Archive | November, 2014

Thinking About The Curriculum

24 Nov

One of the criticisms of teaching unions is that they are focussed only on protecting teachers. That may sound a little odd.  Of course all teaching unions should be very concerned with standing up for the terms and conditions of their members.  After all, ensuring practitioners are not exploited; that the remuneration packages they receive reflect fairly the professionalism of the post; that workload does not reach unsustainable levels and that conditions of service are respected are central reasons why individuals join a union.  They also all indirectly impact on education standards.  An overworked and undervalued teacher will not result in a system of high achieving pupils.

However, while the casework of protecting members conditions of service and supporting them when needed is something the union I work for can be proud of, NUT Cymru are also very much an education union.  We are an organisation that are clear about the inter-related roles of improving education and improving the lives of educators.  Doing what is best to benefit pupils is absolutely not mutually exclusive to doing what is best to benefit teachers.

The truth is that the vast majority of teachers join a union as some sort of ‘insurance policy.’  They know their union will be there for them should something go wrong.  It is a slightly depressing view but for many it is the reality.  What NUT Cymru has sought to do is to create an environment where teachers get value for their membership.  We want teachers who would otherwise never come into contact with their union on a direct basis to enhance their professional capabilities through our relationship with them.  This is why we put on regular conferences for young teachers; conferences on behaviour management and courses for developing and aspiring Welsh speakers.

Over the last week I helped stage a curriculum conference in Wales.  It was brought about due to the fantastic work colleagues in England have done as part of their ‘Year of the Curriculum’ campaign, as well as the challenges the soon to be reported Donaldson Review will create.

Ros Graphic

This fantastic graphic visual was produced by Fran O’Hara during a session on lessons from the Year of the Curriculum campaign in England

I was delighted with the result of the day.  The programme went from the global challenges, outlined powerfully by Professor Susan Robertson of Bristol University, right the way through to the hyper-local with a session from Jane Jenkins, Headteacher of Moorland Primary School.  There was a wide variety of different approaches from round table discussions; table debates; presentations; world cafe scenarios and the above visual graphics.

Keynote sessions were delivered by Professor Susan Robertson; Professor Mel Ainscow and the Welsh Government’s curriculum review lead himself Professor Graham Donaldson.  The sessions were so well received and thought-provoking that instead of a brief summary here I thought I would look at them in more depth over the next week or two.


What the profession think of standardised tests in Wales – Part II

7 Nov

“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.” – Michelle Obama

In the first part of my blog looking at the survey of teachers I’ve conducted in Wales regarding the standardised literacy and numeracy tests I looked at the numbers.  The basic figures for the boxes that were ticked in response to the list of questions that were put together.

This was very important to examine in order to have the black and white statistics showing, without emotion, the views of the profession.  The blunt results were quite conclusive.

In this blog I wanted to look at the more personal comments that were outlined in the detailed feedback.

Poor reflection of ability

I think many teachers would potentially be willing to undertake the additional working pressures, and even perhaps be willing to accept the negative impacts on children, if these tests were clearly providing new and useful information that could not be secured in other ways.  However, as the below comments from teachers responding to the survey suggest, practitioners have not been convinced that this policy is being either informative nor offers the prospect of better attainment levels in future.  In many cases teachers felt that the tests were a poor reflection of the day-to-day abilities of the pupils they have come to know.

“The results of some pupils bear no resemblance to their true ability and when they receive the results, their confidence in their own abilities will take a huge knock just as they embark on their time in secondary education. A total disgrace.”

“A very negative experience for the pupils. A waste of time and effort and does not give a true assessment of pupils ability.”

“The tests reflect nothing about pupil ability but are rather made to make the government feel as though they are doing something to ‘better’ the situation.”

“They do not give a true reflection of a child’s ability, just their ability to sit a test!”

“I do not understand how Welsh Government think a generic test can assess all pupils’ ability. There is no understanding of the differentiated nature of teaching pupils at Key Stage 3 and the fact that these tests seem to be a “one size fits all” approach.”

“Testing does not improve standards; good teaching does.”

Foundation Phase

I wrote a recent article on the perception that the Welsh Government is faltering on its commitment to the Foundation Phase and it was noticeable that this was the key educational fear that came through time and time again when reading the comments.  There is a clear view within the profession that the ethos of the early years approach we have so proudly promoted in the past approach is not compatible with standardised testing.  Some samples of the responses include:

“The format of the tests goes against the ethos and teaching methods of the Foundation phase and early ks2.”

“These tests are inappropriate for children in Year 2. They are at odds with the Foundation Phase philosophy and they put young children in a very stressful situation.”

“I work with small targeted groups of low attainment pupils in Foundation Phase. Having made considerable inroads this year with their reading, writing and numeracy skills the tests completely undermined their confidence.”

“As the philosophy of the foundation Phase is learning through exploring and working collaboratively alongside other pupils, the test situation is really alien to their whole foundation experience as they are being required to work alone with no support and to put answers on paper that they have had no previous training for. Consistency of approach is needed between those who set the requirements for staff to deliver daily education and those who set the test papers/make the decision to set tests.”

