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.

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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.

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