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IWA Article

13 Apr

Last week the Education Workforce Council published the first ever National Education Survey.  For a number of years teaching unions, and indeed others interested in seeing a full picture of the state of the sector, have argued for such a survey to be conducted.  The Westminster Government, which has certainly not been seen as a friend to the teaching profession in recent years, has conducted these regularly, albeit at times only publishing the results when dragged kicking and screaming to do so.  Yet despite this, successive Welsh Education Ministers have held steadfast against conducting a similar piece of research in Wales.

With the appointment of Kirsty Williams, and the commitment to an annual workload survey in the Welsh Lib Dem manifesto, this has changed.  The current Cabinet Secretary for Education and the Welsh Government certainly do deserve credit for following through on that commitment.  Furthermore what was produced was ultimately a far more in-depth and substantive piece of work than that which was originally outlined.  In addition to the aforementioned parties the EWC itself also deserve praise for what we have brought forward.

That said there was not much of a fanfare from the Welsh Government around the launch.  One reason this has potentially been given, for want of a better description, a ‘soft launch’ is that much of it makes for uncomfortable, if perhaps unsurprising, reading.  From a school teacher’s perspective and by extension the perspectives of pupils and parents, there are some hugely concerning headline figures, such as:

  • 78.1% of teachers felt workload was an issue.
  • 88.3% of school teachers disagreed or disagreed strongly that they were able to effectively manage their existing workloads.
  • Full-time school teachers revealed they regularly work an average of 50.7 hours during a working week.
  • 33.6% of school teachers indicated they intended to leave the profession in the next three years.

These figures do not paint the picture of a sustainable workforce.  That a third of teachers are intending to leave the role within the next three years, and such a significant proportion of the entire profession feel unable to cope should set the alarm bells ringing within the DfE.  Quite clearly this can’t continue and a lack of action risks sending us to a crisis point.

Unions have been warning that the situation was unworkable for some time.  The anecdotal evidence and case studies could fill the shelves of Cardiff library.  We also know from research carried out by my own employer that this has had a dramatic and disturbing impact on the mental health of the teaching profession with an average of over 50,000 teaching days being lost every year due to stress related illnesses.  What we now have is the concrete baseline statistics that back up that view.  All of this of course is before we ask teachers to do even more with regards to the big changes they are facing.  So what of those changes, the survey also offers some insights there:

  • 45.5% of school teachers stated they were not very or not at all familiar with the new Welsh Government Digital Competency Framework.
  • 71.1% of supply teachers and 38.6% of school teachers indicated they were not very or not at all familiar with the content and recommendations in Professor Donaldson’s report which forms the basis of the new Welsh curriculum.

The above statistics should encourage everyone to pause for thought when considering the effectiveness of implementing policies in the education sector in Wales.  Too often in the past we have seen well-meaning and sometimes well-thought through ideas fall by the wayside because they have not been articulated to the profession properly; they have not taken into account the impact on other areas of work, they have not been adequately resourced, they have not gained the confidence of the teaching profession or they have simply not been given the time to show their worth.  The views expressed here suggest we are at risk of making the same mistakes with policies that have, by and large, received universal buy in from stakeholders.  There has been little dissent within the education sector about the principles and objectives of the Donaldson review.  The Successful Futures document was widely welcomed but a number of people have publicly and privately been raising the fear that the rush to deliver could mean the failure to do so successfully.  Getting this done right is more important than getting this done right now.  The existing holes in knowledge and understanding around these key issues, especially in relation to the Digital Competency Framework which is already in existence, should be given a lot of consideration.

I don’t write these words to berate the Welsh Government, the Department for Education and certainly not the Cabinet Secretary.  The workload burden and morale issues that are evident were not developed on her watch.  Nonetheless they now exist within her landscape.  The most important thing about this survey is not to carp on about the problems it has exposed.  The results are not something to use for blame but as a point at which we can all ask the big questions about how we react.  How can we encourage more professionals to want to remain in their teaching roles?  How can we reduce the workload burden, especially the administrative side which does little to improve standards?  How do we ensure the timing for delivery of the new curriculum is such that the sector is on board instead of attempting to shoe horn new ideas in blindly?  These are the debates the survey must spark but that can only happen if those who commissioned it put it at the heart of their thinking.  The responses tell us the home truths we least want to hear but perhaps the messages that must be given the most attention.

