Plaid Cymru: The Change Wales Needs

7 Apr

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In some previous blogs I said that I planned to blog on each of the education policies put forward by the political parties when they published their manifestos.  First out of the blocks was Plaid Cymru with their ‘The Change Wales Needs‘ offering.

Perhaps the easiest to review will be Labour.  As the party who have been the Welsh Government for the past Assembly term, and indeed in charge of education for the entirety of the devolution period, they will have already sketched out much of their policies in reflecting the direction of travel Huw Lewis set as Minister.  That said, he has radically unpicked the reforms originally put in place by Leighton Andrews which goes to show the impact different personalities and views can have on a portfolio.

Perhaps the second most straight forward review will be that of Plaid Cymru.  Simon Thomas, as their education spokesperson, has been pretty proactive in promoting the big picture policies he sees as the key components of his parties education offering.  Many will already be familiar.  Aside from that it has to be said that Plaid Cymru have been positive in engaging with the profession in formulating their manifesto and so some of the things not previously announced will still feel somewhat familiar to me.

Below I have attempted to shed some light on what is being proposed, what positive impacts they could have and what concerns may accompany them.  For clarity as someone who works in the schools sector I have not gone into examining FE and HE specific policies unless there is a clear reason to do so.  You can follow the link here to access Plaid’s manifesto online should you wish to look into those areas in-depth yourself.

There are of course a vast number of policies throughout the manifesto but central to them is Plaid’s three main ambitions. A well Wales, a well-educated Wales and a wealthier Wales.  Within the well-educated column we have three sub-steps to delivering it.

  1. Free universal pre-school care for children from 3 years of age
  2. A National Premium for Teachers: raising standards in our schools
  3. Pay off £18,000 worth of debt for graduates who work in Wales and create 50,000 extra apprenticeships.

I am going to ignore the third point here and just look at the first two in the context of their impact on Welsh schools education.

Free universal pre-school care for children from 3 years of age

The above is obviously a pre-school commitment but we know that early intervention and support is absolutely crucial to supporting a solid start for pupils in schools.  Other parties have also focused on childcare as central offerings in this election, and I will come to them when reviewing their manifestos at a later date.  Gareth Evans, the Western Mail’s education correspondent, has flagged it up as one of his ‘five big education issues‘ in the run up to the Assembly election and I think he is right to do so.

The Plaid proposals are to be introduced incrementally starting with 15 hours of free childcare a week by 2017/18, attending class for full mornings rather than for 2 hours a day.  By 2021 full-time early education of 30 hours a week will be provided.  The party proposes to deliver this through a mix of schools, voluntary providers and private nurseries.

I have commented in the past on the importance of ensuring that children are school ready.  I think this is ultimately the role of parents but no doubt having support through policies such as this is a welcome step.  There are clearly a host of further benefits to the Welsh economy and Welsh society in creating a foundation that enables and empowers individuals to gain access to work without the financial penalties of child-care.  Educationally, depending on the exact mix of providers, this is also a potentially powerful tool in closing the attainment gap and in focusing core skills of pupils before they enter school properly.

What I particularly am pleased with is that the approach is flexible.  Some people, including myself, are still hesitant to view starting school at such a young age as the best option for children.  Where there are high quality alternatives then there is a case for starting school at a later age, such as is the in some other high achieving nations, most notably Finland.  Plaid Cymru in their manifesto have suggested that the ‘additional year of early education would be optional as not all parents of young children want their children to attend school from this early age.’  What I would hope to see is other avenues of support and development for those children if they are not starting school.

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A National Premium for Teachers: raising standards in our schools

In terms of an eye-catching, head turning, policy for teachers on a personal level this will be hard to beat during this election.  What Plaid Cymru are proposing here is a 10% annual bonus to all teachers who reach certain CPD standards.  The aim is two-fold.  Firstly to reinforce the status of teaching as a profession on the same formal standing as doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.  Secondly to build professional capacity to ultimately have a Masters level workforce.

