Archive | October, 2014

Do parents support Welsh standardised testing?

29 Oct

At the start of the month the standardised literacy and numeracy tests once again came in for criticism.  They have proved highly controversial and have regularly been a topic of concern for teachers.  One thing that really stood out to me in the piece in the Western Mail was the Welsh Government’s assertion that;

“We’ve also seen a similarly positive response from parents regarding testing at the end of the Foundation Phase.”

This just didn’t sit right with me I have to say.  One of the big messages that I have had when speaking to teachers is the way parents have been angry at the impact the tests have had on pupil well-being.  Teachers have faced a big backlash from parents who have felt their children have been left marginalised and disengaged from education as a result of these tests.

Last year, and again repeated this year, I conducted a survey of teachers in Wales* on a range of issues relating to the tests.  One of the questions asked if the individuals responding had received feedback from parents in relation to the tests.  It also asked if that feedback had been wholly or mostly positive; wholly or mostly negative or mixed. In 2013 the significant majority (66%) was from those who had no contact over the test.  After that it was 17% negative; 2% positive and 15% mixed.  Hardly a ringing endorsement from parents for this policy.  Fast forward to 2014 and no contact was still the most noted response, albeit down to 48%.  The numbers having negative feedback had increased to 30%; positive was down to just under 1% while mixed was also up, reaching 21%.

Curious as to how the Welsh Government felt they were on sure footing with parental support I could only assume that they had been receiving correspondence that contradicted what I and teachers I had spoken to were seeing.  I put a freedom of information request in to find out.  In it I asked for;

“all copies of correspondence (emails and letters) to the Education Minister in relation to the standardised literacy and numeracy tests from individuals or groups designating themselves as schools, teachers, trade unions, school governors and/or parents between 1st May 2013 and 1st October 2014.”

To my surprise, or rather not, there was not a single piece of correspondence from a parent backing these tests.  In fact, as you will see from the response I received here, the contrary is true.  The only parental feedback that was received by the Welsh Government was negative with parents highlighting the exact concerns about well-being that have been brought up time and again by the profession.

Interestingly enough it now appears the government line has changed.

*Details of the survey were covered today by the BBC.  I will be blogging in-depth about the findings next week.

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How much confidence can we have in the consultation process?

28 Oct

“Consult: To seek approval for a course of action already decided upon.” Ambrose Bierce

There is a real question to be asked about the weighted legitimacy of public responses to Welsh Government consultations. I ask this as increasingly consultation summaries seem to determine the support for any particular proposals by playing the numbers game. When looking through a range of consultations that have closed in the education section of the Welsh Government’s consultation site online, it is clear to see that the determining factor in pushing ahead or scrapping a decision is purely down to the number of consultations that say yes, no or don’t know to the questions put forward. In the interest of balance I should point out there are some that do not use this approach but that, if anything, only serves to highlight the inconsistency of the way consultation responses are appraised.

In theory this may seem like a reasonable approach. After all, isn’t democracy about reflecting the majority view? But when you dig a little deeper there exists some serious anomalies with this approach, namely, the weighting given to the sort of people who are responding.

Take the NUT for example. When I draft a consultation on behalf of the union here in Wales I am doing so based on, and reflecting, the motions to form policies that have been taken through national conferences. The draft I put together is then reviewed, and often dissected forensically, by the national NUT Cymru/Wales committee, including members who have been democratically elected to represent the thousands upon thousands of teachers the union has in Wales. The membership of this committee has amassed literally hundreds of years of teaching experience from which to shape their response. Where there are specific expertise needed; for example consultations relating to special needs education; Welsh language provisions; early years intervention; child protection etc, individuals with specialist backgrounds within the union will be asked to contribute.

However, when the Welsh Government works through its consultation responses a ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Don’t know,’ from this collective of accountability, experience and knowledge will be worth exactly the same as a response from Mr Joe Blogs who may have just stumbled across the consultation.