This piece first appeared on the IWA click on Wales website.  You can view the original here.

Western Mail Article – The amalgamation of the ATL and NUT

4 Apr

The announcement on March 22nd that the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers had voted to amalgamate was a historic moment for the education sector in Wales and the UK.  Rightfully described by the NUT General Secretary Kevin Courtney as a ‘game changer in the education landscape’ the new union, the National Education Union (NEU) will be home to more than 450,000 members.  The NEU will come into existence on 1 September and will be the fourth largest trade union in Britain.  The union will represent the majority of teachers and education professionals and will comfortably be the biggest education union in Wales, Britain and indeed Europe.

It is a fantastic result for members of both unions and for education. For too long, education ministers have played divide and rule amongst teacher unions, particularly in a Westminster context where pay and conditions are involved. This landmark coming together marks the beginning of the end of that.  The NUT and ATL both have proud histories but, speaking with one voice, the new union will be a stronger force standing up for education, teachers, other school and further education staff and the children they teach.

Professional unity is a long-held aspiration of the NUT.  This amalgamation is a significant development in that aspiration.

For members of the ATL and NUT they will see a far greater level of support.  The combined expertise and commitment of the two unions will build better resources, improved access to continued professional development, allow for stronger guidance, advice and a level of representation that cannot be matched anywhere else and that has never previously existed within the sector.  Members of the National Education Union will have greater strength to tackle issues of workload and concern at their school or college while nationally the union will be a more important voice in representing the sector at large.

For pupils and parents they will see a more supported workforce that can build a better relationship with them in promoting the sort of education sector everyone wishes to see.  This presents a real opportunity to bring together everyone in their workplaces – teachers, lecturers, support staff, heads and managers – and empower them to improve their working lives.  That will only be a positive thing for the pupils that will always be at the heart of the agenda for NEU members.

This can also be a positive thing for policy makers, the Welsh Government, local government and other stakeholders.  They know in future that dealing with the NEU gives them a platform to speak directly to the vast majority of education professionals in Wales.  There will be no better resource for seeking the frontline feedback and expertise, there will be no better avenue for forging partnerships which can implement policies effectively or listen to the concerns of the sector.  The NEU will essentially be the primary go between those creating the political agenda and those tasked with delivering that vision in classrooms across the country.

At a time where teachers across the UK continue to fight for fair pay and pensions and here in Wales they face the significant challenge of rolling curriculum and qualifications reforms there has never been a more important time to make the sectors voice heard.  Pulling in different directions has often undermined the implementation of national priorities and has undermined the effectiveness of teachers, lecturers and wider school or college staff to ensure their legitimate concerns are acknowledged and acted upon.  Educational professionals need greater unity and the NEU will be there to provide it.

Western Mail Article – The Devolution of Pay

17 Nov

Over recent years teaching as a career choice has faced significant challenges.  Between cuts to pay and pensions, unsustainable workloads, high stakes accountability approaches and ever critical coverage of the sector, it’s not surprising that it is increasingly difficult to ensure it remains an attractive profession.

Between 2011/12 the Welsh Government failed to reach its target for recruiting secondary school teachers, falling forty one places short.  Not once in each of the four years subsequent has the recruitment target been met.  Indeed, the discrepancy between the aim and the actual intake has widened.  For 2015/16 recruitment of secondary teacher training places was 327 shy of the target.  This is a 37% shortfall.

It is worth noting here that we are not yet in the midst of a recruitment collapse.  In England there is a huge concern around teacher recruitment and retention.  On that side of Offa’s Dyke there is a consistent failure to fill teaching places.  While in Wales we do have problems around specific subject areas, traditionally we have oversubscribed our teaching capacity.  However, this trend of failure to match the required number of teachers needed for the training process, especially when considering not all of those who start the course will finish it, is forcing the sector to recognise the real risk of a recruitment crisis in future.

It is against this backdrop that the proposal to devolve the responsibility for setting teachers’ pay and conditions will be viewed with such interest.

