Welsh Conservatives: Securing Real Change For Wales

18 Apr

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After reviewing the Plaid Cymru, Welsh Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos I now come to the penultimate offering, this time from the Welsh Conservatives.

On the face of it the Welsh Conservative manifesto appears the least in-depth.  Instead of the several pages that were evident from the other parties there are just two in the education section of the Tory manifesto.  What is more they are just a list of policies without perhaps the same level of detail attached to them.

It would only be fair to point out that there are some crossover sections, such as the ‘Securing Our Children’s Future’ section which will have policies that indirectly impact on attainment.  It is also worth highlighting that in the opening blurb of the education section it is noted that ‘the education profession has grown weary of excessive political interference.’  Perhaps then this more minimalist approach is attempting to reflect that and aims to offer teachers a more direct and less overwhelming set of policies.  Change without the constant churn of new beginnings.  The negative impact of this set-up however is that there are a few policies here where once you read them you are left asking how they will be undertaken.

There are three main sections that I will focus on and take the policies contained within those umbrella titles in turn where applicable.

Raise School Standards

Fund schools directly, giving greater spending control to teachers, parents and governors, directing more money to the classroom

This is always a difficult proposition for me.  I touched on my concern with a similar proposal put forward by UKIP.  I’m always going to campaign for more money to schools.  I also do not believe that there is not scope to examine how funding is delivered to ensure it is more efficiently directed to schools, or that waste within the system isn’t reduced.  At the same time much of the spending done indirectly at local authority levels comes from buying services and providing services with economies of scale.  If that money is diverted to schools, meaning schools have to directly procure those services, that can lead to inflated costs and administration for those school leaders.  School leaders are also already overburdened acting as business managers.  We need to find ways to take the pressure away from them rather than creating more responsibilities.  As I stated in my review of UKIPs proposals, albeit not exactly the same thing,  I’m not saying this can’t lead to better funding but that it is something that has to be approached carefully and that it is often something that seems enticing but doesn’t necessarily work in practice.  Again, the best way to get more money to schools is to get more money in the education budget in the first instance.

Ensure that Estyn inspections incorporate unannounced spot-checks.

There is a mixed approach to this I believe.  I think teachers and schools would potentially be open to this in principle if it comes with a realistic view.  Currently teachers and schools are placed on high alert and under huge amounts of pressure in advance of an Estyn inspection.  A no notice inspection or spot check would eliminate that.  Of course that lack of notice means that there will be less preparation.  teachers cannot realistically be expected to produce the sort of lessons that they spend weeks on end preparing on a daily basis.  Currently Estyn may see a school at its best.  if it moves to a no notice approach it must also shift the mindset of how it inspects.  reviewing the teaching and learning but in a lighter-touch and more intuitive way.  In fairness something the Donaldson review has acknowledged.

Ensure Welsh qualifications are sufficiently robust to be recognised internationally.

This is one of those policies which comes with a ‘how?’  I don’t think anyone disagrees with the sentiment it just doesn’t tell us much about in which way it will be delivered.

Establish a college of teaching focused on continuous professional development and setting teacher standards.

I’m glad to see continued professional development again on the political agenda.  We need desperately to get this right over the course of the next Assembly term.  It is unclear how this college will operate, or when it will operate but the principle of a dedicated element focused on CPD is a positive one.

Scrap the unelected and unaccountable regional education consortia to reduce red tape and empower teachers.

Scrapping regional consortia appears to be one of the common themes running across all the manifestos and perhaps goes to show how poorly implemented they have been.  The NUT manifesto has called for them to be scrapped if performance does not improve.  Perhaps politicians have lost even more patience with those bodies than the profession.

Recognise the school years from age eight to 14 as a distinct middle phase and consult with teachers on targeting improvement in the transition from primary to secondary school.

In a way this is already happening with the curriculum review and the changes to key stages.

Introduce modern foreign language learning in primary schools as part of a languages strategy, nurturing a trilingual nation.

I’m a firm believer in the power of multilingualism and so finding a strategy to ensure this becomes a reality is something I am fully supportive of.  Expanding the capacity of teachers to deliver it is a challenge that will have to be addressed.

Overhaul the Welsh language in education strategy to include clear targets and to help all children in Wales become confident communicating in Welsh.

It is hard to make a determination on this policy without knowing what those targets will be and how they will be measured.

Work with schools to highlight the importance of financial education and the study of home economics.

