If you’ve read my post following my trip to look at how education is delivered in the Isle of Man you will see that I was very taken by the fact that they do not have an inspectorate on the island. I saw first hand how not having that fear factor built into their system has allowed a far more child-centred approach to education that has been driven by real collaboration. Things that in Wales, under the Estyn regime, have been increasingly hard to achieve.

The lack of inspectorate is also a key plank in the success of the Finish education system. Their view is that accountability is what is left when you take away responsibility. It is very much the position of that high achieving system that in getting rid of their inspectorate they allowed schools to develop their own self-evaluation models, placing responsibility at the heart of school improvement. Their results since that decision speak volumes for its effectiveness.

Having seen the way some systems operate, and the success they have, it is perhaps fair to ask do we really need Estyn?  While this may be a bold question the reality is that without such bodies in other nations they have organically grown accountability within schools.  The Isle of Man example shows that without an inspectorae schools can operate to a high standard with trust and cooperation at the heart of their education agenda.  Not having the direct intervention of Estyn will not mean there is not still a focus on accountability but simply that it is driven by the profession rather than seen as something imposed on it as a punishment.

The current inspection culture has led to high levels of stress induced illnesses within the profession; a system based on suspicion and competition and without any tangible evidence that it improves standards. Scrapping it may be an uncomfortable step for many but it could very well be the right thing to do.

It is important however that we are realistic about the existing situation in Wales. A dependency culture has emerged whereby schools are configured to work towards Estyn inspections. A large part of what schools do on a day-to-day basis is focused on succeeding in the eyes of Estyn. This is of course part of the problem in creating data driven, rather than child-centric, learning.  With this in mind there would need to be a step change approach, starting with a move towards a light touch approach to inspections, in order to build capacity in schools so that they are encouraged to put in place their own accountability measures.  In the long-term, when the growth in self-regulation and collective internal and external responsibility has fully developed, there is no reason why we shouldn’t look seriously to a system without an inspectorate.

Postcards from the Isle of Man

7 Jul

P1010779a(The NUT delegation outside the Professional Development Centre.  Far right is the Isle of Man Minister for Education, Tim Crookall)

I recently went to the Isle of Man to visit some schools and look at their education system and what Wales could learn from it. I thought I’d reflect on some of what I saw in a blog post.

The first thing to note about my experience is that during the entirety of the 4 hour bus travel to Liverpool airport on a Sunday afternoon the headteachers that were accompanying me were wading through reams of paperwork and iPad data entry. If ever there was an example of how the work-life balance has been tilted in the wrong direction this would be it.

We started out the next day at the island’s central professional development centre. The fact that one exists at all is a clear testament to how the IoM Government values the continuing upskilling of its sector. To the headteachers who were with me this was like a flashback to a bygone era. CPD in Wales has just not been given this sort of focus in recent years. I have to say that I am more hopeful at present than at any other time since I joined the NUT that this is now finally going to be addressed. The Education Minister, to his credit, has publicly recognised that teachers in Wales have been short-changed in regards to the access and quality of training. His ‘new deal’ for teachers, while not actually offering any new funding, does at least put in place a legal requirement for all teachers to access professional development from the start to the end of their careers. A promise that will only be worth anything if it is delivered in practice but the signs are positive that this could be the first tentative step towards a greater social partnership between the Welsh Government and the profession. Something I have no doubts both sides would welcome and that would ultimately be a huge benefit to pupils, parents and teachers alike.

Hearing the IoM Minister for Education, Tim Crookall, was really quite uplifting. It was probably the least political speech I’ve heard from a politician. He spoke of his pride at the work going on in schools on the island but was quite humble in his clear stipulation that it was entirely down to the teaching workforce. Perception goes a long way in life and having an Education Minister speaking about the profession in such glowing terms instils a respect that has been missing in Wales. I don’t say this as a criticism of Huw Lewis. I have been pleased with the tone that he has taken. As a former teacher himself he clearly has a respect for the role and he has started the process of raising the self-esteem of the sector, both in the content and delivery of his policies, and deserves credit for that. However we do have a job of work to do in Wales. This was an issue that the OECD highlighted in their report.

The Minister was also keen to impress the commitment that the Government had made to encouraging schools to develop their own unique identities. There are 37 schools in total on the Isle of Man, 32 primary and 5 secondary. The mantra of the Minister was that he wanted to see 37 different schools. Each with a curriculum designed to suit the needs of that particular school, its pupils and its community. Each school is celebrating its differences while working towards shared goals. In contrast, through our own restrictions and standardised policies, specifically the data driven overview, the expectation and reality is that schools are increasingly aiming to look and feel like one another. The vanilla to the IoM’s neapolitan approach. Of course we are ourselves currently going through a curriculum consultation. Within that process Professor Donaldson, who is leading the review, is asking what freedoms schools should have to shape their own curriculum, within the focus of delivering the core expectations. There is therefore the opportunity for change to be delivered that empowers schools to similar ends.