This issue has been on the political agenda sporadically for years, but it became headline news when the Westminster Government, at the behest of the Welsh Government, wrote it into the Wales Bill.  Over the years teaching unions have opposed this for a number of reasons, most prominently the fear it will lead to regional pay.  Given Wales is a low wage economy in comparison to other areas within the UK there has correctly been concern that gifting the Welsh Government this power will result in Welsh teachers being paid less than counterparts in England for doing the same job.  Not only would this be unfair it also creates a retention dilemma.  If England would be paying their teachers a higher wage, and their teacher shortage lending itself to a need to draw talent from beyond its borders, we could very well see a brain drain in the Welsh system, with practitioners here seeking employment in England.

To its credit the Welsh Government has been eager to dispel these concerns.  Their argument is that we could in fact better reward and protect teachers.  Carwyn Jones, at a recent First Minister’s Question session in the Senedd was categorical on this point when he stated:

“One thing I can say, and I say this absolutely clearly, is that, as is the case in other areas where pay and conditions have been devolved there is no question – no question at all – of teachers in Wales being paid less than teachers in England.  That is simply not going to happen.”

These strong words will undoubtedly be some comfort to teachers in Wales, many of who will have seen how Michael Gove and his successors consistently attack their pay packets, pensions and entitlements and recognise the opportunities that could exist with a new approach.

While there remain significant hurdles to overcome, one key offering the Welsh Government could make is a commitment to collective bargaining.  A system that establishes a strong voice of collaboration between the workforce and Government will be an enticing prospect to teachers who have seen successive London Ministers ride roughshod over long established negotiated positions.  Again the First Minister’s comments in the Assembly chamber were encouraging:

“The devolution of teachers’ pay and conditions offers us a great opportunity (to) work with the profession in order to provide a comprehensive package of terms and conditions and pay.  It’s exactly what the Scots have done and it’s exactly what we need to do in Wales.”

There is therefore an appetite to see an approach based on collective bargaining and national terms and conditions, as is the case in Scotland, and which would have to exist for Wales to win support from our teaching workforce.

Of course the biggest fear in the first instance will be whether this is affordable for the Welsh Government.  Carwyn Jones has always maintained teachers’ pay and conditions could only be devolved with the right financial package.  We simply do not know what resources are going to be attached to the offer.

We are then in a state of flux.  Those traditional concerns loom large.  They remain at the forefront of this debate demanding to be satisfactorily addressed.  However, should the Wales Bill be passed devolution of teachers pay and conditions will take place.  What is crucial in that instance is that it becomes an opportunity to drive education and empower the profession, something that can happen if teachers play the critical role in shaping its implementation.

I will post a link to an edited version (for word count issues) of the article as originally published when it is available 

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.

For Wales….Don’t See England

22 Aug

The IWA kindly asked me to pen something for their Click on Wales blog to coincide with the Education Week they are running.  Below is the article I wrote for them looking at the misguided obsession of comparing England and Wales on GCSE/A Level results day.  the original article as published can be found here.

There are a few constants with the publication of GCSE and A Level results.  We will no doubt hear one of two tired old lines.  Either “exams have got easier” for years were progress has been made or “our education system is a disaster” for years were there isn’t an uplift.  We can also count on tweets from someone saying something along the lines of “Bill Gates dropped out of school so don’t worry about your results” (we’ll ignore the fact his school was Harvard and he dropped out to found Microsoft), while stock photos of jumping students holding their results aloft will be in every newspaper.

The other constant, and one which I find increasingly frustrating, is the inevitable comparisons we will have with England.  It is almost as if we have got to a stage where our results only matter once they are placed in context with the education system on the other side of the bridge.

It is of course natural to look across the border and compare with our nearest neighbours.  This isn’t necessarily an issue exclusive to the world of Welsh education.  From Offa’s Dyke being described as the health service’s “line between life and death” to the respective performances of our national football teams at Euro 2016, there doesn’t appear to be many aspects of Welsh public services or culture that isn’t judged, at least in part, on its counterpart in England.

The truth is this approach is simply not healthy.  There are appropriate times to make comparisons.  Benchmarks, when they are based on reasonable comparisons can be useful.  These even exist in our education system.  It is not unfair to question why pupils in England received many hundreds of pounds per head more in funding than those in Welsh schools for example.  However, we have surely now reached the point that the qualification comparisons do not do our pupils, parents teachers or policies justice.

