Western Mail Article – Lessons from the Isle of Man

4 Aug

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Whenever there’s debate about the best education systems in the world the focus has inevitably turned towards Finland. It has become an almost mythical land for teachers in Wales looking with envy at its light touch accountability approach; teacher respect; rational workloads; high attainment and equity.

Of course, while this is the gold standard we should aspire towards, education policies do not always travel well and it is not as simple as saying what works in one part of the world will necessarily work in another. We have to respect the different cultures and societies that exist. If we are talking about the child centred and creativity focused approach of Finland, or the more prescribed system in South East Asia with their punishingly long hours, neither culture can easily be comparable to Wales.

There is however an example closer to home of a system that is operating differently and getting positive results. Around 50 miles from the Welsh coast is the Isle of Man. It has strategic links with the UK but a fully independent education system. There is an educational value that, as I discovered on a recent fact finding trip, is central to its philosophy and is a great source of pride to teachers.  With just 37 schools it is perhaps difficult to make any sweeping assessments.  However, the nature of those schools, ranging from rural to city with differing levels of diversity and ethnicity, it can act as a microcosm for the Welsh system.  With a population of 84,000 it would sit in the middle of Ceredigion and Torfaen in the list of population density amongst Welsh local authorities.

Like Finland there are no league tables or school banding for schools on the Isle of Man; there are no standardised tests like we have in Wales and most important to the success of their system is that there is no inspectorate. No Estyn. No Ofsted.

The dead hand of accountability has not weighed down on the shoulders of the teaching profession and as a result they have fostered a collaborative approach to education that we strive for in Wales but have increasingly struggled to achieve.

Make no mistake.  That the Isle of Man does not have an inspectorate does not equate to a lack of scrutiny, but rather that accountability is driven by internal responsibility in a way that isn’t allowed to flourish in Wales to the same extent.  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.  Instead of the data driven approach we often see across Wales, and indeed other areas of the UK, there is a more child centred focus.  Data is undeniably important, no one disputes that, but it is used in the context of supporting child development rather than being used to undermine schools or to measure arbitrary targets.  Theirs is an accountability approach that is based on rigour and respect rather than on that is purely judgemental and pressurised.  That is an essential balance that has allowed a more honest and collaborative partnership to be found between central government and the wider sector.

That no league tables, or banding, exist on the island has also helped encourage a collaborative approach between schools and clusters.  Of course certain policies do aim to develop that in Wales.  Both the lead-emerging schools programme and the School Challenge Cymru approach are designed around the view of supporting the sharing of best practice.  However, it is often difficult to see how they can be truly effective when schools remain in constant competition with one another through banding.  We can but hope the development of a more supportive categorisation model will eventually help address this issue.

While Wales has reintroduced standardised testing for pupils, including for very young children, the Isle of Man has resisted this approach.  Even the famed Welsh Foundation Phase is now to be assessed against the Literacy and Numeracy Framework, diluting the real commitment to the stage not age approach to learning through play.  In contrast to this high stakes regime, the lack of testing for Isle of Man students has encouraged pupils not to fear failure but to embrace it and learn from mistakes.  It has also ensured that there has not been a narrowing of the curriculum.

What was striking was the freedom afforded to schools to develop their own sense of culture.  Each school of course has a core curriculum but they are allowed to shape it in a way that reflects the needs and values of their own communities.  While Wales has drifted to a situation whereby we expect each and every school to look and operate like the next the Isle of Man has celebrated its differences.  We are of course undergoing a curriculum review and the opportunity is there for change to be delivered that empower schools to similar ends.

Not everything in the Isle of Man system is perfect.  You certainly wouldn’t find practitioners there claiming it is.  Indeed there are areas of our own policy and practice that could and would help drive improvements.  However there is no doubt that on some of the very big questions they have found answers that have united support across the sector and taken the burden off teachers. 

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