The notion of a Masters teaching workforce has long been one with widespread sector support.  The Welsh Government’s Masters in Education Practice system was one that was greeted with a lot of optimism and backing.  Sadly I think it is fair to say that they didn’t get the implementation right.  It should either have been a qualification open to those practitioners who had more experience to build on their knowledge or perhaps an extension of the initial teacher training programme.  What it should never have been is an add-on to the Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) process which put additional strain and pressure on new teachers already under stress working towards their Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).  It was in a sense a missed opportunity.  It is almost a forgotten policy now with sporadic mentions and lip-service paid to it but almost being allowed to fizzle out.

What I imagine Plaid Cymru will attempt to do is contrast the two competing presentations on access to professional development we would see from their vision and that which has been lightly floated by the Education Minister over recent months.  While Huw Lewis deserves huge credit for finally being a Minister willing to recognise the vacuum in CPD provision in Wales, and for starting the process of trying to address that with the New Deal policy, the profession have been a little concerned with views that in future if you want professional development you will be paying for it.  The idea of CPD coming through increased contributions from teachers to the Education Workforce Council (EWC) have not been met with much enthusiasm.  Many still view the EWC subscription as a tax on teachers and being expected to pay more for the privilege of working as a way of accessing CPD has not gone down well.  Of course this isn’t formal Labour policy, we will have to see if there is anything of that nature in the manifesto, but it is something the Minister has put on the table at a number of public forums as he headed towards dissolution.  Plaid Cymru will undoubtedly seek to present their Teachers Premium as a way of paying/rewarding teachers for CPD undertaking rather than charging/punishing them for the right to access it.  Realistically, access to CPD and an increased pay proposal, particularly against the backdrop of huge pensions cuts and increasing real-terms pay cuts, will be a big potential vote winner.

As with any policy implementation of course will be key.  I think teachers will overwhelmingly welcome the innovation and opportunity of this policy but the cynics will question the capacity to deliver high quality CPD in the system, not to mention the ability of schools and individuals to undertake it against the bureaucratic burdens they consistently fight against.  How can you guarantee all teachers the ability to secure a 10% CPD bonus if we currently have a system where you can’t guarantee all teachers access, or at least equal access in relation to time and quality, of CPD.  Any future Plaid Cymru government would need to win that debate.

Delving deeper beyond these two key areas of education policy I want to now just work through some of the further topics within the manifesto.

Global Attainment Goal

Here Plaid Cymru are looking at Wales place in the controversial PISA standings.  The outline here is for the ‘teaching profession in Wales to set an agreed national strategy for raising standards of educational attainment relative to UK and international performance, equivalent to reaching an average top 10 placement in Europe across the five areas covered by the PISA tests – literacy, numeracy, science, problem-solving and financial literacy by 2026.’ 

I continue to have reservations about the PISA tests in their methodology and even their importance.  I accept that we are perhaps not in a position to completely ignore their value.  Parents are now aware of them and while I have never heard of a parent actually refer to them I am sure it is something that credibly cannot be set aside unless a Welsh Government are able to justify doing so.  Leighton Andrews created such a policy change off the back of the PISA tests that they remain the benchmark unless there is  different way of showing international progress that carries the same political, public and media weight.

I think it is a positive that Plaid Cymru have incorporated the view of the profession here in calling for teachers to agree a strategy.  Classroom experts have previously been dictated to on national policy, although that has shifted under Huw Lewis.  Including them in the process does engineer greater ownership of policy and support for it.  That said, I do have reservations about setting targets against PISA scores.  I do think target setting is important in order to hold public services and governments to account.  However we have previously seen how much damage can be done by setting PISA promises.  It was a major embarrassment for the Welsh Government in the past not to mention the warnings that experts like Pasi Sahlberg issues around doing this.  Those nations that set the evaluation of their education systems against reaching targets rather than against being the most inclusive often find they narrow their focus.  That is not to suggest Plaid Cymru wish to be narrow in their plans.  I am sure the Welsh Government did not/do not wish to be but that has been the implications of policies such as national testing that has been driven towards PISA improvements.