Of course we are our own worst enemy in this regards.  Successive Education Ministers have focused on the attainment gap between England and Wales rather than simply evaluating the Welsh results on their own merits.  At the end of 2014, when there was really little or no prompting to do so, the then Education Minister, Huw Lewis, said:

The historic gap with England is now down to less than 1% and I promise you this – if we manage to overtake our colleagues across the border next summer, you may well see an Education Minister who is rather the worse for wear the following morning.”

The actual result was that Wales equalled its best ever results at GCSE.  Sadly, instead of recognising the importance of that achievement, especially against the backdrop of ever tighter school budgets and the upheaval of major reforms, the story that dominated the day was that Wales did not close the gap on England.

It is perhaps a uniquely Welsh obsession to carry on making these comparisons which underlines our lack of confidence as a devolved nation after centuries of ‘for Wales, read England’. Press and Governments in other UK countries, including Northern Ireland, don’t even cast a glance at England’s results, let alone compare themselves in the way we do.  Even in jurisdictions where Education is devolved, i.e. Jersey and the Isle of Man, they seem to have more confidence in themselves and provide a commentary on their young people’s achievements without the reflections being framed by what the young people of England have done.  We need to develop the same level of confidence and do likewise.

Beyond the political we do see some more rational calls from Welsh Government.  Take this view on England and Wales comparisons from the Chief Statistician for example:

“Not only are the names and definitions of our performance indicators in England and Wales diverging every year as we each follow different approaches to education policy, but this is also changing the behaviour of school pupils and schools in terms of entry and curriculum changes. As with the year on year changes to our own data, the impact of this cannot be quantified.”

Our education system is increasingly a different beast to that of England.  We may have the same name for our GCSEs and A Levels but their content and delivery are contrasting.  It is time we started looking more closely at our own results without the need for an English benchmark.

Of course international comparisons are always going to have a place in assessing the way our system works.  Of course we will always naturally gravitate towards seeking to see if our education system stands up against that of other parts of the UK.  There are lessons to learn from England and Scotland and lessons for Wales to share.  However, it can no longer be the limit to our expectations and ambitions and certainly we can no longer allow it to be a misrepresentation of success and failure for Welsh pupils.

Ron Davies said that “devolution was a process and not an event.”  Welsh education has undergone a process of both staggered, and at times, radical change over the past decade.  The foundations of our early year’s education bear no resemblance to the English approach.  Our focus on skills contrasts widely to the knowledge based rote learning that was at the heart of Michael Gove’s agenda.  Most importantly our qualifications are increasingly unique, in both their syllabus and their assessment.  It may be worth contrasting the merits of each system over time but viewing GCSE and A Level results side by side is not only impractical it is also selling a lie to the public.

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.

What next for Welsh education? – Western Mail Article

28 Apr

I’ve written pretty in-depth reviews of the manifestos for the Welsh election.  The whole lot are collated in this blog post here.  However, the Western Mail kindly gave me the chance to pen a more condensed version of each.  The below article was the best I could edit down to.

Plaid Cymru

The first out of the blocks to publish their manifesto, Plaid Cymru has made education a key plank of its electoral pitch.

There are some exciting and innovative policies that will be very well-received by teachers, parents and pupils alike.

There is a strong focus, as has been the trend over the past few years in Wales, to ensure that the teaching profession are at the heart of the decision-making process.

Plaid has put forward a series of policies that aim to challenge the status-quo and the dreaded buzzword “Pisa” does not escape these pages.

However, the polices around childcare, school improvement, self-regulation and teacher training all offer a clear path to how the party believes it can work with the teaching profession to achieve success.

Perhaps the most eye-catching, head-turning policy in the Plaid manifesto, and arguably of the election for teachers, is the offer of a 10% annual bonus to all teachers who reach certain CPD (continuing professional development) standards.

The party’s aim is two-fold. Firstly, to reinforce the status of teaching as a profession on the same formal standing as doctors, lawyers and engineers and the like.

Secondly, to build professional capacity to ultimately have a master’s level workforce.

As with any policy implementation, of course, will be critical to its success. How can you guarantee all teachers the ability to secure a 10% CPD bonus if we currently have a system where you can’t guarantee all teachers access, or at least equal access in relation to time and quality, of CPD?

