Welsh Labour – Ambitious and Learning

20 Apr

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So yesterday I published what I thought was the last of my manifesto reviews.  It tipped me over into the 13,000 word territory.  More effort than I think is perhaps necessary for the amount of people who will read this!

As it turns out that was not the final chapter as I was soon informed that Labour have produced a secondary stand alone education supplement, ‘Ambitious and Learning,’ to their manifesto with more detail.  Given the lack of detail and total absence of some key issues was a primary criticism of mine on the original document I was relieved to see this.

As with their main manifesto it opens with a list of their key achievements:

Over the last term of government we have:

  • Delivered over £100m of additional frontline funding to Welsh schools in spite of savage Tory cuts to Wales

  • Ensured the best ever GCSE results, nearly 8% higher than 2011

  • Developed a national system of School Categorisation for primary and secondary schools

  • Supported 15,000 individuals into good quality jobs through Jobs Growth Wales

  • Ensured total income to Welsh Higher Education has risen by over £200m

  • Kept tuition fees low for Welsh students meaning they leave university with an average of £22,000 less debt than English students

  • Introduced national Reading and Numeracy tests

  • Kept the Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped by the Tories in England

  • Funded a new Pupil Deprivation Grant and Early Years Pupil Deprivation Grant

  • Delivered ten million free breakfasts in primary schools over the last five years

As I said on my original post I am not going to go through these as I am more focused on future commitments.  I will say that I don’t see introducing standardised testing or school categorization as an achievement but that comes down to a difference in educational ideology I guess.  It is of course correct that any party of Government does take the opportunity to promote its work.

Working through the rest of the document I am very pleased that a lot of my concerns from reviewing the main manifesto have been addressed.  Some of those flagship missing areas of policy are mentioned here showing that they haven’t been completely ignored after all.

Some of what is in the main manifesto is repeated here, and given that I have already written the review of those, I am going to only look at policies that were not previously covered.

Early Years

Continue our innovative Flying Start intervention programme

Maintain our commitment to the Foundation Phase

I’m a huge supporter of the Foundation Phase and I continue to believe it is arguably the brightest achievement of the Labour party since devolution occurred.  It was a bold and brave departure from the status quo of how things used to be done and I am delighted to see the commitment to it set out here in the manifesto.  My concern comes from the fact that it cannot be something you solely pay lip service to.  the truth is that policies such as establishing age-related expectations within the Foundation Phase, and the national literacy and numeracy tests, are eroding the ethos of the Foundation Phase.  It may not be the intention of Welsh Labour to have that happen but that is what is taking place.  This commitment is very welcome but it has to be matched by reviewing the way other policies, even those championed by the party, are hindering the influence of the Foundation Phase.

Seek cross party support for legislation to end the defence of “Reasonable Punishment”

This issue seemingly split not only the Assembly over the past term but also the Labour party within the institution.  As someone who supported the “smacking ban” I’m glad to see that it is back on the agenda.  I’m not sure that full cross-party support can be achieved but hopefully it is something all parties will be willing to have a constructive debate on.

Maintain our Free Breakfasts in Primary Schools programme for the whole of the next Assembly term

Great to see.  I’m a big believer in this policy and it is good to see it given backing yet again.

In line with our Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, we will work to ensure that by 2025 all children leaving primary school are reading well

This is pretty much the same policy as the Lib Dems proposed in eradicating illiteracy by 2025.  As I stated in response to that pledge 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.

Schools

“We will not replicate the Tory model of Free Schools and Academies here in Wales.” This opening to the schools section will be a thoroughly welcome pledge.  It has been the long-term policy of Labour but it can’t be reiterated enough.

Further to some of the commitments outlined here that were covered in the initial Labour manifesto review we also have a few other commitments.

Develop a new Curriculum for Wales

This is something that we know is ongoing through the work of the pioneer schools and so there isn’t much else to say other than the fact it is a commitment from the party.

Develop a new system of accredited Initial Teacher Education and Training

Again, as above this is the announcement of work Labour have already started in government.

Work towards establishing teaching as an all-Masters profession

It is positive to see this pledge as it is something that I have supported for a long time.  It is good to see Labour commit to it in their manifesto but there doesn’t appear to be further detail as to how it will be achieved.  The existing MEP programme is unlikely to fully create a Masters profession in its current form so there will have to be some rethinking about the best way to achieve this ambition.

Develop a new model for the employment and development of supply teachers in Wales

While the Labour manifesto doesn’t give the same clear vision seen in some of the other manifestos about what a new supply system will look like it is still very positive to see the need for change is recognised.  For too long politicians in Wales have been in denial about the challenges we face in creating a positive supply sector.  The tide very much feels like it is turning on that.  I only hope that the development of a new model under a future Labour government would include negotiation and collaboration with the teaching profession.

Encourage more Support Staff in Wales to develop their skills and become Higher Level Teaching Assistants

This is a good idea.  There has been a huge increase in the numbers of support staff while the numbers of teachers has decrease.  If we are saying the biggest impact on children’s education is the level of education they have in the classroom (and I have some other views on that assumption) then we must ensure they are always with the highest qualified staff.  While we aim to see teaching become a Masters level profession we shouldn’t leave teaching assistants behind and they too should be given access to professional development.

Pilot ‘lunch and fun’ clubs in the summer school holidays to improve the nutrition of disadvantaged young people

It was only in the past few days that I was doing interviews on this subject, noting the concern of teachers that those children from deprived communities face periods of poor nutrition over school holidays.  They often note when children return they are less engaged, less physically active and emotionally disadvantaged.  This could be a very important policy not simply for educational purposes but also for social cohesion.

Extend the Pupil Offer developed in our Challenge Schools

The jury is still out on the impact of challenge schools but I do believe that it deserves time to show if it is working or not.  I would hope that the extension of the pupil offer is also matched with the extension of the schools challenge cymru initiative.

Set new conditions of funding for sports and cultural organisations that receive public monies to support young people from deprived backgrounds

It is important to encourage greater participation across different backgrounds.  Naturally I would need to see the conditions to make a judgement on the policy but I think it is absolutely correct to expect bodies who receive public funding to engage with all elements of our society, culturally and across genders.

The Verdict

I understand the reasoning behind splitting the depth of detail that exists in this education document from the main manifesto.  It provides a more in-depth approach while having a better snappy soundbite focused mini document that is more easily consumed by the public.  Given the lack of engagement with manifestos that is a smart approach.  I’m not sure why this approach wasn’t made more explicit upon publication however as it did create a perception issue for Labour, if nothing else, and a problem that really they neither needed nor, as it turned out, warranted.

In terms of the verdict on this document I am happy to report it leaves me feeling far more encouraged than I was about the Labour approach 24 hours ago.  Whatever your views on individual policies all the political parties, to a lesser or greater degree, put forward pledges that gave a good platform to debate.  It would have been nothing short of scandalous had the party of government been the sole manifesto that did not.  This supplementary education manifesto does indeed make a good contribution to the election of education ideas.

I am disappointing to say that there is no reference to class sizes and in particular that workload has been overlooked.  Given the level of discussions there have been with the Welsh Government on the impact of workload on individual teachers and standards I would have hoped that would be acknowledged.  There is also a little bit of a vagueness running through the document.  For example there is a welcomed commitment to a new supply model but no detail as to what Labour believe that should look like.  That said, there are some real positives contained within these pages and I think it offers a far more constructive vision than we saw from the previous Minister’s ‘Education Makes a Difference’ plan.  It has a good amount of encouraging policies around supply, curriculum reform and teachers training that creates both a platform for greater collaboration with the teaching profession and, interestingly, for negotiation with other political parties.

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