Self-Regulation

We will transform the currently narrowly focused Education Workforce Council into a comprehensively independent, self-regulating professional body, similar to the Ontario College of Teachers, responsible for teachings standards and continuing professional development. The College will decide who can enter teaching, what training must include, what standards must be reached, how classroom practice is to be assessed, and what happens to teachers who persistently fail to achieve these agreed standards. So the people to whom we entrust our children’s education are the best trained, have the highest standards and police their own profession to weed out poor teaching.

In some ways this makes sense.  I think the biggest concern with regards to the formation of the EWC is that some of the functions around CPD delivery have been added on to its remit rather than outlined in the original bill in which it was established.  That created the fear of mission creep.  The statement that Plaid would make the EWC an ‘independent‘ body is important as there remains concerns around the Ministerial appointments process.  More detail on what ‘independent‘ means in reality would be important.  However, there will be questions around how this beefed up body would be funded.  At present the Education Minister has suggested that an expansion of role for the EWC will come at a direct cost to teachers through increases in their subscription fees.  They have already seen those fees, essentially a tax on working, increase in recent months and any further increase will be vigorously challenged.

Within School Improvement

‘We will build on the examples of outstanding practice that do exist in Wales, though as successive Estyn reports point out, they are not widely shared and are not a consistent feature of the system. As almost every school has teachers and departments within the top deciles of performance we will use these within-school examples of excellence as the building-blocks of improvement, helping schools internally benchmark against their own best teachers in order to standardise best practice.’

I’m not sure anyone would argue with this.  We all want to see the opportunity to see ‘best-practice’ spread within schools and beyond.  It is often the case that it is just difficult to secure release for those excellent teachers to do that, although this is a hurdle that is being overcome with schools working closer and closer together, in particular since the banding system was reformed taking out that league table element that previously pitted schools against one another.

Teacher Training, Reserach and Innovation

We will create a single national centre for Initial Teacher Training. This National Institute of Teaching – working in tandem with Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol – will restructure teacher training and continuing professional development with the aim of making teaching a Masters level profession. It will develop a national network of pedagogical research centres, with laboratory schools in every region and a national Education Innovation Lab to promote the adoption of promising new approaches where the evidential basis is strong.

There is some strong positives to come from this plan.  Having a national institute will certainly provide more consistency in teachers training and I would welcome both the moves to ensuring a Masters level profession in the long-term as well as putting CPD as a central focus.  At a time where Wales is developing a curriculum designed to be flexible and adapting I think building a stronger link with pedagogical research as part of teachers training is crucial.  of course as with any structural change the proof of these plans will be in the pudding and it will remain to be seen if such a different approach will improve the offering for teachers entering the profession.

‘We will create a National Cooperative Agency for Supply Teachers which will ensure that supply teachers receive the same entitlement to training and standards as classroom teachers.’

Supply is going to be a hot topic for teachers at this election.  It is consistently a major concern within the sector.  Not only are we seeing teachers undermined and devalued by supply agencies but that is having an impact on quality within the classroom.  The moral of supply teachers is not only being driven down by their depressed terms and conditions but also by the limited, if any, access to CPD has hindered the implementation of some key policies.  At a time of crucial curriculum and qualification reforms that is a situation we simply cannot allow to continue.

The Children, Young People and Education committee inquiry into supply services was quite damning at the back-end of the last Assembly.  It was critical of the national procurement contract put in place by the Welsh Government, critical of supply agencies and critical of the support being afforded to those teachers working in the supply sector.  It is an issue that has cross-party focus for change and so I would expect every and all parties to have specific plans for the supply sector going into May’s vote.

I would want to see the devil in the detail of what a National Cooperative Agency would offer the sector in terms of pay and conditions parity with contracted teachers.  It would also be very interesting to see more details around how such a system would address the ability to tackle the skills gaps in different parts of Wales with more efficiency.  In that I mean sourcing subject specialism and language experts in different areas, albeit I am sure a national structure run independently not-for-profit (which I assume is the case here) would achieve better results than hundreds of agencies pressuring teachers to teach subjects they are not familiar with on what are pretty much zero-hour contracts or face being, for all intents and purposes, blacklisted.