Any future Plaid Cymru government would need to win that debate. Certainly, however, the promise of a pay bonus and training will be a combination that plays well on the doorstep with teachers who have seen their pay cut and access to CPD eroded over many years.

Welsh Liberal Democrats

The Welsh Lib Dems have traditionally had a strong focus on education and you can see that influence in their manifesto.

Their lead policy is a commitment to establish a “class sizes reduction fund” of £42m over the next Assembly term to ensure that infant classes normally contain no more than 25 pupils, to give teachers the time to focus on a child’s individual needs, which we believe is central to raising standards.

Class sizes are an issue that are always top of the agenda for the profession, particularly in light of increasingly tight school budgets actually resulting in class sizes going up more often than not.

Aside from this the other big Lib Dem proposal for schools is the expansion of the Pupil Premium.

The pledge is to continue to expand the Pupil Premium and increase the early years’ Pupil Premium every year to reach £1,000 per eligible child by the end of the next Assembly.

The pupil premium 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.

Underfunding 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 frontline.

Green Party

The general policies in the Green Party manifesto are to be welcomed. They offer a positive overview of Welsh education with support for parents and teachers.

The main concern is that while they are a list of ambitions, there doesn’t appear to be that much detail about how they will be achieved.

For example, there is a statement to ensure that all pupils have access to mental health support but no explanation of how this will happen, in what capacity or through what funding.

That said, I think the aims of what is being put forward are more than laudable and would make any Green AM an attractive collaborator to other political parties on education policies at least.

There is a strong support for the Foundation Phase, including a pledge to raise the starting age of formal education, as well as plans to reduce the bureaucratic burden on teachers.

However, perhaps their signature education policy is for class sizes to be capped at 20 in Wales.

This undercuts the Lib Dems’ pledge slightly, going for an even smaller class size number.

Notably, these are the only two parties who have given such prominence to this high-profile concern.

UKIP

It would have been easy to expect Ukip to produce a manifesto ignoring devolved issues and simply publish an EU referendum campaign document under another name.

However, it has to be said within their manifesto there is a series of thought-provoking, if at times detail-light, education policies.

The Ukip manifesto has some very attractive policies around supply teaching, where the party advocate ensuring that supply teachers are paid in accordance with their position on the salary spine and receive pension rights, cutting out the 30%-50% cost of agencies and saving taxpayer money.

There is also a commitment on tackling the workload crisis including a pledge to decrease the amount of paperwork teachers’ deal with, such as unduly elaborate individual lesson plans, excessive data collection, overly prescriptive internal assessments and dialogue-based marking schemes. Teachers will also welcome the focus on better funding.

However, the headline policy of this manifesto is Ukip’s calls for a return to a discredited and backwards-looking grammar school system, which sadly jettisons the legitimacy of anything else they are putting before the electorate.

Determining the life chances of children based on their perceived ability, as if this is fixed at such a young age, ignores the fact that some pupils develop later than others.

While Ukip cling to that narrow-focused policy, it is pretty hard to give them credibility on other areas.

This manifesto has some interesting themes with polices that should push the other parties into thinking about their offerings.

Ukip have put in work on some areas of interest that should lead to a further debate when they elect AMs.

It is just a shame that there are also some policies that have been shoehorned in here and which would be disastrous for Welsh education, that have undermined the total package on offer.

Welsh Conservatives

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.

The objectives and ambitions put forward by the Conservatives will be welcomed, but may leave readers questioning how exactly they will be achieved and to what end.

Calls to ensure a greater proportion of funding reaches the classroom will be well-received, albeit there will need to be more discussion on what that means for the link with local authorities.

The promise of a veto on school closures for parents and governors will also be attractive in some parts of Wales, particularly in rural communities.

Equally, calling for regional consortia to be scrapped, a plan that has consensus across a number of the manifestos, will certainly register with some teachers who have been left unimpressed by those services.

One big concern is the commitment to “deliver a sustainable and effective school building programme, by embracing elements of a public–private partnership model”.

There is some confusion about how similar this would be to a PFI (private finance initiative) approach, which would naturally send alarm bells ringing.