“Ridiculous to expect yr2 pupils who are used to foundation phase teaching and learning, to take part in tests.”

“The test for the foundation phase is out of sync with the teaching strategies that are linked with foundation phase teaching. I felt that a years effort of working hard to develop children educationally but also emotionally had gone down the pan. Depressing years ahead.”

“We have had an opportunity to do something new in Wales and yet we are undermining radical initiatives such as the Foundation Phase with policies that risk turning the whole country into a large exam factory.”

“These tests totally contradict foundation phase style if learning – please make up your mind government!”

“As more and more pupils arrive in school without basic skills and knowledge all the hard work educators have carried out during their first years in school following the foundation phase ethos has been un-done during the 5 days allocated for the tests – leaving pupils and educators feeling useless and deflated if not successful.”


The most disturbing comments relate to the concerns that teachers have raised about the impact on pupil well-being as a result of the testing regime.  Stress and anxiety from pupils were a key problem as well as the damage it has done to self-esteem and confidence.  Comments like the below exemplified this:”

“I believe the tests demoralise and dishearten pupils, particularly those of lower ability. We spend all year building pupils confidence only for it to be knocked by making them sit tests that are not differentiated in any way for the less able pupils.”

“Having made considerable inroads this year with their reading, writing and numeracy skills the tests completely undermined their confidence. It is time politicians realised that one paper does NOT fit all.”

“This has destroyed the confidence of children that we have spent a lot of time building up and encouraging.”

“The children are stressed and have had their confidence knocked. One of my year four boys is working at a year 2 level. After sitting the literacy test for y4/5 he has refused to even try to read. All our hard work undone in one stupid test.”

“We have worked hard all year to increase confidence and self-esteem and the tests have set those children back a long way.”

“Children should not be crying going to school just because of tests.”

“I had children in class crying during the tests because they were not at the right level for them. While the government is insisting (rightly) that all lessons are differentiated appropriately for each individual to access the learning, why were they all sitting the same test?”

“Very concerned that some of my and 7-year-old pupils were so worried about the tests that they cried, did not want to come to school and one even stopped eating!!”

“Several of the children were distressed and some were reluctant to come to school.”

It is not hard to see from this small sample of the extensive feedback that was provided that these tests cause strong feelings within the sector.  We can but hope that the views are taken on board in advance of next years testing.



Serial Addiction

6 Nov


For the last few weeks, since episode two came out in fact, I’ve been avidly tuned in to the Serial podcast.  I listen to a lot of podcasts anyway but none have gripped me the way this one has.  So much so that Thursday, the release day each week for the next episode, simply cannot come around quick enough.

The podcast follows one true story, looking at the different characters and events that make up the plot, over the course of a series.  In this first series the podcast is following the case of Adnan Syed, convicted in 1999 of the murder of Hae Lee.  Each episode is looking at different pieces of evidence and questioning the defence and prosecutions accounts.  I won’t go into any further detail for the fear of spoiling it for anyone not yet listening or up to speed.

What I will say is that the whole thing is just utterly compelling.  This is the closest thing podcasts have achieved to creating the buzz and anticipation of a blockbuster TV series.  Serial is the Breaking Bad of podcasts.

One complaint that is emerging is that there may, or may not, be a definitive ending.  No magic bullet to confirm once and for all the guilt or innocence of Adnan.  For a time that did trouble me.  I was worried that I was investing in something that would ultimately leave me unfulfilled.  However, I’ve since decided that the intrigue the podcast has created for me and the quality of the narration and content far outweighs that.

If you are not listening already I would highly recommend that you do.  It should go without saying but start from the start.  You won’t be disappointed.


What the profession think of standardised tests in Wales – Part I

4 Nov

Last week I blogged on how there isn’t parental support for the Welsh Government’s standardised testing regime.  In that post I noted a survey of teachers that had been conducted and that I would be covering the responses in more detail.

The first thing to note is some of the headline figures that show exactly how unpopular this policy is.

  • 96.35% do not think the tests have been a positive experience for pupils. (+3.11%)
  • 70.81% do not believe the tests are consistent with the curriculum. (+7.06%)
  • 82.82% say workload is up as a result of the tests. (+4.29%)
  • 87.36% say tests have impacted negatively on pupil stress levels. (+5.29%)

As you can see these are staggeringly depressing figures that really demonstrate how disillusioned the sector is with the policy.  Looking at these figures it is very hard to see how the initiative can be a success given the strength of feeling in opposition to it.  The Welsh Government never sold teachers on the need for this style of testing; the implementation has been very poor and the concerns that have been raise, for the most part, have not been given adequate attention.  The figures in brackets denote a change in views since the same survey was conducted in 2013.  Across all these crucial indicators it is clear to see that not only has the scepticism of teachers not been won over it has increased.

