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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.

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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.