The timing with the Edinburgh PFI school scandal is not ideal either, putting people once again on edge about the safety and sustainability of such schemes.

Welsh Labour

Labour were the last of the parties to publish their manifesto and in some senses had the most difficult job.

As the party of government running education in Wales for the past 17 years, it is hard to package a manifesto as offering fresh, new ideas.

In many cases, what we see is a commitment to continue some of the programmes already in place and build on what the party deem to be their key achievements.

The main Labour manifesto was very light on policy but what they have done is produce a separate, education-specific manifesto, to provide a more in-depth breakdown of what they are proposing for the sector if returned to government.

It is a little disappointing there’s no reference to class sizes or workload. 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.

This manifesto has a good amount of encouraging policies around supply, curriculum reform and teacher training that creates a platform for greater collaboration with the teaching profession in future.

It appears to build on much of the work that has already been taking place and suggests a continuity of policy.

Some of the key new policies consist of an additional £100m for school standards; pilot “lunch and fun” clubs in the summer school holidays to improve the nutrition of disadvantaged young people; and a “Music Endowment Fund” to help youngsters access music services and instruments.

You can find the original version online here.

School Ready

28 Jan

In recent years teachers have reported a rising frequency of young pupils starting school without basic life skills.  A greater number of pupils are entering school without the expected speech skills; without the capability to use cutlery and most concerning, in nappies without the independence to use a toilet themselves.  Educationally this causes a significant concern to schools, both on a practical and professional level.

Some schools do not have the proper facilities; teachers do not always have the required training and with every nappy that a teacher changes they are taken away from the rest of the pupils, depriving those who are capable of vital teaching time.  Given how important these early weeks and months are for children this can have a noticeable impact on pupil attainment.

A further issue is that this problem is taking place side by side with other factors that add to the complex picture.  We’ve seen historically underfunded school budgets pushed even further to breaking point.  This has reduced staffing levels in many schools while class sizes are increasing.  There is a reduced compliment of support staff supporting teachers in covering some of those nappy changing tasks and an increasing the number of pupils seeing the time they spend with a teacher limited.

The Welsh Government has now introduced expectation targets for pupils in the Foundation Phase, something that contradicts the stage-not-age philosophy of that policy.  It is difficult to see how all children are expected to reach the same targets when there is clearly a vast difference in school readiness between individuals entering school.

All the above begs the question where’s the line between the role of a teacher and the responsibility of a parent.  There are of course numerous factors that can impact on a child’s readiness to start school.  Teachers are mindful of that and will always work with families to tackle them.

This isn’t really a new issue.  No doubt teachers have had similar concerns for generations, but it is one that is being highlighted more and more.  In fairness to the Welsh Government they clearly acknowledge the need to ensure support for parents and have established specific policies and guidance such as Flying Start, Communities First and Education Begins at Home.  However, the fact we are still having this discussion suggest more can still be done by all.

Teaching is more than simply imparting knowledge.  It is also about the personal development of a child.  However, at a time where pressures on teacher’s workloads account for a significant number of stress related illnesses among the profession, can we really also be expecting individuals to take on increased social care responsibilities. The focus now must be on what can we do to support schools; what can we do to support parents and how can we monitor this situation to ensure we have the full details of its impact.

I originally wrote this piece for the BBC online site (hence it is short and a little constricted) but I can’t seem to find it published.  You can however see coverage of the issue, including an interview with me, on the BBC site here and in Welsh here.  There is also the authored piece I produced for S4C’s Y Sgwrs, while it remains on Iplayer, here.

Education begins at Home

13 Jan

At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents. – Jane. D. Hull

Often overlooked when examining what impacts children’s education is the role of parents and guardians.  It’s entirely natural to focus on teachers when it comes to attainment.  These individuals have been specifically trained to support learners’ education.  Teachers show the dedication required to secure qualifications, to undertake inductions, and are there day in day out working with pupils.  However, what we forget is that children spend the vast majority of their time outside the classroom.

Even ignoring school holidays, during term-time children are still away from school longer than they are in it.  This is despite the fact that Wales has some of the longest school days in Europe, some of the shortest school holidays and fewest public holidays anywhere in the world.  This is why the future of the ‘Donaldson’ curriculum is so focused on developing the person as ‘healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society’ and not just the product of a narrow education system.