It is also interesting to look at the issue of parental support in light of the responses on that to the survey.  Asked about feedback from parents teachers stated that:

  • It was wholly or mostly negative 29.46% (+12.51%)
  • It was wholly or mostly positive 0.85% (-0.84%)
  • Mixed 20.96% (+5.99%),
  • There was no feedback 48.73% (-17.65%)

Again the figures in brackets show the change from the 2013 survey.  It is very odd then that the Welsh Government have claimed they are seeing positive support from parents in relation to these tests when at the same time teachers are reporting that more and more parents are responding negatively.  In fact there was less than 1% positive feedback.  Of course it could very well be that parents, instead of telling the teachers they know and have relationships with, they are opting to tell the Welsh Government directly.  That seems a little bit of a stretch, especially when we know they have not done so through any emails or letters.

Ultimately the Welsh Government will stand by these tests as they claim that they will support standards.  But is that a view shared by the experts that work in classrooms day in day out?

  • 87.57% do not believe that the tests will lead to improved pupil attainment (-1.98%)
  • 90.14% do not believe the tests have provided new information about pupils (-1.99%)

As you can see there is little belief that these test either offer any new information about pupils or will lead to better standards.  Admittedly, there is a slight drop in the pessimism here from last year.  However with both indicators above the 87% mark it is hardly a cause for celebration.  Clearly not only have the tests proved incredibly unpopular they have little chance, if present views are to be believed, of convincing the profession of success in future.

The final point of interest from the data concerns the funding for the tests.  One of the issues that teachers have raised is that they have found the tests, the preparation and the delivery, are costing money for schools.  In a new question asked this year we surveyed if the profession believed the Welsh Government had attached the right levels of funding to this policy.  87% did not believe this was the case.

I accept one of the criticisms of the survey in that it is a small sample.  360 teachers took part.  I would argue that a standard opinion poll size would be around 1,000 individuals to give a reflection of the views of millions of voters.  In that regards 360 reflecting a few ten thousand teachers is somewhat comparable.  Still, it is a valid point.  What I would also argue is that this is not the first poll on this issue.  This is a repeat of the survey conducted last year which had a similar number of responses.  It is also true that other groups have conducted surveys which have similar responses.  There is then a bank of evidence being collated.  Also the percentage of responses is noticeable.  When you are talking about 80-90% views the strength of feeling is clear.  This may be a relatively small sample but it is none the less an important snapshot of where we are at with this policy.

These are all the findings of the quantitative data from the survey.  In stark black and white it is fair to say the picture is bleak.  I will be posting later in the week details of the qualitative feedback which, I’m afraid to say, makes for even more depressing, and at times upsetting, reading.


Western Mail Article – Are we really still committed to the Foundation Phase?

3 Nov

It is fair to say the public have some pretty strong views on Welsh education.  With the exception of the health debate in recent months it is arguably education that has filled the pages of Welsh newspapers without rival over the past few years.  At different times, at different levels and from different sources, there has been a great deal of criticism for teachers, schools, local authorities and the Welsh Government to deal with.  One area that has not been criticised however is the principle of the Foundation Phase.  Almost unanimously this area of Welsh education has been recognised as a great success.  Introducing it was a bold step but one that has paid off.  It has seen particular success in engaging young boys, a section of the student population that has been stubbornly hard to reach in the past.

With universal support for the Foundation Phase across Welsh education is it odd to think then that the commitment to the policy is under question, but that is exactly what appears to be happening in Wales at the moment.  Recently Huw Lewis AM issued a statement on the revised areas of learning for Wales. In this announcment the Education Minister said of 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.”

While it was pleasing to read the Minister put it clearly that he retains support for the principles of the Foundation Phase it is hard to accept those words are complimented by the policy actions that have been taken. It is very difficult to believe that anyone could possibly expect children to learnat 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 also risks children moving onto the next stage of development without having fully grasped earlier expectations. The basic premise of “learning through play” will be lost.

The perception of the Welsh Government rowing back on their focus on the Foundation Phase is not a new one.  In March 2014 early years expert, Professor Iram Siraj, said this in her Foundation Phase stocktake 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.”

This statement touched on a significant viewpoint within the education sector.  While the Welsh Government have given assurances that they remain supportive of the Foundation Phase the policies that they are putting in place have chipped away at the credibility of those claims.

Only this week Professor David Reynolds, an advisor to the Welsh Government, said on Radio Wales in response to concerns about the pressures put on young children as a result of the standardised testing regime they encounter after leaving the Foundation Phase;

“it may well be the case that moving out of the Foundation Phase into a stand and deliver test situation would be stressful. The answer there is not to stop the testing, because data helps us, but to ensure that children in the Foundation Phase actually have some formal situations, like the testing.”

If testing children straight out of the Foundation Phase has undermined the philosophy in the eyes of those practitioners delivering it, testing them formally while they are in that stage of their education will compleatly contradict it.  It is little wonder that the education sector are second guessing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the Foundation Phase when official Welsh Government advisors are taking to our national broadcasters to suggest fundermental changes to the principles on which it has been founded.

There can be no half measures with this policy.  Either we are fully commited to the Foundation Phase, with a strategy that runs through a child’s education to match that, or we are not.  At present the system is becoming increasingly fragmented on this point and it is the children that progress through it who will lose out.

The Welsh Government must clarify its position through both words and action or else it will fail to stand by the foundations on which the Foundation Phase is built.

You can read the origional article from the Western Mail here.