Welsh Lib Dems: A Wales That Works For You

15 Apr

IMG_2467It has to be said the Lib Dem manifesto has quite a meaty education section.  One that I will work through in its entirety.  However at the beginning they have highlighted their three key education policies.

  • Reduce infant class sizes to 25
  • Expand the Pupil Premium
  • Increase access to university

As I have noted in my reviews of the Plaid Cymru and Green manifestos I am going to park policies outside the scope and impact on schools and so I’m just going to take the first two in this list.

Class Sizes

I am really pleased to see class sizes being promoted as a key pledge by the Lib Dems.  This is a policy they have previously announced and I did, at the time, write a blog welcoming the commitment.  I’ve said many times that class sizes are an issue that are always top of the agenda for the profession and I have little doubt that this will go down well, particularly in light of increasingly tight school budgets actually resulting in class sizes going up more often than not.  Interestingly the Green’s have undercut the Lib Dems here by promising class sizes of 20.  If I’m honest mind I think the teaching profession would snatch your hand off at either proposition.

Pupil Premium

This was one of the big wins for the Lib Dems during the past Assembly term.  Their negotiations with the Welsh Government secured a major boost for schools and the money was a huge relief for school leaders.  Under funding of Welsh schools is not a new problem sadly and it is one that is seemingly getting continually worse.  Any additional funding is always going to be critical and having a continuation of the pupil premium, let alone the proposed increase, is certainly a policy that will register with those on the front line.

It is also positive to see a commitment to ensuring schools are properly funded.  The funding problems we face have been hammered home by the profession so often they have almost become something of a white noise problem in Wales.  People are so familiar with our schools financial concerns that they are no longer shocked into action.  having it recognized in a manifesto is an important point.

There is a significant focus on early years education in the Lib Dem manifesto with a whole host of pledges.

  • Offer 10 hours a week of free, quality childcare to all working parents from the end of paid parental leave (nine months) until their child is two.

  • Offer 10 hours a week of free, quality childcare for all children aged two to three by removing childcare from Flying Start and reinvesting this funding in more flexible, universal provision.

  • Increase the statutory duty on local authorities to provide a funded early education place for three to four year olds to fifteen hours a week.

  • Introduce a Qualified Early Years Teacher qualification and promote Apprenticeships in Early Years and Childcare.

  • Increase access to parenting programmes, ensure programmes and support promote relationship building and bonding, and support parents to develop their child’s early language skills in the home.

  • Develop training through Flying Start for health advisors and midwives to recognise signs of neglect.

  • Require all nursery staff to complete an officially recognised paediatric first aid course.

  • Promote the use of community buildings, leisure centres and school premises to increase the level of childcare provision in Wales including wrap-around care.

  • Support children’s opportunity to play in public places, and make it easier to close off roads temporarily for play.

Taken as a whole I think it is encouraging that there is such a recognition that the early years have to be right if we are realistically going to ensure that pupils make the most of their potential throughout their school lives.  The start pupils have is critical.  That there is yet another report today about children starting school without basic skills, something I’ve blogged on previously, really emphasizes the necessity of some of the policies around childcare and statutory early education.

In principle I don’t have any real opposition to a specific early years teaching qualifications.  It is such a unique environment there may well be scope for developing that accreditation.  However, my one reservation would be is it leads to a barrier for people moving into that field.  Does it apply only to the foundation phase and if so would other primary school teachers be restricted from gaining experience by dropping down year groups?  Does it also mean for those that have it that they cannot experience working across years in the primary sector.  For many teachers in the primary sector they become more rounded and experienced teachers by working across all ages.  I wouldn’t want this qualification to hold back individuals from doing that.  I guess the key will be how and when this qualification would be delivered.  Is it a determination individuals have to make when entering initial teachers training or do they have the opportunity to undertake it in addition to their QTS while working in schools.  The devil will very much be in the detail of that one.

Freedom for Schools

Perhaps the biggest dissatisfaction with the Welsh Government from teachers over the past Assembly term has been in relation to the increased bureaucracy.  Initiative after initiative, dictate after dictate.  Credit where it is due, Huw Lewis has sought to address this to an extent.  Still this is the overriding impression the profession still has in regards to the way they have seen the government operate over the past five years.

The commitment to here to allow schools the freedom to operate without that level of interference will be well-received.  Schools work best when the profession is trusted and respected to know what best to do for the pupils they know better than anyone.  One potential red flag is the statement

“We will allow schools which have demonstrated key values of leadership, innovation and improvement to gain new powers and autonomy from local and central government, providing they maintain a demonstrable track record of excellence.”

The notion of allowing schools to be autonomous from local government sounds dangerously close to Acadamies.  The reason I don’t have any general concern with this proposal is I know how strongly opposed to acadamies the Welsh Lib Dems are.  I am sure that this is far and away from what they actually mean and what they intend is no doubt simply restricting the political interference that schools have sadly become accustomed to.  However, the language may cause some fears for teachers.

Another brief issue I had on this section is the proposal to establish an ‘Educational Standards Authority’ to set the curriculum content.  The Lib Dems say this body will develop the curriculum covering issues such as;

financial literacy; physical and mental first aid; political education and citizenship; coding; and age-appropriate sex and relationship education, tackling issues of gender identity, sexuality, consent and healthy relationships.

