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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.

Manifesto Roundup – The Election of Ideas

20 Apr

I thought I’d bring all my manifesto reviews together into one neat blogpost to save time and effort for everyone.  I’m considerate like that.  You are welcome

I have to say whatever your views on the individual policies each of these manifestos, to a lesser or greater degree, is establishing a platform to have a genuine education debate for this election.  I stated at the start of the year that one of my big hopes for Welsh education in 2016 was for education to be the election of ideas.  To a point I think we have that.

There is a lot of consensus points across the manifestos but equally they are also offering a different approach to delivering education and each has some standout policies that distinguish one party from the next.  There is a genuine choice in regards to education at this election.  I hope that some of these reviews will help you make a decision from a more informed basis.

So in order of how they were published:

Plaid Cymru

The Green Party

Welsh Lib Dems

UKIP

WelshConservatives

Welsh Labour

Welsh Labour Supplementary Education Document

Of course the manifesto that I would suggest you should most get behind is that of the NUT.  You can find that here.  Many of the issues in there have been taken up by the political parties which is great to see.

 

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.

Welsh Labour – Together for Wales

19 Apr

 

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After a manifesto journey that has taken me from Plaid Cymru through the Green Party, Welsh Lib Dems, UKIP and Welsh Conservatives I find myself reviewing the final manifesto to be published, Welsh Labour’s Together for Wales.

One of the big problems in crafting a manifesto as the party of government is that you are unable to promise change.  It is perhaps an even bigger issue if you have been in power for 17 years and, where education is concerned, a standout concern in regards to this election as many of the big ideas Labour may have gone into the election with have already been mapped out.  We already know what the direction of travel is on things such as qualifications and the curriculum under Labour.  Pioneer schools are working away to shape the vision based on the collaborative conversations that have already taken place in the sector.  That is not a bad thing policy wise.  Much of these have a lot of goodwill attached to them and have a level of support and unity that any government party would welcome at this stage.  It does however mean that many things on offer in the Labour manifesto consist of promises to continue to do something as opposed to offering something new.  As we know from the past Assembly term however change is not always a good thing in education.

An example of the above is the manifesto commitment on spending around new school buildings.  This is not new money but part of the 21C prorgamme we already know exists.  While the money is very welcome and needed, as is pretty common knowledge, it remains below the level we need for our buildings.

Under the heading ‘Ambitious‘ Labour have taken the time to outline what they perceive as being the successes of government.  These are:

WE HAVE DELIVERED

  • Increased funding for schools in spite of savage Tory cuts to Wales

  • The biggest school building programme ever, worth £2 billion

  • Unrivalled support for students and learners

  • Record exam results

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

  • Record numbers of apprentices and completion rates of over 80 per cent

  • Protection of the Education Maintenance Allowance

  • Action to help break the poverty link through the Pupil Deprivation Grant

  • A record fall in youth unemployment 15,000 jobs for young people through Jobs Growth Wales

It is fair for any party of government to stand on their record.  Just as other parties will undoubtedly scrutinise and criticise a government’s delivery I would expect any incumbent party to promote what they see as their key achievements.  That said, I am not going to run through them as I don’t think it serves the purposes of this blog post in evaluating a manifesto setting out the way a future Welsh Government would run services in Wales.

The second part of the education focus in the manifesto is where Labour have given their commitments for the future.

£2 billion school building programme

Again this is simply a continuation of a previously announced pledge.  Again it is welcome money but short of what has been identified as needed.  At least though it is a policy commitment with a definitive target.

