Archive | September, 2016

The Programme for Government: ‘Could do better’ – IWA Article

23 Sep

“Our future prosperity and stability depends on the skills and values of the people of Wales.  Education has a fundamental role to play in personal fulfillment, community development and wealth creation.”

The opening to the education section of the Welsh Government’s ‘Taking Wales Forward’ document makes a pretty important point.  Often, especially when commentators speak about education in relation to PISA, it can be all too easy to see our school system as nothing more than a factory for tomorrow’s workforce.  For today’s teaching workforce, who deal with pupils day in day out in classrooms across the country, it is far more than that.

Of course education is an economic driver and that is both reflected in this opening gambit, and indeed in the structure of our skills based curriculum, but it is also about personal development and building a socially responsible and creative community.  With that in mind it is pleasing to see a range of pledges focused on this aspect of learning.

There is a reaffirming of the commitment to the Foundation Phase (albeit that it is sometimes hard to qualify this against the introduction of age-related expectations and literacy and numeracy testing which has skewed the ethos of the policy); there is a very welcome extension of the pupil deprivation grant; early years intervention strategies and specific focus on looked after children.  This is not to mention the politically controversial “legislation to end the defence of ‘Reasonable Punishment” – or smacking ban to you and I, finding its way onto the agenda.

Aside from this we see the key Labour and Lib Dem election pledges of an additional £100m of investment for school standards and a reduction in class sizes respectively both featured prominently.  We also see some big thinking policies such as the new curriculum, new ways of delivering supply teaching and the roll out of the digital competency framework.

However, while the above is encouraging, what is apparent throughout the document is that this is not a list that is heavy on accountability.  There are plenty of commitments to ‘review,’ ‘examine,’ ‘promote,’ and ‘prioritise’ but few targets to measure how those policies will be judged as successful.  At a time where one of the biggest bugbears of the education workforce is the harsh accountability measures and implications that go hand in hand with them, we seemingly have a programme for government without the metrics of measurements to fully hold the Welsh Government to account. What in practice does ‘developing closer links between universities and schools’ mean? How do we determine if the Welsh Government has succeeded in ‘supporting families and parents to reduce adverse childhood experiences’ in practical terms and how is a review of the current policy on surplus school places a policy in itself rather than the action it wields?  Even on those key pledges we are not given the fine print on where that £100m comes from and how it will be filtered out to schools or when and how the class sizes policy will be implemented.

The IWA’s Acting Director wrote a pretty damning review of the programme for government this week.  I have to say I very much share her sentiments that we should hope that this is “just an initial document and more detailed policy plans will be published over the coming few weeks and months.”

If what the Welsh Government intended with this piece of work was to simply establish a roadmap to the next 5 years it may prove to be a useful reference point.  The skeleton of their body of work will have been established with meat  to be added to these bones throughout the term. In many ways that is a natural position to have. We have to remember that in education more than anywhere else, as a result of a coalition of ideas between Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos, it may take time to work through the practicalities of delivering these policies.  However, if this document is designed to be the measuring stick by which the government expects to be held accountable then it will have failed to build a sense of trust from the education sector or the wider public.

Few in the education sector would argue against the aims and objectives of the Welsh Government.  The ambitions of this document are right but in spite of its publications we remain somewhat unclear as to how they will be achieved or evaluated.

The above was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.  You can find the original here.

The Asymmetric School Week

14 Sep

education-548105_960_720 (1).jpg

A couple of months ago I was at a Welsh Government event primarily looking at the ‘New Deal‘ programme.  At the conference, in what at the time appeared to be a remark made as an aside, the then Education Minister Huw Lewis touched on the potential of an asymmetric school week, he briefly noted it was something that was being piloted in Scotland, but there was no real fleshing out of the thinking.

There was no real discussion further about the idea until yesterday when the PPIW published its report on the system for Wales.

I’ve only read the report at a superficial level but on the surface it appears pretty balanced and maps both the primary potential benefits and concerns.  It is a report that has now been picked up by several media outlets and has sparked a fair amount of debate, not least on twitter.

The Benefits

I’m not going to go through all the reports identified benefits but simply touch on a few of the more crucial ones as I see it.

One of the biggest problems we face with regards to the teaching profession in Wales is a lack of access to professional development.  We want our teachers to constantly develop and renew their skill sets, as well as implement new policies and practices, but the truth is they simply are not afforded the time to work towards those ambitions.  One advantage of the asymmetric week, according to the report, is that it could help to establish ‘coordinated pupil free time could lead to more effective CPD, improved staff well-being and thus better teaching and consequently pupil performance.’ Anything that creates a better space for CPD should be given serious consideration.

The report also argues that ‘teachers and support staff could experience improved well-being through, for example, greater flexibility to schedule personal appointments on shorter days.’  Given we currently see over 50,000 teaching days lost a year through mental health issues, improving the well-being of the profession should not be underestimate.  Should it have a noticeable impact it could save millions and enhance the continuity of teaching in Wales.

The Concerns

There are a few clear concerns that are outlined in the report and certainly are not ones that should be taken lightly.

At the heart of the issue has to always be the impact on pupil well-being and standards.  If it works for pupils then it will have merit.  If it does not then it is simply not worth exploring.  One concern in that regards is that pupils will run into fatigue on the longer school days.  Most teachers will tell you that as school gets towards those last few hours and lessons children will become less engaged and become fatigued.  Extending the school day, particularly for the very youngest pupils, could undoubtedly result in a less productive school environment.

There are some key issues also on the periphery such as transport concerns, especially children to come to school on foot during the later darker evenings, and childcare costs that would make this a difficult move to sell to the general public.

I did a radio interview for Radio Wales on this and one point made very well by the teacher who was on with me is that this could lead to a further reduction in the commitment to creative subjects.  Teachers are already deeply upset that the intense focus on literacy and numeracy, while understandable and important, has negatively impacted on the more artistic pursuits in school.  The fear with the asymmetrical week is that it further narrows those areas of work, with a reduction in extra curricular activities and teachers cramming even more into their lessons due to the loss of a half day.

There is also a concern that while this may offer a short-term solution, and there is an uplift in the availability of CPD and non-teaching time initially when introduced, that over a longer period of time we simply see those spaces filled up with the usual story and instead of supporting teachers we end up creating a bigger burden on their workloads.

Summary

For a more in-depth review of the pros and cons I would recommend looking at the report in its entirety.  For me there certainly is some merit in having this debate.  I’m never against change if it can be demonstrated to enhance the educational offering to pupils.  At present however there just isn’t enough of an evidence base to convince me that this will work.  Of course on the flip side if that’s the attitude we have then we will always be afraid to be bold and innovative.  Perhaps I’m more reluctant to take a shot in the dark at the moment due to the curriculum, qualification and other reforms already setting the sector on such a radically different course than it has been on in the past that greater upheaval isn’t appealing.

Ultimately my gut instinct is that the majority of teachers and parents would be weary of implementing this.  There would be more resistance than excitement and there are more concerns than positives.  More importantly I feel the concerns would have a bigger impact than the benefits would provide.

Of course this was a report commissioned by Huw Lewis.  With a new Education Secretary in place and the past Minister no longer an Assembly Member this may all be a moot point anyway.