I am not necessarily arguing that special treatment should be given to unions, or any organisations for that matter. Furthermore I firmly believe that it is right that individuals not only take part in consultations but are encouraged to do so. Very often these individuals have experience and knowledge that can provide an expert view. All this being said is it undermining the Welsh Government if they are not recognising the authority at which one group of respondents approach a subject in comparison to others? Whoever those groups or individuals may be.

Taker the example of the recently published summary of responses to the consultation on appointments to the membership of the new Education Workforce Council.  In response to question 3 it states;

A small number of responses were strongly opposed to the power of the Minister to appointment members to the Council. They felt this was less democratic, undermined the independence of the council; and wanted its membership determined via an election process so that members were democratically accountable to education staff.

I would hazard a guess that every union representing workforce staff will have raised this issue.  (I do not have clarification on that but all union colleagues I have spoken to state they did raise it and I am unaware of any that did not feel it was an issue prior to the consultation closing).  It may be correct to say that the number of consultation responses raising this concern was small.  There were 10 trade union responses. However this doesn’t change the fact that those responses represent the vast majority, if not all, of the individuals who will be registered with the body.  Should no additional weight be given to the basis of these concerns?  Essentially because the unions have not reproduced a response for every member they represent, a painstakingly unrealistic expectation, we could end up with a body that is perceived to be undemocratic with its independence under a cloud from the very people it is ment to represent.

In terms of looking at things as a simple numbers game lets take another example of the summary of responses to the consultation on the revised areas of learning for the curriculum in Wales.  This is a hugely important issue that really does need to lead to decisions based on knowledge of the sector and a background in education.  Yet the analysis of questions is largely focused on totalling up the yes/no and don’t know tick boxes.  In many cases individuals will have ticked ‘don’t know’ as they wish to raise concerns while not necessarily opposing the proposal.  You do fear however that the don’t knows are simply lost in the sift.  This approach is replicated across numerous consultations and not all will have as many responses or as many from individuals and groups with educational expertise.  In those instances individual replies, while of course welcome and important, will have even more influence than in this case.

I am not making a plea to ignore one section of responses. By all means the Welsh Government can still total up the percentage of replies they get in each question. However, there is nothing also stopping them from taking additional steps to review the backgrounds of the responses to see if they call also pull out the expertise that representative groups have.  There is little confidence at present that this is being done, nor that in fact the basis of opposition or support for polices where the numbers don’t fall in your favour is particularly reviewed. This is not an education specific issue but no doubt a consultation failing across all Welsh Government portfolios, and indeed other tiers of government.

Inspection Myth Busting

27 Oct

A little while back Ofsted published a document tackling the misconceptions around school inspections. While teacher’s are familiar with school inspectors telling them what they should do this handy addition to inspection guidance outlines what the body does not expect schools to do or provide during, or before, inspection. It states, for example, that Ofsted DOES NOT:

  • require teachers or schools to provide individual lesson plans for inspectors, or previous lesson plans;
  • expect schools to use the evaluation schedules to grade teaching, or individual lessons;
  • require schools to undertake a specified amount of lesson observation;
  • expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders;
  • expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders;
  • expect performance and pupil-tracking data to be presented in a particular format.

The Ofsted document gives school leaders and teachers a much better understanding of what is required during an inspection. It is a handy myth buster that will hopefully help address some workload concerns and make the inspection process a more transparent and honest one.  This has been an important step and one that should be replicated in Wales. If Estyn were to undertake a similar publication it could help to reduce the pressures on teachers and school leaders and improve the relationship between those delivering education services and those inspecting them.  There remain far too many misunderstandings about what teachers and schools are required to undertake during the high pressured inspection period.

Workload pressures on teachers, which are already at unsustainable levels, are increased dramatically during an inspection period.  Very often we see school leaders creating unrealistic and unnecessary additional expectations for teachers to meet inspection criteria that simply do not exist.  We also see local authorities and regional consortia driving head teachers to undertake inspection orientated work that Estyn does not require.  Having a clear guidance document stating what teachers and schools do not need to do for inspection would give those going through the process the protection and assurances they need.

Hopefully Estyn will see this as an opportunity to provide clarity for the sector as a whole for future inspections.