£100m extra to further drive up standards in schools

This can be seen as a bit vague.  Where is the money coming from? Is it going to end up raiding other education budgets?  Is it money for schools or will it be eaten up elsewhere?  How is it to be used?  That is what I imagine many cynics, and indeed teachers, will be thinking.  I am willing to give this the benefit of the doubt with a warm welcome however.  Any new money is always going to be welcomed by the education sector and simply by making the pledge it is an indication that Welsh Labour recognize that we need greater investment.  While it isn’t written here in the manifesto I spoke to Carwyn Jones about this policy at the Labour conference and he gave some good assurances that this will be new and additional money for the education sector.  While there isn’t a clear way of delivering it as yet he sounded committed to ensuring it reaches schools in the most direct way possible.  If so it will be an effective policy.

Coding skills in schools to open up new opportunities in the digital economy

This is something that has come out of the Donaldson Review.  Again I am not sure it is entirely a new proposition but in an age where we have to ensure pupils are at the forefront of new technologies and industries it is something I do support.

Schools open for community use and wrap-around activities for children, including a pilot of “lunch and fun” clubs

This is a theme across all the party manifestos it appears.  Again I’ll take the opportunity to highlight this blog I did on a similar theme supporting this style of approach.

A taskforce to explore ways of improving behaviour, wellbeing and mental health in all education settings

I think this is a good idea.  We can’t have enough focus on the impact of behavior and well-being and I strongly believe that mental health issues should be given more prominence in general society let alone at school level.  It is fair to say there is a vagueness again to this policy but I suppose you can’t preempt what a potential task-force may report.

Business Clubs to bring work experience into schools and re-shape careers support

I’m always open to working with groups and people outside the education sector to enhance the learning experience.  This is a good thing but I would rather we didn’t just cap it to business.

A Music Endowment Fund to help youngsters access music services and instruments

This I am very pleased about.  There has been a continuous focus on literacy and numeracy over recent years which, while right and important, has threatened to narrow the curriculum.  We have taken some steps to address that with the Donaldson review but I want to see more of a broader approach.  This is one policy that supports that by developing the cultural skills development.

The Verdict

What is contained here isn’t anything really to critcise.  It is a list for policies that, for the most part, were well-received or would be well-received, even if some of them remain quite vague.  Where there is specifics, the £100m promise for schools, it will be welcomed by the teaching profession.

In truth however, what is disappointing is not just the lack of detail on some of these policies but the lack of recognition of some key areas.  While it is fair to point out that some areas (qualifications/curriculum reform etc.) are underway and maybe don’t need to be noted explicitly, there is no mention of continuous professional development, no mention of the supply sector, no mention of class sizes, no mention initial teachers training, no mention of consortia, no mention inspections and there is no actual use of the words teacher or teachers, and only one reference to teaching and that in regards to the quality of the buildings.  In regards to some of these oversights Labour would have something positive to say.  They could, for example, build on commitments to ensure workload was a key consideration of the curriculum review, or the supply group created after the children’s committee inquiry report.  These would be previously announced plans but they are developing actions and given the promotion of past achievements elsewhere here they would be worth highlighting.  That some of the biggest issues to the teaching profession have been given no space in this manifesto leaves me quite confused.  Perhaps Labour will be producing a secondary document on these policies.

UPDATE:

It has been brought to my attention that indeed Labour do have a secondary document where they add some more detail to their education focus.  As such I will create a new post reviewing that as well.

Welsh Conservatives: Securing Real Change For Wales

18 Apr

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After reviewing the Plaid Cymru, Welsh Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos I now come to the penultimate offering, this time from the Welsh Conservatives.

On the face of it the Welsh Conservative manifesto appears the least in-depth.  Instead of the several pages that were evident from the other parties there are just two in the education section of the Tory manifesto.  What is more they are just a list of policies without perhaps the same level of detail attached to them.

It would only be fair to point out that there are some crossover sections, such as the ‘Securing Our Children’s Future’ section which will have policies that indirectly impact on attainment.  It is also worth highlighting that in the opening blurb of the education section it is noted that ‘the education profession has grown weary of excessive political interference.’  Perhaps then this more minimalist approach is attempting to reflect that and aims to offer teachers a more direct and less overwhelming set of policies.  Change without the constant churn of new beginnings.  The negative impact of this set-up however is that there are a few policies here where once you read them you are left asking how they will be undertaken.

