4 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2016

8 Jan

It has been a bit of a tradition of mine to blog on my hopes for Welsh education at the start of the year.  I previously did it in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions also looked back with the hindsight of 12 months to see how progress had panned out.  I thought it only right that I did so again for what is possibly the most important year for the sector since I started working in it.

1.  Class size

For a while now I have wondered how class sizes have been absent from the political agenda in Wales.  Almost without fail when I attend a conference, committee of general catch up with teachers and they raise the issues that are concerning them the most class sizes will inevitably come up.  I couldn’t quite relate that experience with the fact it wasn’t being discussed at a political level.

With that I was pleased a few weeks before the end of the last Assembly term of 2015 when Kirsty Williams AM brought it up at First Minister’s Questions.  The leader of the Welsh Lib Dems challenged the First Minister on why 30+ class size were rising in Wales.  His response was:

“Well, you must ask the local authorities that. As you know full well, local authorities are responsible for delivering education. We have done our bit; we’ve protected education spending relative to the block grant that we have received and it’s a question that’s best answered by them.”

I have to say it is not a response that I think either addresses the question nor fills those interested in education with much confidence.  I am not absolving local authorities of their responsibility.  The First Minister is right that they have a role to play.  However, it is undoubtedly a situation where the Welsh Government must take a level of responsibility and passing the buck doesn’t sit very well with me.

Since that exchange the Lib Dems announced one of their key election pledges on education for the Welsh Election next May.  They have come out with a pledge that infant class sizes will be capped at 25.  It is a policy I think will gain a fair amount of traction from classroom teachers.  Hopefully it will also instigate further thinking around this issue from the other parties who may also be considering class sizes in their manifestos next year.

As a side note to the above I did notice, and indeed challenge but without reply, the First Minister’s assertion on twitter in December that class sizes have reduced under the Welsh Government.  My reading of the Welsh Government’s own census data (pages 17 and 18) was that this is not the case.  In fact the opposite is true.  the average class sizes for both infant and junior age pupils have risen.  The percentage of those in classes of 30 or less has decreased while, inevitably I suppose, the percentage of pupils in classes of 31 and more has increased.

Hopefully in 2016 we will see this issue get a lot more traction.  Ideally we will see a reduction in class sizes to support pupils and teachers.  At the very least it would be positive to see all parties actively discussing their intentions to tackle the issue in the build up to the election.

2.  The Election Of Ideas

I blogged last year about how I was hopeful education wouldn’t be the political football the NHS was prior to the Westminster election.  Thus far it seems as if, while different parties may be critical of each other and be on the attack, they are putting forward ideas to be debated.

What I really want to see in 2016 is a continuation of policy debate.  I may not agree with everything that is put forward but no one single person, organisation, union, group or political party has all the answers to creating the best education system for Welsh students.  It is important to have a blend of views.  Education really does have to be front and center for any debates going into the Welsh election and I am excited to hear the competing, and perhaps, complimentary ways those standing before the electorate want to support teachers, parents and pupils.

3.  The Supply Question

Finally at the back end of 2015 we had the publication of the Children’s committee report into the supply system in Wales.  I do think the committee’s report could have been stronger.  It appears somewhat watered down in places to me.  Perhaps that was in order to ensure that it secured universally support from members.  That said there are some very important messages around the ineffectiveness of essentially establishing a monopoly, which has all but happened through the current preferred provider contract.

The below statement in the report is of particular interest in this regards:

“The Committee is concerned that the current model for supply teaching does not appear to be working effectively. The Committee believes that consideration should be given to reforming the way in which supply teachers are employed, including the possible use of cluster arrangements or employment through a national body as just two examples. In doing so, the Welsh Government should give careful consideration to national models elsewhere, such as Northern Ireland.

“The Committee acknowledges that the existing contract will need to be honoured and as such any new system could not become live until at least August 2018. However, the Welsh Government should start work now to design a new model for the employment of supply teaching, to ensure that the new system is in place in readiness for the end of the current contract.”

One thing for certain is that there really does appear to be a consensus that the system at present does not work for supply teachers; does not work for value for money and ultimately does not work for pupils and standards.  There are some real questions to be asked around the preferred provider contract and what happens when that runs its course.  2016 presents a real opportunity to start getting things in place for a more appropriate system that can finally put an end to years of mistreating this core section of the teaching profession.

4.  Pioneer Schools

I have been a supporter of the Welsh Government’s idea of establishing pioneer schools.  Schools have been identified to pioneer work in developing the new curriculum; creating a digital framework and looking at the ‘new deal’ on professional development.  Having those experts to deliver this work will hopefully mean we end up with a curriculum that is teacher and child friendly; a digital framework that works in parallel with what is already happening across the curriculum in schools and a new deal that finally allows the profession to become empowered through training, based on their individual needs and the needs of the school and system.

I was particularly pleased that following extensive research work undertaken by the NUT on stress related illness among teachers, the Minister announced that he had also instructed pioneer schools to look closely at workload implications for what they will be proposing.  Often in the past we have seen new initiatives which are entirely well-intentioned, and have credible ambitions, but fall down because they have simply failed to take into account the pressures they put on teachers.  They have either underestimated the workload commitment to delivering the new initiatives or else they have failed to reflect on the impact it will have on other areas of school life.  Hopefully given this direction from the Minister that will not be the case this time around.

Having spoken to some pioneer teachers I am encouraged at the way they are approaching the work.  My big hope for 2016 is that the work of any pioneer school, in any pioneer area, is not done in isolation.  We simply cannot have three separate strands of pioneer work that contrast one another.  They must come together as complimentary visions.  The new digital framework must sit well with the new curriculum and both must allow space for the ideas of professional development brought forward by the new deal pioneers.  I really do hope there is a pause for thought at the end of this process where the proposals of all the pioneer groups are looked at together and not on an individual policy basis that does not take into account changes elsewhere.

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