Uncertainty hanging over Schools Challenge Cymru – IWA Article

5 Aug

Back in early 2014 the Welsh Government announced their flagship policy for school improvement.  Schools Challenge Cymru was set to be the Welsh version of the lauded London and Manchester Challenge initiatives which had seen some radical and inspiring results.

With an initial pledge of £20m for at least two years there was financial backing for the programme.  This proposal was introduced at the height of the policy fatigue in the Education sector we saw during the last Assembly term.  Thankfully the recruitment of some key personnel from previously successful challenge programmes, including the impressive communicator Professor Mel Ainscow, did help alleviate some fears.  A little over two years on inevitably people will ask the question “has Schools Challenge Cymru worked for us?”

It is essential with any project of this nature that we are continually reviewing its progress to ensure it is providing value for money.  When there is a large financial investment, especially considering education budgets are so tight at present, it is crucial that teachers in schools are seeing a tangible benefit for their pupils.

The evidence from the first independent review suggests that thus far progress is patchy.  Some had already voiced their uncertainty of the impact of SCC.  When data showed the 40 schools in the SCC programme were just 0.3% better than those not included, the then Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, said in October last year:

“The Labour government’s flagship SCC programme was intended to deliver swift, sustainable improvement to schools that face challenges – but it hasn’t delivered the results.”

However, putting those results into context the aforementioned Professor Ainscow, writing for this very website, stated that:

“Overall, the picture for the Pathways to Success schools is beyond my expectations.  Indeed, neither the London nor Manchester Challenges made the same progress after just one year.”

So what does the review tell us? Perhaps most worrying is that “interviewees, in just over a quarter of the visited PtS schools, indicated that they felt that, following inclusion in SCC, they had seen an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.” (Page 87)  By extension therefore there are a significant number of schools who are not seeing that same level of improvement.  Conversely however, “The majority of interviewees in 32 of the 38 PtS schools we visited indicated that they felt that participation in SCC had had a positive impact on their school.” (Page 92)

For me one of the key lines of the report is that:

“In most cases, interviewees welcomed the opportunity afforded to PtS schools by their inclusion in SCC and the availability of additional support to help clusters overcome their barriers to improvement. That said, in most cases, interviewees reflected that work undertaken to date was not dissimilar to that which had been undertaken prior to the launch of SCC.” (Page 5)

This is perhaps the crux of the concern.  Teachers are open to sharing views and building towards the promise land of a self-improving education system.  While I recall initial hesitation from some practitioners at the potential stigma of being included in the 40 SCC schools, they were also open to embracing support and cooperation.  Sadly, as with many past Welsh Government initiatives, implementation hasn’t always matched the ambition.  Where it has worked, it has worked well.  Where it hasn’t there is a need to examine why and to improve on the offer being made to schools.

Clearly there are some teachers and some schools who are seeing the positive effects of the Schools Challenge Cymru program while others are yet to be convinced.  What we do know is that similar initiatives, such as the London challenge, were delivered over a much longer period.  These were many years in the making and by comparison Schools Challenge Cymru is very much in its infancy.  It may be that we cannot fully make a judgement on how impactful this approach will be for a few years.  Education reform does not happen overnight.  The world’s leading education systems have taken decades to develop.  Wales will not be unique in that regards and patience with any new policy is very much a virtue.

I think in some regards teachers are reluctant to embrace a new proposal if they are uncertain of how sustainable the commitment to it is.  While the initial money set aside was promising, the lack of a long-term commitment, for whatever reasons, did perhaps hinder the buy in from the sector.  A profession that has have become jaded by policies announced to great fanfare one day only to be scrapped the next were always going to view a two year guarantee as short-term.  Even today, in light of a new Government and a new Cabinet Secretary, with the Minister who brought this project to life no longer an Assembly Member, the uncertainty continues to hang over the policy.

If it is to be a success then it will be important to communicate where there have been successes and replicate that action across schools and local authorities.  Perhaps the biggest question we can ask of Schools Challenge Cymru is if it will be afforded the time and investment to truly prove itself the game changing initiative it was announced to be.

This was originally an article written for the IWA Click blog and can be found here.

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