This is an important issue.  It is something that Bethan Jenkins pushed a lot during the past Assembly and I think it is also in the Plaid manifesto in one form or another.

Introduce mandatory emergency life-saving skills and public health education into the curriculum.

Just as Bethan Jenkins was prominently pushing the financial education I know the above policy was something Suzy Davies was a keen supporter of.  I think both are admirable and worthy policies.  It is just a question of asking how they can be delivered within an ever more crowded curriculum.  My fear has always been that we aim to shoehorn so many different areas of interest into the school timetable, all of which are worth consideration, that sadly none are given the time and space to be implemented effectively.

Embrace international research to narrow the attainment gap between children from different social backgrounds.

This is common sense and of course we should be looking at all areas of research to help improve the life chances of all pupils.  In regards to this policy specifically it is hard to really get behind it without knowing what research it is referring to and what changes to policy and delivery it will propose.

Improving the School Experience

Deliver a sustainable and effective school building programme, by embracing elements of a public–private partnership model.

I’m pleased that school buildings are on the agenda here.  We are still in desperate need for improvements and new buildings across Wales.  That said the policy leaves more questions than answers.  How much is identified as being “sustainable?”  Where will that money come from? How will the schools be identified.  Most concerning perhaps is what exactly is meant by a public-private partnership model in this instance.  If it is a PFI approach then we know that could be disastrous.  You only need look at the horrible situation where pupils have been left off school due to hazardous buildings through PFI schemes in Edinburgh to question if that would be the right approach.  Of course that may not be what is being proposed here but the terminology suggests it is potentially on the table and the vagueness of the commitment doesn’t dispel those doubts.

Prevent the closure of any school which delivers the national curriculum, without the agreement of parents and governors.

We are seeing a number of school closures where there is a lot of hostility from communities and parents, especially in rural Wales.  I think this policy will go down well with those communities and those teachers.  If there is a demand and a need for a provision I would not want to see it taken away.  We should ensure that every community has a good local school.  At the same time I would be a little hesitant of a blanket ban on the closure as what do you do if a community is opposed to a school closing but the teaching staff think it is in the best interest of the children?  Still, I think this is a policy that it aiming to give power back to those who are locally involved in their provision and that can only be a good think.

Encourage greater use of the school estate, out of school hours, for childcare and other community causes.

This is something that has been noted in other manifestos and that I backed in a previous blog calling for greater use of our school buildings in the community.  I think it helps resolve some issues around supporting community projects and also encourages greater buy-in from the community for school objectives.

Oppose the loss of school playing fields, maintaining vital community space for children and young people.

This is wholly critical for our ability to develop physical literacy in schools and is a welcome commitment.

Provide school breakfasts on the same charging basis as school lunches.

I’ve been weary of changes to the free school breakfasts policy for two reasons.  Firstly as it is more than just providing a meal.  It is about engaging children and developing social skills.  More than that the feedback I have had from many school leaders is that they believe it will ultimately end up being more expensive to move away from the universal aspect of free school meals based on additional administration costs.  I don’t see in the Tory manifesto a contradiction of that view.

Support the right of headteachers to choose whether pupils may take holidays during term time

At present, in principle, headteachers do have this.  The Education Minister released a statement confirming as much.  At the same time schools are punished in their attendance records should they exercise the right.  I would hope that the above policy means that the Welsh Conservatives would seek to disaggregate the data on absenteeism with consent from categorization ratings.

Post-14

Ensure teachers have more say in the development of the curriculum allowing them to tailor subject learning around pupils’ strengths, aptitudes and passions.

This is already taking place with pioneer schools but I am pleased to see it will have continuity of approach through this commitment should the Welsh Conservatives form any future Welsh Government.

Provide a nurse in every secondary school and further education college.

I think this would be a welcomed policy.  I would also like to see a focus on mental health in that approach.

The Vedict

Truthfully I think what we have had from the Welsh Conservatives is a series of policies that are constructive, are largely positive and offer a collaborative way forward.  They are, for the most part, in line with what the profession has been doing and focus on some of the gaps that are already identified and would be welcomed by the profession.  At the same time they are detail light and perhaps in some instances do not move the debate on.  Their objectives and ambitions will be welcomed but may leave readers questioning how exactly they will be achieved and to what end.  One big concern still at large will be the question of private-public developments on school buildings.  If this is a PFI approach then it will send some alarm bells ringing.  Of course I accept I may have misread that based on the somewhat vague messaging on the policy.  the timing with the Edinburgh PFI school scandal is not ideal either.

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