Archive | June, 2015

The future of regional consortia

12 Jun

“When did the future switch from being a promise to a threat?” Chuck Palahniuk

Back in November 2012 the then Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, was describing the performance of regional consortia as, “to put it mildly, patchy.”  He was, he said, “no longer prepared to wait” for progress.  After all, the consortia were supposed to be up and running and delivering the much promised and hyped support to schools by September of that year.

Fast forward almost three years and the Estyn and Audit Office reports published this week into the performance of regional consortia make for pretty grim reading.

Teachers generally have come to the view that the consortia are more than prepared to take up the role of challenging schools, often without merit, basis or with a view on delivering an improved outcome.  Most teachers will tell you that consortia have ratched up significantly the high-stakes accountability regime that Professor Donaldson and the OECD have been so critical of in their analysis of Welsh education.  What you won’t find of course are teachers with many examples of where consortia have come in and provided support that has benefited their practice, their schools or most importantly their pupils.

Often it will be a case of consortia highlight the deficiency in a schools performance, an issue the school itself has no-doubt long since recognised, but without any expertise or suggestions for delivering improvements.  The individuals taking up consortia roles have very often not been classroom practitioners for some time and so cannot offer the direct practical support that is required, and are far more concerned with driving a school to data targets without appreciating the impact on the wider ability of that school to cater for its pupils.

The content of the Estyn and Audit Office reports are quite damning and reflect the fact that consortia have still yet to even remotely fulfil their original purpose of offering support to schools.  While some consortia appear to have been aiming to increase their role beyond the original objective they remain almost ignorant to their inability to deliver on the first and most vital task of supporting school improvement.  These are sweeping statements of course and there may be good practice available in some consortia working, however, sadly more often than not these generalisations ring true with the school workforce.

Some of the most damaging reviews within the reports state that:

  • All the regional consortia struggled to fill senior posts, which adversely affected their capacity to direct and manage work and highlights the lack of a national strategic approach to develop senior leaders.
  • None of the consortia has a medium-term plan in place to guide a strategic approach to school improvement.
  • None of the regional consortia has a coherent strategic approach to reduce the impact of deprivation on attainment.
  • None of the consortia has a fully developed and consistently used system to collate, analyse and share information about the progress of pupils and schools.
  • Progress was hindered by limited capacity, incomplete management structures, inadequate scrutiny of overall consortia arrangements, weaknesses in financial and performance management and insufficient openness and transparency.
  • There has also been a lack of medium-term planning and insufficient focus on arrangements to assess value for money.I can tell the Minister that

It was noteworthy that Simon Thomas AM said during the most recent question time to the Education Minister at the Senedd:

Plaid Cymru will abolish education consortia, because our plans for local government and public service reform will have in place the right balance between national leadership and local accountability, and they will no longer be needed. You seem to be suggesting that we continue to muddle along with mixed and messy accountability and mediocre educational improvements. What is your vision for local education authorities

There is merit to the idea of consortia as they were first envisioned.  The economies of scale and pooling of resources and support of having a body coordinating the work of local authority services on the face of it appears to make perfect sense.  However, the four consortia have developed into four completely separate and almost unrecognisable entities from one another and have strayed so far away from their original purpose that we do have to ask if the public are getting value for money when they are, as yet, continuing to lack delivery.  If performance does not dramatically increase there will rightly be questions about their long-term sustainability.

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Follow the leader

11 Jun

Estyn has recently published a report that is critical of the leadership qualities that exist within our schools. Specifically they cite concerns about the capacity to grow those skills for future aspiring school leaders. The truth is there are a few reasons why this has developed into a problem.

Firstly, the focus of training has generally been narrowed for the entire profession. A few years back the Welsh Government became highly prescriptive in how it delivered professional development for the teaching profession. Teachers and school leaders were told in no uncertain terms that all training should focus on literacy and numeracy and nothing else. While of course these issues are important the insistence that all training be driven by them, and them alone, has undoubtedly resulted in a lack of development of wider teaching skills, including leadership qualities.

Secondly, the notion of access to training in general has been somewhat of a myth in recent years. Schools have found that they have neither the funding nor time to release teachers to access professional development. Where there is a small amount of give in the system to allow that to happen, as stated above, it has been focused on other specific priorities.

The third, and in a way most concerning issue, is the fact there is a lack of individuals wishing to take up leadership roles. Many teachers have the qualities, and indeed the qualifications, to be school leaders. However, they know the huge workloads and pressures that go with the role. It is becoming harder and harder to make school leadership appear an attractive proposal.  The cost-benefit balance is quite clearly being skewed in the wrong direction.