I am encouraged by the commitment to secure the same entitlement for supply teachers as full-time contracted teachers to CPD which, again is my assumption, would also coincide with accessing the 10% teachers premium offer Plaid are putting forward.  When consulting with the thousands of NUT Cymru members during the CYPC supply inquiry I have to say it wasn’t their own pay or conditions that came through as the biggest concern for supply teachers but training.  Overwhelmingly teachers were telling me that they wanted to be able to get CPD in order to feel able to deliver the newest initiatives and the newest techniques and fit seamlessly into school settings when they undertook supply work.

Building School Links

One of the big issues I have been pushing on the blog for some time is the view that education cannot be seen as a the sole responsibility of teachers.  We must always hold our teachers and schools accountable for their job of work.  Few play as crucial a role in academic and personal development as teachers.  However no teacher can secure a pupils full potential if there is not wider community support.  As Professor Donaldson continually stressed during the presenting of his curriculum overhaul, children spend the vast majority of their time outside the school setting.  Expecting schools to achieve international success alone is therefore short-sighted.

Two of the policies put forward by Plaid here are things I have previously blogged support for.  Firstly the party says it will encourage parents to become part of their child’s learning, and avail themselves of learning opportunities themselves.  The importance of parental engagement was something I championed here and here.  Of course many parents are brilliant at this but recognizing it is an area that needs bridge building is vital.

Secondly Plaid aim to ‘turn schools into Community Hubs – open at weekends and into the evenings – with pools, gyms, libraries and childcare facilities open to the public and appropriately resourced, relieving cost pressures on other parts of the public sector.’  Again this is something that I have blogged about. Of course enabling this to be implemented effectively relies heavily on the quality of those very buildings.  We need a radical investment beyond the existing 21C schools project to allow this to happen in communities across Wales.  Plaid do address that concern stating that they will (through NICW) ‘be bringing forward a radically expanded programme of investment in school building and facilities to enable these changes.’  That is very positive albeit there is, as far as I can see (but stand to be corrected) no figure given to identify what that expanded programme is in reality.  Remember the gap between what was originally identified by local authorities as being needed to get our schools up to scratch and what is currently being earmarked for investment sits in the billions.

Child Welfare

I’m pleased there is section focusing on child welfare and personally am very supportive of the notion of introducing a smacking ban. That was a real failure of the last Welsh Government.  In this section there is also a commitment to scrap the existing truancy fines policy which has caused significant difficulties at school level and remains a confused picture given the differing views on its implementation expressed to schools by Welsh Government and local authorities.  Anyone who reads this blog even sporadically will know that’s a pledge I support fully.

The Verdict

I think there are some real big positives in this manifesto.  There are some exciting and innovative policies that will be very well received by teachers, parents and pupils alike.  There is a strong focus, as has been the trend over the past few years in Wales, to ensure that the teaching profession are at the heart of the decision-making process.  I think all parties have potentially learnt from the mistakes of the implementation approach of 2011.

I would have liked to have seen something on class sizes.  This is an issue that is consistently raised by practitioners and it would have been good to have that reflected in policy proposals.  There isn’t, unless I have overlooked it, a great deal on qualifications and the curriculum, although in fairness this could simply be a reflection of the consensus that has been built thus far on those issues and in recognition that pioneer schools have yet to report their findings and suggested ways forward.

Overall this is a positive and strong marker set down by Plaid.  It will be very interesting to see how the other political parties meet the challenge.

(There are some other areas of the manifesto I have not touched on, most notibly local government, that will have impacts on the delivery of education.  If anyone wishes to raise a particular policy I’d be happy to update the blog.  I simply wanted to reflect the bulk of the education section of the proposals.)

UPDATE: Simon Thomas has confirmed to me that the limited discussion on qualifications and the curriculum is indeed a reflection of the fact there is a consensus and it would be wrong to prejudge the work of pioneer schools.

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