It’s clear that supporting educational attainment outside a school setting is crucial to seeing improvement within it.  The support pupils have at home cannot be underestimated.  We know the most successful schools have been able to foster positive relationships with their communities.  There is a sense of ownership for school success that permeates beyond the school gates and parents are invested in a joint approach with teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and appetite for learning in their children and young people.

In April 2014 the Welsh Government launched its ‘Education begins at Home’ initiative, designed to engage parents in their children’s education.  From keeping regular bedtimes, asking about school and reading with their children, the Welsh Government sought to give practical advice to parents that can have a surprisingly wide ranging impact.  To some this may be seen as a ‘nanny state’ approach, but we really do need parents to recognise how important it is to focus on education extending beyond the school setting, into areas where it is perhaps not as explicitly obvious, such as a good night’s sleep.

What impact this initiative has had is difficult to quantify.  I would also suggest the Welsh Government should promote it further with a renewed sense of purpose.  However, that such a programme does exist shows the Welsh Government are mindful of what all teachers know already, that unless we make the classroom and home an interchangeable learning environment we are only delivering on a part of a pupils potential.

A 2014 study, conducted jointly by Brown and Harvard universities, looked at the impact messages from teachers to parents can have, and by default highlighted the impact parental engagement can have.

The study consisted of three groups of pupils.  Parents of the first group received no messages about their child’s performance.  The second group had messages which were solely positive.  The third received constructive criticism, or ‘improvement information.’

The main finding of the survey was where parents received feedback, irrespective of its nature; there was a substantial increased probability of pupils passing their courses.  The comparison with the group that received no feedback was that there ended up being a 41% decrease in students failing to earn credit.

Interestingly, those pupils whose parents received ‘improvement information’ had more effective results than those who simply had the positive feedback.  We can therefore determine that not only is feedback to parents essential to attainment but that the nature of that feedback is significant.

Research shows differences in parental involvement have a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range.  What’s more, these impacts are long lasting.  Parental involvement continues to have a significant effect as children grow up, although for older pupils it is more important in terms of ensuring pupils remain in education than in measurable academic outcomes.

It is also noteworthy that success through parental involvement is not confined to one social group.  The scale of the impact of parental involvement is evident across all social classes’ ethnic groups.  Building strong teacher-parent relationships therefore is a way to not only improve attainment within our education system, but a way of doing it that supports pupils right across socio-economic, ethnic and cultural lines.

Community engagement is critical and the best schools are at the top of their game because they have a cohort of parents who share a vision. This is especially important as we look at initiatives such as ‘Schools Challenge Cymru.’  The success of the model it is based on, ‘London Challenge,’ was certainly attributed, in part at least, to parental engagement.  As Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol argues in his report on the subject, “London has a right to be pleased with itself in terms of the excellent GCSE performance of its pupils. The argument here is that the basis for that success lies more with pupils and parents than it does with policy-makers.”

This does raise some concerns about policy areas that threaten the parent-school relationship.  We know the controversial school banding initiative created a lot of problems as it turned parents against schools.  It was one of the fundamental reasons that policy was a failure.  Equally, we have to question if truancy fines, which may lead to some short-term gains, could in the longer-term threaten that parent-teacher dialogue.

Teachers can take a child only so far, often they secure the best qualifications against all the other factors in their lives, but as a rule if there is no wider network of support it makes it extremely difficult to ensure potential is reached.

We must support teachers to further develop their capabilities and gain access to training wherever possible.  Ensuring we have the most qualified and motivated teachers should be a fundamental objective for any Welsh Government.  Equally, we must also examine where improvements can be made to resources and facilities as well as looking at policy changes that empower the profession.  However, when all is said and done, we cannot escape the fact children spend most of their time outside school.  Not only then must we give thought to parental input but also to the wider socio-economic issues in our community that impact on the ability to secure the best outcomes for all.  Failing to tackling those external factors will render any improvements at school level negligible.  This means getting to grips with the challenges of poverty as a priority.

Ultimately, we want to foster an education system that allows teachers and parents to engage positively with one another; where there’s a clear focus not only on providing feedback but in shaping how, when, where and why that feedback takes place; where there is a recognised benefit for those interactions and where there is a shared approach and a shared responsibility for a schools success.  If that is achieved there is no capping the limit of our potential.