What is more those currently in leadership roles have no ability to develop future leaders within their schools as they are driven solely by immediate data orientated targets.  Hitting this weeks objective for regional consortia and local authorities is such a high-pressure, high-accountability factor in the thinking of a headteacher that the ability to ponder even medium, let alone long-term, about the deficiencies that exist within a schools structure no longer exists.

The Minister has talked a lot about his ‘New Deal’ for teacher’s development. While we are still yet to see any tangible action on that there does at least appear to be more of an acceptance that training as an ongoing tool is required across a wider set of parameters. There is a sense that in future professional development should be driven by the needs of the individual and school, of course while keeping the context of national priorities firmly in view. That should allow schools who wish to create succession plans, or even just develop the leadership qualities of their department heads and classroom teachers, to focus more readily on this point.

In terms of the actual role of leading a school, unless we tackle that problems that acting as an inhibitor for those who would become senior leaders in their schools then realistically this leadership deficiency will only increase.

The Manual of Detection – Jedediah Berry

11 Jun

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This was a fine detective novel that had a tinge of the Sherlock Holmes about it, if it was written from the perspective of Watson. Having read ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler earlier in the year I could also hear some of that film noir style of writing, which is no bad thing.

The story focuses on Charles Unwin, a clerk for the ‘Agencies’ star detective Travis T Sivart. However when Sivart goes missing it is up to the newly promoted Unwin to understand the rules of detection and uncover the mystery.

The plot descends into quite a surreal world blurring the lines between reality and fantasy in a way that echoed Inception to me.  It build into a bit of a reveal but, while enjoyable, I’m not sure it packed the punch it promised.  Still, it certainly had its moments along the way.

‘Everyone should be concerned with teaching days lost due to stress’ – Western Mail Article

9 Jun

The pressure of excessive workloads is a common complaint amongst teachers.  There are a variety of contributing factors to this consistent problem and it is having a devastating impact on the profession.  Increasingly unmanageable class sizes; punitive and meaningless accountability measures; budget cuts leading to redundancies; teachers covering too many subjects or responsibilities due to understaffing; initiative overload, the list goes on and on and sadly there are only more and more things being added to the daily grind.

The impact of these unsustainable workload pressures is that last year 47,283 teaching days were lost due to stress induced mental health illness amongst the teaching profession.  Let that number sink in for a minute or two.  Over 47,000 days of teaching were lost in 2014 due to teachers being worked to the point of mental illness.  That is a horrendous statistic that everyone concerned with education standards and public services in Wales should be deeply worried about.

If you believe this to be a blip then I am ashamed to say that you would be mistaken.  Freedom of Information research conducted by NUT Cymru has shown that year on year the number of absences due to workload induced stress related mental illness is consistently around the 50,000 day mark.  On average over the past three years 49,524 teaching days have been lost.  At a time of rising class sizes and staff redundancies this is the equivalent of seeing an additional 253 full time teachers being employed in Wales.

Those teachers who have been signed off with stress related mental illnesses do not wish to be away from work.  For many it is incredibly difficult to return to the role due to a loss of confidence; fear of a reprisal of the pressures that caused them to become ill in the first instance; a concern for the educational wellbeing of their pupils and the worry of slipping behind the curve of new initiatives and practices.  Indeed, for a significant minority of individuals being forced to take stress related sick leave is the first stage to the end of their careers as they never return to teaching.  This is a problem not only in terms of losing a valuable human asset in regards to the experience and quality of those practitioners, but also in the sense that there is a time and finance cost of training new entrants to the profession to cover this turnover.

Of course there are further reasons to push this issue high on the agenda in Wales.  Tackling this problem will not only help to protect the wellbeing of our school staff, it also offers huge opportunities elsewhere on standards and school finance.

Reducing the instances of stress related leave will enhance the continuity of teaching in our classrooms and ultimately improve standards.  Teachers who spent time fostering relationships with their pupils over time will have a better chance of seeing the fruits of that hard work than if a pupil’s education is disrupted by having to re-establish trust in a new supply teacher, or several if the issue persists over a prolonged period of time or intermittently.

Basing the cost of supply on an average of £170 per day we can see that, as a conservative estimate, stress related illnesses are hitting school budgets by around £8.4m each year.  While it will be impossible to completely eradicate that expenditure, putting measures in place to avoid workload pressures manifesting themselves in stress related sickness in the first place, and offering better support for those who do suffer when it does happen, could reduce that bill significantly.  This would put more money back into the system, alleviating some of the unprecedented financial challenges schools across Wales are currently facing.

So what needs to happen?  In the first instance we need to fully appreciate exactly what the situation is on the ground.  We know the impact of workload pressures and have countless examples of anecdotal evidence.  What we need now is the cold hard facts.