Tackling the Workload Problem

23 Oct

You won’t find me saying this often but….. well done to the Westminster Department for Education.  Through a speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister they have taken an important first step in tackling the issue of workload for teachers.  I say well done, let’s not make the mistake of believing that this is a decision that has not been forced upon them.  The support that both the Lib Dems and Conservatives have been hemorrhaging amongst the motivated electorate of the teaching workforce has been the key statistic that has forced them to sack a Secretary of State for Education, and now to openly acknowledge some of the big issues that the NUT and others have been consistently highlighting.  Still, no matter what prompted this initiative it is to be welcomed.

It is really positive to hear Nick Clegg recognising teachers must be liberated from “burdensome workloads” and aiming to address the “misguided impression” that teaching is a career built on short days and long holidays.  Actions of course speak louder than words, but those words are nonetheless still important.

You get the clear sense that the door that the profession has been banging on for some time on the issue of workload is starting to creep open at Whitehall.  Yes this is about teacher’s votes, but it can also be about dramatically improving standards.  Reducing workload pressures on teachers, which we know are unsustainable, will not only benefit those individuals but also their pupils.  We will not only have more motivated teachers able to do the jobs they have been trained to do, but we will see more empowered and focused students as a results.

This is an issue that is also on the Welsh agenda.  Opposition parties have begun making their pitches on tackling the bureaucracy of teaching and I expect it to be one of the central commitments across the education manifesto’s in the run up to the 2016 Welsh election.

It is exciting that the DfE in England are seeking teachers views on how we can create a more streamline and effective system.  Judgement on if this is more than a pre-election olive branch will be seen in the delivery of any tangible action of course.  What teachers in Wales would certainly like to see is the Welsh Government make a similar offer.  A commission or consultation into the challenges here that will allow teachers to identify where there are existing workload problems.  What policies are causing unnecessary workload problems. Directly or indirectly.  Intended or unintended.

 

Mastermind

22 Oct

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” – Benjamin Franklin

You may have seen this story in last week’s Western Mail regarding changes the Welsh Government are making to the funding and delivery of the Masters in Educational Practice qualification.  The statement the Government issued on this can be seen here.

The idea of making teaching a Masters level profession is a good one and one that has a lot of support.  The principle of what the Welsh Government have attempted has a lot of merit and they deserve praise for taking a lead on this in a UK context.  This is the sort of thing that is done in Finland and other leading education nations and it is good to see Wales aiming to emulate that success.

However, there has certainly been problems with the way in which this was implemented in Wales.  There has been a lack of mentors available.  Initially this was for the Masters course but when they were identified for those students the knock on impact was a reduction in mentors available for other first year practitioners, something the GTCW highlighted.  Secondly, teachers wishing to undertake the qualification had a ‘take it or leave it’ offer and the timing has proved less than ideal.  Those studying towards the Masters have been first year professionals who are doing so at a time when they are perhaps most overwhelmed with the stark learning curve of managing the extreme workload pressures that go, unfortunately, hand in hand with the role.  No doubt a better piloting of the policy prior to its introduction would have addressed these concerns, at least in part.  The fact that the new MEP, due to come into effect from September 2016, will unlikely to go through a pilot, is a worry.

Some of the changes that are proposed are certainly positive.  The extension of the qualification to allow teachers with more experience to access the course is a real boost. Hopefully this will allow a more cohesive approach to the qualification with teachers being able to access it on a modular basis over the course of a teaching career.  That would fit well with the Minister’s ‘new deal’ approach to ensuring continued professional development.  This could potentially answer the problems regarding the pressure put on teachers early in their careers, the ‘take it or leave it’ approach as well as the availability of mentors issue.

At the same time of course there are new issues to consider.  The Masters, as it is delivered at present, is fully funded.  That is a major incentive for many in taking up the course and has created the basis to which we have started to build a Masters qualified profession.  The fact that funding arrangements in future are uncertain beyond the commitment that a ‘proportion of the participants costs being funded’ will put people on alert.  How will this reduction in funding impact on the take up of the course, especially against the backdrop of teachers pay and pensions being cut and school budgets being squeezed every year?  It is already almost impossible for many teachers to access training and CPD.  Few will have confidence that they will be able to gain funding for future Masters courses if they, or their schools, have to find a significant amount of finance.

