5 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2015

7 Jan

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection” – Kim Collins

1. Schools Challenge Cymru:

This flagship initiative has all the potential to radically improve the life chances of children in Wales.  Modelled on the London Challenge approach there is a blue-print for success already established.  While education policy doesn’t always travel well, and we have to be weary that schools in Wales will have different issues than those in London, there is no reason why we can’t be optimistic.

The profession, which has become largely cynical about Welsh Government initiatives after countless previous disasters at the implementation stage, do appear at present to be giving this project the benefit of the doubt.  There is a lot of good will in place to support it, brought about at least in part thanks to excellent communicators like Professor Mel Ainscow acting as the face of the initiative.

However, make no mistake, this can’t be seen as a quick fix and if we are to harness that good will it has to prove effective with tangible positive impacts.  The fact that no one is still any the wiser as to where the mystery £7.9m of the £20m promised for Schools Challenge Cymru is coming from, and perhaps more importantly what other areas of education funding will miss out to pay for it, does not fill many with confidence.  It is also concerning that at present there is no commitment beyond two years.  A stark contrast to the longevity of the London approach.

Still, if there is the uplift that has been projected then hopefully that will make the case to show the nerve to roll this out for a whole generation of pupils.

2.  Support for supply teachers:

Just before the Christmas break the Children, Young People and Education Committee launched an inquiry into the supply sector in Wales.  Ignoring the utter stupidity of having just a few weeks for consultation responses which spanned the festive period, this inquiry is absolutely crucial.

Supply teachers already undertake a hugely important role in the education sector.  A role that is often overlooked; marginalised and belittled but a role that in many ways is possibly the most difficult in the profession.  With a greater emphasis on teachers sharing best practice between, and within, schools we have to accept there will be more of a reliance on supply to cover the classroom leave of sector and subject leading professionals to undertake that self-improving continued professional development.

With that in mind, we have to address the ongoing, and increasing, problems in the supply sector.  Previous Welsh Government Ministers have largely washed their hands of the responsibility, as have local authorities.  The current Minister, to his credit, has accepted the need to examine this issue but we seem no nearer action.  All the while supply teachers continue to be underpaid for their work; are subjected to reduced and restrictive terms and conditions, are operating with low morale and motivation and crucially find access to continued professional development minimal at best.  These are a vitally important section of our profession, who play a hugely important role in supporting standards in school, yet are treated like a second class workforce by agencies who are increasingly operating unchecked and unchallenged.

The inquiry, I have no doubt even with the foolish time-frame, will receive a lot of responses exposing the difficulties that exists with the system and the impact they are having on education in Wales.  The responses NUT Cymru have had during its supply campaign in 2014 show just how much of a hot topic this is.  The big hope is that this will not be one of those processes that sees a report filed away and forgotten about, but instead brings about some real change from the Welsh and local governments.

3.  Funding:

Let’s be realistic and fair to the Welsh Government.  The block grant funding it receives from Westminster has been slashed.  What they have been presented with is a very, very dark set of figures.  Easily the most depressing since devolution.

Now, let’s be realistic and fair to teachers, pupils, parents and the public.  Lazily repeating stock answers in the press saying, “we’ve been completely transparent about the very challenging financial position that we’re facing,” when in reality that isn’t the case; or saying everything is rosy in the education funding system when it isn’t, won’t wash.

We can’t keep seeing things like a £20m Schools Challenge Cymru announcement only to find out that £7.9m of that is not new money.  Worse still, to still be waiting many months later to find out where that funding will come from is frankly not a reasonable approach.  These funding decisions need to be determined well before the press releases are drafted and published.  Expecting schools to create three-year draft budget projections only to then rip them up for in-year cuts is bordering on reckless.

What funding goes into the school sector is ultimately a matter for the Welsh Government.  They determine their budgets according to what they believe are the priorities for their policies.  This of course has to be viewed against the backdrop of the cuts they themselves have faced.  However, let’s not forget that Welsh pupils were underfunded in comparison to their English counterparts even when the sun was shining (relatively) financially.

The funding hope for 2015 is that the enormous pressures on schools, which will almost certainly impact on standards, are recognised and money is put back into the system; either from other Welsh Government budgets, by using future potential Barnett consequentials or by reducing waste currently spent on areas like consortia.  At the very least we need a more honest public conversation about where we are at and how it will impact on performance.

4.  The New Deal:

The teaching profession has been crying out for greater access to continued professional development in Wales.  Access to training due to financial constraints and workloads have been increasingly dwindling.  In recent years we have seen an almost unprecedented level of new initiatives, policies and projects imposed on schools.  Ironically all since the bold statement from the previous Minister that he would be implimenting “fewer initiatives and keeping it simple.”

The reality is that they have not been even remotely matched by CPD.  The profession have been asked to do more and to do things differently but they have not been given the support to do that right.  Indeed, the Welsh Government actually reduced the ability of schools to train staff on the implementation of these new policies and systems by cutting the number of in-service training day.  Where the Welsh Government did provide training it was, to be extremely generous, variable.

Huw Lewis AM does deserve credit.  He has put CPD at the heart of his legacy as Education Minister.  In his first key-note speech he openly recognised the Welsh Government have got this wrong in the past and accepted the importance of getting it right in the future.  These are words not actions of course but these words were symbolically important.  This was a Minister, perhaps realistically the first and only Education Minister since devolution took place, to have an open public discussion about enhancing the CPD opportunities for teachers.

What developed from that speech was the ‘New Deal’ concept.  It is right that the pessimist in me highlights two key points.  Firstly, there is no new money here.  We’ve already touched on the funding problems.  The truth is this is a new deal but there is no new investment.  If schools have failed to fund CPD in the past it is a little hard to see it happening at a time of even greater budget constraints.  Secondly, the crux of the new deal appears to be the commitment that teachers get an entitlement to CPD throughout their careers.  The fact is that this should already be the case.  Indeed, the GTCW made the below recomendation to the Welsh Government as far back as 2002 in their ‘Continued Professional Development, An entitlement for All’ document;

“The Council considers that all teachers should be entitled to high quality and well-planned CPD provision throughout their career.”

All this cynicism being said, I do believe there is a general will on behalf of the Minister to make this work.  His statements also arm teachers with the knowledge of entitlement to demand professional development from school leaders and governing bodies.  This is a good thing.  The only challenge, albeit a significant one, is how schools and leaders are supported to meet that entitlement.  With no new money it is hard to see an easy solution.  I am hopeful at least that working together all stakeholders do have a commitment to trying to find a way forward that hasn’t been there in the past.

5. Education isn’t 2015’s NHS.

I wrote a while back that the way the NHS was being discussed in political terms was all about the heart while politicians, in Wales at least, appeared to be giving considered thought to their views on education.  Our sector, for now at least, appeared to still be a thinking man (or woman’s) domain.  It’s massively important that this remains the case.

No one person has the magic bullet to solve all education’s problems.  In Wales or elsewhere.  The continuity of approach and united tact that different politicians have shown in somewhere like Finland is a prime example of how success is built across political divides.  All political parties, and none, have a lot to offer.  Constructive approaches, in agreement or disagreement, are going to be crucial to the education debate.  What we really don’t need is that just when results suggest a bit of positivity in the Welsh education system, it is used as a political point scorer for parties and politicians both sides of the England-Wales border.  As someone with election fatigue after just a few days of 2015 I’m not sure on a personal level I could take 4 months of irresponsible and irrational political hyperbole on our system.

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