There are three main sections that I will focus on and take the policies contained within those umbrella titles in turn where applicable.

Raise School Standards

Fund schools directly, giving greater spending control to teachers, parents and governors, directing more money to the classroom

This is always a difficult proposition for me.  I touched on my concern with a similar proposal put forward by UKIP.  I’m always going to campaign for more money to schools.  I also do not believe that there is not scope to examine how funding is delivered to ensure it is more efficiently directed to schools, or that waste within the system isn’t reduced.  At the same time much of the spending done indirectly at local authority levels comes from buying services and providing services with economies of scale.  If that money is diverted to schools, meaning schools have to directly procure those services, that can lead to inflated costs and administration for those school leaders.  School leaders are also already overburdened acting as business managers.  We need to find ways to take the pressure away from them rather than creating more responsibilities.  As I stated in my review of UKIPs proposals, albeit not exactly the same thing,  I’m not saying this can’t lead to better funding but that it is something that has to be approached carefully and that it is often something that seems enticing but doesn’t necessarily work in practice.  Again, the best way to get more money to schools is to get more money in the education budget in the first instance.

Ensure that Estyn inspections incorporate unannounced spot-checks.

There is a mixed approach to this I believe.  I think teachers and schools would potentially be open to this in principle if it comes with a realistic view.  Currently teachers and schools are placed on high alert and under huge amounts of pressure in advance of an Estyn inspection.  A no notice inspection or spot check would eliminate that.  Of course that lack of notice means that there will be less preparation.  teachers cannot realistically be expected to produce the sort of lessons that they spend weeks on end preparing on a daily basis.  Currently Estyn may see a school at its best.  if it moves to a no notice approach it must also shift the mindset of how it inspects.  reviewing the teaching and learning but in a lighter-touch and more intuitive way.  In fairness something the Donaldson review has acknowledged.

Ensure Welsh qualifications are sufficiently robust to be recognised internationally.

This is one of those policies which comes with a ‘how?’  I don’t think anyone disagrees with the sentiment it just doesn’t tell us much about in which way it will be delivered.

Establish a college of teaching focused on continuous professional development and setting teacher standards.

I’m glad to see continued professional development again on the political agenda.  We need desperately to get this right over the course of the next Assembly term.  It is unclear how this college will operate, or when it will operate but the principle of a dedicated element focused on CPD is a positive one.

Scrap the unelected and unaccountable regional education consortia to reduce red tape and empower teachers.

Scrapping regional consortia appears to be one of the common themes running across all the manifestos and perhaps goes to show how poorly implemented they have been.  The NUT manifesto has called for them to be scrapped if performance does not improve.  Perhaps politicians have lost even more patience with those bodies than the profession.

Recognise the school years from age eight to 14 as a distinct middle phase and consult with teachers on targeting improvement in the transition from primary to secondary school.

In a way this is already happening with the curriculum review and the changes to key stages.

Introduce modern foreign language learning in primary schools as part of a languages strategy, nurturing a trilingual nation.

I’m a firm believer in the power of multilingualism and so finding a strategy to ensure this becomes a reality is something I am fully supportive of.  Expanding the capacity of teachers to deliver it is a challenge that will have to be addressed.

Overhaul the Welsh language in education strategy to include clear targets and to help all children in Wales become confident communicating in Welsh.

It is hard to make a determination on this policy without knowing what those targets will be and how they will be measured.

Work with schools to highlight the importance of financial education and the study of home economics.

This is an important issue.  It is something that Bethan Jenkins pushed a lot during the past Assembly and I think it is also in the Plaid manifesto in one form or another.

Introduce mandatory emergency life-saving skills and public health education into the curriculum.