No doubt clarity will come sooner rather than later on this issue.  For now we must hope that while making some important and positive changes to the Masters qualification the Welsh Government have not thrown the baby out with the bath water at the same time.

Teetotal

21 Oct

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Like most people I’m prone to saying, “never again,” after a heavy night drinking.  The older I’ve got the more I’ve said it and it’s required less and less alcohol to make me utter those words.  That was until July when I actually decided to pack it in.

This was relatively easy for me because I haven’t been one to really drink on any sort of regular basis since my days in Aberystwyth university some ten years ago.  That isn’t to say I didn’t drink, nor that I didn’t drink more than perhaps I should when I did have a tipple, but that I’ve never been someone who drinks during the week and my weekend consumption was reduced significantly when I got to the point of having to source babysitters for the pleasure.  I say babysitters what I actually mean is getting mam to watch the baby.

However, I’ve now jacked it in completely.  I can’t say I’ve seen the positives most people may experience, the extra money of physical health improvements for example, because, as I said, I didn’t drink often enough for those to matter anyway.  Still, there’s certainly been a general sense of enhanced well-being from taking the decision.  Perhaps it’s the psychological effect of the smugness of telling people you’ve been teetotal for an extended period of time.

The last time I drank any alcohol was at a friend’s wedding at the end of July. (see picture above).  I haven’t decided if I’ll drink at all over Christmas as yet.  Part of me is considering just not drinking again.  I’ve radically changes my relationship with food after working with a nutritionist and not drinking alcohol is part of the healthier lifestyle I’ve been living.  The other part of me thinks it is Christmas after all.

More Pressure on the Foundation Phase

20 Oct

Last week the Education Minister issued a statement on the revised areas of learning for Wales.  Much of it was to be expected.  One point that did jump out at me is the statement on the Foundation Phase.

“For the Foundation Phase, Areas of Learning are now presented in the revised layout of year-by-year expectations. I want to be absolutely clear that this does not mark any departure from the current approach for the Foundation Phase – my commitment to the Foundation Phase and its philosophy to teaching and learning has not changed. The emphasis is still firmly focused on teaching our youngest children at a pace and level that is appropriate to them, and through experiential learning.”

I’ve written on several occasions about watering down the commitment to the Foundation Phase.  I’m pleased to read here that the Minister has put it clearly that he retains support for the principles of the policy.  Sadly, I’m not convinced that the actions that are being taken reflect those words.

I find it very hard to believe that anyone could possibly expect children to learn ‘at a pace and level that is appropriate to them’ while also setting ‘year-by-year expectations.’ Those year-by-year expectations are, by definition, setting a level for children which may, or may not, be appropriate.  Teachers will undoubtable be pressured to move children along at a pace that matches the expectations rather than at a pace that matches the capabilities of those children.  In the long-term that will lead to children being marginalised, disinterested and disengaged from education.

It will be hard to reassure Foundation Phase practitioners that the style of teaching they have been delivering, and which has been internationally recognised, is not under threat.

Second Time Around

17 Oct

A little under two months ago I was blessed by the premature but safe arrival of son number two.  Llew Rhys Hathway.

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I’m not sure what I expected in terms of the impact on my life.  Most people told me that the second child was much easier.  In many ways it has been.  I’m not second guessing every decision like I did with the Gryffalo.  You become more familiar and confident in your parental abilities.  You’ve done it before and the mental blitz that goes with your first isn’t quite as shocking.  Still, I’ve felt so much more tired this time around.

Perhaps I had just totally purged the sleep deprivation from my mind or maybe the Gryffalo’s adapted to a sleeping pattern a lot sooner.  Either way, this time around it has really taken its toll.  I shouldn’t grumble too much.  Credit where it is due my good wife takes the brunt of it given I am up for work during the week.