While 37 schools may seem too small a number for comparison with Wales what was interesting is that they essentially acted as a microcosm of the Welsh picture. Within those 37 schools there were small rural schools with a cohort of white British pupils, the type that would be seen in Carmarthenshire or Gwynedd, as well as multi-ethnic larger schools more akin to the challenges that would be faced by a school in the middle of Cardiff or Swansea.

Anyone who has read my blog in the past will know that I do not subscribe to the view that standardised testing of children truly reflects their capabilities or improves their education. In fact I would go further and suggest it stifles their progress. As Pasi Sahlberg, arguably the worlds leading education authority at present says;

“standardisation is the worst enemy of creativity and innovation in school.”

I was delighted therefore to see that standardised testing is not an avenue pursued by schools on the IoM. The motto of one primary school I visited was simply “do your best.” It is a very simple but powerful phrase. In Wales teachers will sadly often see a child’s best and be told by a consortia consultant or Estyn inspector that this child is a failure. I do not wish to lower the bar. Ambition is paramount to success and all children should be encouraged to aim higher and consistently improve. However, often we curtail that internal drive by establishing the fear of failure in children at too young an age. Without the approach of testing children, some incredibly young and just one year out of the Foundation Phase, the IoM have been able to largely eradicate the fear of failure amongst children. In fact failure, just as success, was celebrated as a way of learning how to adapt and change approach. Mistakes were not the difference between doing well or being a failure but a richer learning experience empowering reflective self-improvement.

Now I am not suggesting this doesn’t happen in Wales. It does. What I am saying that it is done as a result of the system in the IoM rather than in spite of it in Wales. Teachers here deliver that great practice by bucking the trend of what is expected by the different tiers of accountability.

Further to this lack of testing is the lack of league tables or banding. Schools are not placed in constant competition with one another and are therefore allowed to flourish as individual entities. What is more, in contrast to what takes place due to banding in Wales, there is a real sense of collaboration between individual teachers, schools and clusters on a level that is not realistically allowed to happen here. Yes there are some excellent examples of where this does happen in Wales. Policies such as the lead-emerging schools programme and Schools Challenge Cymru can also aid and support that. However there will always be that restriction based on the fact that currently schools know that their banding performance is, to an extent at least, dependent on how they do in relation to ‘rival’ schools. While that system exists we will never be able to fully embed working across school boundaries and catchment areas in the same way. This is again an aspect of education that we as a nation and a sector talk about in detail but have barriers to achieving. The introduction of school grading for primary schools threatens to undermine this aspiration even more. We can but hope that the development of a fairer categorisation system could ultimately prove the silver bullet that is needed to resolve this issue. Let’s just hope that banding has not sullied the good will of the profession beyond repair.

Testing and banding aside the big one is that the Isle of Man does not have an inspectorate. No Estyn. No Ofsted. Do not be fooled into thinking that this equates to a lack of accountability. Far from it. What it does mean is that accountability is driven by internal responsibility in a way that is not allowed to develop in Wales. It is an accountability system based on rigour and respect not driven by simplistic data evaluation and pressure on schools.

What is the chief benefit of this? Well without the external pressures on schools that are created through intrusive and often unreflective Estyn inspections, progress has developed in a more long-term and sustainable way. Schools have been able to take a wider view. It is not about making sure that school X, Y or Z hits its floor targets by the next quarter. It is about ensuring that Matthew, Mark or Megan develop as rounded, confident, employable individuals who are contributing to their communities and who remain passionate and engaged in learning after they have left school. The barriers to the culture of fear that fill the corridors of Welsh schools have been broken down. Children and teachers are once again seen as individuals by the system not as crude data sets. This lack of fear also sets the tone for more honest relationships with central government. Schools can be confident in coming forward to say, ‘we need help with this,’ without expecting to be pilloried by officials, placed in special measures and see teachers pushed out of the profession through a punishment first approach.


Ultimately the lack of an inspectorate; testing and banding has created a system in the IoM that is far more child-centred than ours. It is one where data is undeniably important but it is not the primary determination of school performance and improvement. There is a wider view of developing pupils not numbers. On the island they are practicing what we in Wales often preach. It is a sector doing what Welsh teachers would love to be doing and what they used to do. It is why they got into teaching in the first instance. As one secondary school staff member said to me on my visit;

“People say to us ‘you have fantastic young people. If only you focused even more on data.’ I say in return ‘yes but then would we still have fantastic young people?‘”

Now not everything is perfect in the Isle of Man. There remains a great deal of challenge there and there is little doubt that there are plenty of strong positives in the Welsh system that they could learn from. Picking out some of the fundamental things they have got right in comparison to Wales certainly gives the perception that things are all doom and gloom in Wales when they are not. Still, I did leave having very much noticed that the mentality was different. One head teacher told me about the really tough challenges she faces but said she is excited about the next 5-10 years and what she can do with the school. In Wales the picture is of headteachers worried about being able to maintain staff and standards in the face of constant judgments with limited, if any, support while surviving rather than thriving over the coming 5-10 years. That is if they can remain in the profession for that long without burning out.

All that the IoM do is reflected in their results as schools there outperform England by an average of 10% at the end of school results.

The Isle of Man is not a paradise island in education terms but there’s no doubt to many teachers in Wales aspects of their approach may look pretty inviting.