I don’t have particular issues with the focus of the curriculum as outlined.  It is broadly inline with what the Donaldson review has put forward, which I fully support.  However I am just not sure we need a new body, even if it is independent of government, to set the curriculum.  This policy seems to jump the gun a little.  At present there are a host of pioneer schools working on curriculum development and I think it would be best to see what and how they propose the curriculum should be designed.

World Class Standards

Again this section sees a great number of recommendations put forward under this section.  I don’t think you could accuse the Lib Dems of not identifying their policies in this manifesto.

  • Establish a nationwide high attainment programme.

  • Enhance individual pupil monitoring so schools report on how they support each pupil individually, and automatically place schools which do not adequately support the development of all pupils into special measures.

  • Set a clear ambition to eradicate child illiteracy and innumeracy by 2025.

  • Introduce a Talented Head Teachers programme to draw top leaders to the schools where they are most needed.

  • Establish a Welsh Academy of Leadership to ensure we have excellent leaders in Welsh schools, commission an up-to-date Teachers’ Qualifications Framework and set up a new, national scheme to deliver cutting-edge continuous professional development for teachers.

  • Introduce closely monitored targets for the uptake of modern foreign languages.

  • Expand the remit of the Education Workforce Council to include accreditation of initial teacher training and continuous professional development, and introduce elected representation from the teaching profession.

  • Conduct an annual teachers’ workload survey.

  • Ensure that the National Youth Musical Ensembles are provided with the necessary resources to thrive.

  • Support schools in Wales to establish a Parent Teacher Association and establishing a National Parent Forum, as in Scotland.

  • Expand access to educational psychologists by establishing national guidance based on the needs of children and eliminating the current quota-based system.

  • Set July as compulsory holiday between school years, enabling Welsh families to book more affordable holidays at home and abroad.

  • Abolish regional consortia.

Given the number of polices here, much of which it is hard to take issue with, I’m just going focus on the few that really stand out for me.

Illiteracy:

I have no problem in targeting literacy levels.  These are the basic things that all schools and parents need to concern themselves with.  They are of course not simply an education issue.  We have to look at the wider aspects of access to libraries, resources in the home etc.  However, it is absolutely crucial we continue the focus on literacy levels we have seen over the past few years.

My concern is that this, like the PISA test targets and child poverty targets before, will end up being another example of a top level target set in a manifesto that is not achievable.  That is not me saying it cannot be achieved but recognizing there are few nations in the world who have 100% literacy levels and questioning how realistic it is to get there by 2025 against funding concerns.

Continue Professional Development:

It is good to see that the Lib Dems are also echoing some of the mood music we have seen from the Plaid and Green manifestos, as well as language that has come out from the Welsh Government, on CPD.  This is such a huge issue and challenge that it is important to have a cross-party view on it and good to see it in this document.

Conduct an annual teachers’ workload survey:

I am absolutely delighted to see this policy pledge.  This is something the NUT has been campaigning on for some time.  We made the call last year after the unions research uncovered that we are still seeing some 50,000+ teaching days lost to stress related illnesses.  That has a major impact not only on the individual suffering but also on school finances and continuity of standards.  Having a annual workload survey would help gain better understanding of the pressure points within the system and give a voice to teachers both in highlighting where the problems are and in developing coordinated strategies to resolves them.  A big thumbs up for this.

School Holidays:

I’m not convinced by this policy.  If it helps create pockets of affordable holidays, and does not reduce a teachers annual leave entitlement, then it may very well be a positive plan.  Let’s not forget when we discuss families who are hindered due to having to take holidays during the school holidays that always applies to teachers regardless of their family situations.  My fear is that the market will follow the school structure and whenever we create school terms we will see prices reacting accordingly.  I could just be a little cynical mind you.

Abolish regional consortia:

You wont find many teachers shedding tears over this should it come to fruition.  Consortia have generated a poor name in the sector and scrapping them was also a policy, premised by their ability to show improvement, in the NUT manifesto.

Beyond the areas of FE and HE the remaining section on schools focuses on equality and diversity.  I won’t really delve into it other than to say it is an important area to promote and I’m not sure there is much to disagree with.

The Verdict:

For a party facing potential wipe-out, certainly losses, it may have been easy to churn out a few sides of A4 and just crack on with the campaign.  Credit to the Welsh Lib Dems then that what they have put forward is a credible, challenging and interesting manifesto with a good deal of focus and thought on their education policies.

What is interesting is that I think the Plaid Cymru manifesto appears to have taken up the mantel on some of the areas that are omitted from this set of policies.  Equally the areas of focus on the Lib Dem manifesto, mainly class sizes and the funding gap, are issues that are less in the spotlight with Plaid’s policies.  I hate the whole coalition talk* but there’s no denying that these two education pitches would sit relatively comfortable, and in some areas complimentary, next to one another.  Granted there are also some clashes in view but then that’s why we have political debate I suppose.

*Genuinely I couldn’t care less for it.  A coalition, should one be needed, will be formed after the election.  I’ll be voting on whose policies appeal to me most not on who convinces me best that a vote for party X will deliver party Y.

 

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