This article originally appeared on the EWC blog.  You can find the original here and in Welsh here.

Western Mail Article – Lessons from the Isle of Man

4 Aug

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Whenever there’s debate about the best education systems in the world the focus has inevitably turned towards Finland. It has become an almost mythical land for teachers in Wales looking with envy at its light touch accountability approach; teacher respect; rational workloads; high attainment and equity.

Of course, while this is the gold standard we should aspire towards, education policies do not always travel well and it is not as simple as saying what works in one part of the world will necessarily work in another. We have to respect the different cultures and societies that exist. If we are talking about the child centred and creativity focused approach of Finland, or the more prescribed system in South East Asia with their punishingly long hours, neither culture can easily be comparable to Wales.

There is however an example closer to home of a system that is operating differently and getting positive results. Around 50 miles from the Welsh coast is the Isle of Man. It has strategic links with the UK but a fully independent education system. There is an educational value that, as I discovered on a recent fact finding trip, is central to its philosophy and is a great source of pride to teachers.  With just 37 schools it is perhaps difficult to make any sweeping assessments.  However, the nature of those schools, ranging from rural to city with differing levels of diversity and ethnicity, it can act as a microcosm for the Welsh system.  With a population of 84,000 it would sit in the middle of Ceredigion and Torfaen in the list of population density amongst Welsh local authorities.

Like Finland there are no league tables or school banding for schools on the Isle of Man; there are no standardised tests like we have in Wales and most important to the success of their system is that there is no inspectorate. No Estyn. No Ofsted.

The dead hand of accountability has not weighed down on the shoulders of the teaching profession and as a result they have fostered a collaborative approach to education that we strive for in Wales but have increasingly struggled to achieve.

Make no mistake.  That the Isle of Man does not have an inspectorate does not equate to a lack of scrutiny, but rather that accountability is driven by internal responsibility in a way that isn’t allowed to flourish in Wales to the same extent.  Without the external pressures on schools that are created through intrusive and often unreflective Estyn inspections, progress has developed in a more long-term and sustainable way.  Schools have been able to take a wider view.  Instead of the data driven approach we often see across Wales, and indeed other areas of the UK, there is a more child centred focus.  Data is undeniably important, no one disputes that, but it is used in the context of supporting child development rather than being used to undermine schools or to measure arbitrary targets.  Theirs is an accountability approach that is based on rigour and respect rather than on that is purely judgemental and pressurised.  That is an essential balance that has allowed a more honest and collaborative partnership to be found between central government and the wider sector.

That no league tables, or banding, exist on the island has also helped encourage a collaborative approach between schools and clusters.  Of course certain policies do aim to develop that in Wales.  Both the lead-emerging schools programme and the School Challenge Cymru approach are designed around the view of supporting the sharing of best practice.  However, it is often difficult to see how they can be truly effective when schools remain in constant competition with one another through banding.  We can but hope the development of a more supportive categorisation model will eventually help address this issue.

While Wales has reintroduced standardised testing for pupils, including for very young children, the Isle of Man has resisted this approach.  Even the famed Welsh Foundation Phase is now to be assessed against the Literacy and Numeracy Framework, diluting the real commitment to the stage not age approach to learning through play.  In contrast to this high stakes regime, the lack of testing for Isle of Man students has encouraged pupils not to fear failure but to embrace it and learn from mistakes.  It has also ensured that there has not been a narrowing of the curriculum.

What was striking was the freedom afforded to schools to develop their own sense of culture.  Each school of course has a core curriculum but they are allowed to shape it in a way that reflects the needs and values of their own communities.  While Wales has drifted to a situation whereby we expect each and every school to look and operate like the next the Isle of Man has celebrated its differences.  We are of course undergoing a curriculum review and the opportunity is there for change to be delivered that empower schools to similar ends.

Not everything in the Isle of Man system is perfect.  You certainly wouldn’t find practitioners there claiming it is.  Indeed there are areas of our own policy and practice that could and would help drive improvements.  However there is no doubt that on some of the very big questions they have found answers that have united support across the sector and taken the burden off teachers.