I’m glad to say things have started to settle slightly these days.  The cot is up and Llew has made the long march from Moses basket to proper cot bed and is starting to get this whole sleep in the night thing.  Sometimes at least.

One of my main fears being a dad already was how Gryff would react to a new sibling vying for the attention of his parents.  I’m sure it is a real concern to anyone having a second child.  I’ve seen other friends children act up and cause problems.  Totally understandable of course.  This is a huge change in their lifestyle.  Thankfully son number one has been an absolute pleasure.  I’ve been so proud of him.  The main problem we’ve had is that he is jealous of us hogging time with Llew as he always wants to be near him.  They are going to grow up to be such close brothers it really does melt your heart.

The arrival of Llew has seemingly done wonders for Gryff’s own progress also.  He’s gone from saying just a few words to having full blow conversations since his promotion to older brother status.  He blows my mind coming up with new words every day.  The way children soak up knowledge is truly remarkable and has really hit home to me, on a professional level, just how vitally important those pre-school early years are to the long-term life chances of a student.

As for my relationship with Gryff it has got just got stronger.  He’s my best friend in the world. (Sorry to Peter Griffin who, at my wedding, was my best man.  You are still in the top 3 behind the boys).  It is safe to say that I can have no fears that the child below is as happy as ever.

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Stop, Look and Listen

15 Oct

“You can see a lot just by observing” – Yogi Berra

In this article in the Western Mail, Estyn has highlighted the way in which lesson observation can be utilised successfully.

There is no doubt that lesson observations can be an effective tool to support teaching so long as it is done correctly.  Where observations are based on sharing ideas and best practice and where they are supportive they can be a valuable asset in professional development.  This is particularly true of informal peer-to-peer working.  Where the right environment for self-improvement is fostered in schools it can be an excellent way to drive up standards.

What we want to achieve is a culture whereby teachers do not fear observation.  They know they can be honest and relaxed and that what comes back isn’t a negative judgement and drive towards capability procedures but instead a constructive feedback session that builds on strengths and seeks to find ways to improve weaknesses.  Ideally this would be done through peer-to-peer support and continued professional development.  Finding that balance will ensure that teachers actively seek observation and school leaders will work in close partnership with their staff to ensure the highest level of standards.

Where that is happening in Wales we can see fantastic results.  We see teachers continue to improve their skills and leadership and staff working as a whole in a collaborative approach to school improvement.

Unfortunately, far too often the observation system is being abused.  We are seeing it implemented on an intrusive and strict approach that undermines the confidence and performance of even the very best teachers.  Instead of being a chance to find cooperation in school these observations become pressure points for failure.  This not only renders the observation system useless as a professional development tool but also creates a snowball effect for further problems in the school and for those individual staff who will have been mismanaged.

The best school leaders will work with their staff to find a positive balance and use lesson observations as part of a wider school improvement and evaluation strategy.  That does happen in many schools in Wales.  We must now aim to ensure that it happens in all.

Yah Yah…I’ll have a skinny gingerbread latte please…. No really.

15 Oct

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I’m a strictly hot chocolate kind of guy as a rule.  I don’t drink coffee and I don’t drink tea.  A fact about me that seems to terrify and amaze people in equal measure.  That being said, I am somewhat turning a corner with the former of those drinks, which is probably not something to be proud of.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m fairly young for the job that I do. So when I go for a coffee with journalists or other people in a working capacity I feel a bit odd ordering a hot chocolate.  I’m not sure why it bothers me so much but I guess it just underlines my (relative) youthfulness.  Perhaps this crisis of identity is also responsible for my new beard?  As such I’ve been trying to adapt my order to work my way up to become a coffee drinker.

Since trying to drink at least something caffeinated I’ve become obsessed with Skinny Gingerbread Lattes.  They taste amazing.  The above pictured one was from Costa but Coffee#1 do a much better version.

I’m not sure I should get used to them mind.  Aside from the fact skinny does not equal good for you my history as a non-coffee drinker means that after having a medium size one I feel like I could lap Usain Bolt.  I’m also not entirely sure these constitute a step up from hot chocolate.  At best it’s a sideways move.