NUT Cymru have written to the Education Minister to ask that the Welsh Government conduct a workload survey to get a clearer picture of the reality of teaching for those working in the sector in Wales.  It has to be said that Huw Lewis AM has often spoken up for the profession since he was appointed to the role.  He is clearly a keen supporter of teaching as a profession and his drive to rekindle some of the lost respect for teaching has been very welcome for a profession that has often felt under siege in recent years.  I don’t think anyone doubts the Minister’s commitment to reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers; to allowing them to get on with the role of teaching or in promoting the profession within the education sector and beyond.  The Minister has indicated that he is open to the idea of a workload survey being discussed with officials.  Hopefully this does lead to some tangible progress.  With that information we can set about creating a fairer and more manageable system that works with teachers and for pupils.  Ultimately we cannot continue with a system that results in a new teacher being pushed to exhaustion and forced to take time off through mental ill health on average every 5 hours.

This origionally appeared in the Western Mail on Saturday June 6th.  You can see it here.

Don’t Try This At Home – Angela Readman

9 Jun

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Short story novels have never appealed to me until I read the excellent ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel last year.  I am glad I did as not only did I thouroughly enjoy that collection but it meant I chose to pick up another set of short stories this year when purchasing Angela Readman’s ‘Don’t Try This At Home.’

The collection is a fantastic set of off the wall, interesting, creative and pretty imaginative stories that really highlight the sideways thinking of the authour.  As with any short story collection there is an element of hit and miss here, no doubt heavily depending on your personal preferences.  Still, a number of the stories stood out including the title piece which focused on a woman who kept cutting her partner in half to grow a second, third, fourth, etc companion; the excellent ‘Conceptual’ which told the tale of a family living through art and how the norms of society tame that reality and the excellent, ‘There’s a woman who works down the chip shop.  Overall worth a read.

What Children Think About Education…And What That Tells Us We Are Doing Wrong

1 Jun

I spent a few days at the Eisteddfod last week.  While the Friday was so ridiculously cold and wet that I sat in soaking jeans, a jumper and three (yes three) coats, the rest of the week was glorious by my past Eisteddfod experiences.

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A hoodie, under a leather jacket, under a gilet. I was still cold.

This year on the NUT Cymru stand we held two main interactive events.  One was a keepie-uppie competition in conjunction with Show Racism The Red Card Cymru.  The winner took home two tickets to the Wales v Belgium game, courtesy of the generosity of the FAW.  The winner was an 11-year-old with 113.  My mind is blown by that score.

The second competition was our Education Tree.  Here we asked children to tell us what they thought the purpose of education was by writing their thoughts on a paper apple and adding it to the cutout.

photoMighty oaks from little acorns grow

Some of the answers were truly inspiring and really emphasised the merits of the Foundation Phase approach to learning.  It was heartening to read some of the comments that focused on the enjoyment of being at school.  These included (translated from Welsh) that the purpose of education was:

“To learn new things and new ways of doing things.”

“To reach your full potential.”

“To learn through enjoyment.”

“To play with friends and learn new skills.”

“To open up new opportunities.”

There were also some very simply but powerful messages such as:

“I love school.”

“Life.”

“To be the best we can be.”

What did come through however was the number of responses that stated education was purely a driver to finding a job.  While of course economic considerations and being employed upon leaving school must be an integral part of education, to think of it as the only factor is worrying, and goes to show the pressure we put on pupils throughout their academic lives.  It also goes to illustrate exactly what we have been teaching children about the learning experience.  It is about getting a job.  Failure to be a success in school makes for a failure in the workplace and a failure in life.

While the sample was small, 70 responses in total, 19 of those (27.1%) gave getting a job, or variations of that theme, as the sole purpose of education.  When you consider that in some instances these responses came from very young children who were attending a cultural festival it is even more depressing.

In some ways this little experiment acts like a microcosm for the education debate in Wales.  On one hand you have the Foundation Phase philosophy and more recently the themes of the Donaldson report.  These are encouraging a lighter-touch approach which builds in flexibility and enjoyment.  They focus on individuals being exposed to cultural and social developments as a critical part of the learning experiences.  They want to ensure we create positive people not just working machines.  On the other hand there is the rigid high stakes testing and accountability regime that was brought in post-2010.  This has limited the commitment to art, drama and other expressive subject matter with the sole focus on creating pupils that fit the economic model.

The reality is that there has to be a balance.  We need confident, independent and creative learners who are skilled in the ways that contribute to high employment but who are also focused on contributing to wider society and who have a passion for learning.  The two systems currently in existence in Wales are clashing and there needs to be a focus on the transition to ensure that they fit more smoothly in future.  Judging by the seeds of the apples growing on the Eisteddfod tree we haven’t yet managed that.


For information my personal favourite came from the little boy who wrote simply, “Rwy’n hoffi pwdyn”…..”I like pudding.”  A view I think we can all get on board with.