Just as Bethan Jenkins was prominently pushing the financial education I know the above policy was something Suzy Davies was a keen supporter of.  I think both are admirable and worthy policies.  It is just a question of asking how they can be delivered within an ever more crowded curriculum.  My fear has always been that we aim to shoehorn so many different areas of interest into the school timetable, all of which are worth consideration, that sadly none are given the time and space to be implemented effectively.

Embrace international research to narrow the attainment gap between children from different social backgrounds.

This is common sense and of course we should be looking at all areas of research to help improve the life chances of all pupils.  In regards to this policy specifically it is hard to really get behind it without knowing what research it is referring to and what changes to policy and delivery it will propose.

Improving the School Experience

Deliver a sustainable and effective school building programme, by embracing elements of a public–private partnership model.

I’m pleased that school buildings are on the agenda here.  We are still in desperate need for improvements and new buildings across Wales.  That said the policy leaves more questions than answers.  How much is identified as being “sustainable?”  Where will that money come from? How will the schools be identified.  Most concerning perhaps is what exactly is meant by a public-private partnership model in this instance.  If it is a PFI approach then we know that could be disastrous.  You only need look at the horrible situation where pupils have been left off school due to hazardous buildings through PFI schemes in Edinburgh to question if that would be the right approach.  Of course that may not be what is being proposed here but the terminology suggests it is potentially on the table and the vagueness of the commitment doesn’t dispel those doubts.

Prevent the closure of any school which delivers the national curriculum, without the agreement of parents and governors.

We are seeing a number of school closures where there is a lot of hostility from communities and parents, especially in rural Wales.  I think this policy will go down well with those communities and those teachers.  If there is a demand and a need for a provision I would not want to see it taken away.  We should ensure that every community has a good local school.  At the same time I would be a little hesitant of a blanket ban on the closure as what do you do if a community is opposed to a school closing but the teaching staff think it is in the best interest of the children?  Still, I think this is a policy that it aiming to give power back to those who are locally involved in their provision and that can only be a good think.

Encourage greater use of the school estate, out of school hours, for childcare and other community causes.

This is something that has been noted in other manifestos and that I backed in a previous blog calling for greater use of our school buildings in the community.  I think it helps resolve some issues around supporting community projects and also encourages greater buy-in from the community for school objectives.

Oppose the loss of school playing fields, maintaining vital community space for children and young people.

This is wholly critical for our ability to develop physical literacy in schools and is a welcome commitment.

Provide school breakfasts on the same charging basis as school lunches.

I’ve been weary of changes to the free school breakfasts policy for two reasons.  Firstly as it is more than just providing a meal.  It is about engaging children and developing social skills.  More than that the feedback I have had from many school leaders is that they believe it will ultimately end up being more expensive to move away from the universal aspect of free school meals based on additional administration costs.  I don’t see in the Tory manifesto a contradiction of that view.

Support the right of headteachers to choose whether pupils may take holidays during term time

At present, in principle, headteachers do have this.  The Education Minister released a statement confirming as much.  At the same time schools are punished in their attendance records should they exercise the right.  I would hope that the above policy means that the Welsh Conservatives would seek to disaggregate the data on absenteeism with consent from categorization ratings.

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Ensure teachers have more say in the development of the curriculum allowing them to tailor subject learning around pupils’ strengths, aptitudes and passions.

This is already taking place with pioneer schools but I am pleased to see it will have continuity of approach through this commitment should the Welsh Conservatives form any future Welsh Government.

Provide a nurse in every secondary school and further education college.

I think this would be a welcomed policy.  I would also like to see a focus on mental health in that approach.

The Vedict

Truthfully I think 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.  Their objectives and ambitions will be welcomed but may leave readers questioning how exactly they will be achieved and to what end.  One big concern still at large will be the question of private-public developments on school buildings.  If this is a PFI approach then it will send some alarm bells ringing.  Of course I accept I may have misread that based on the somewhat vague messaging on the policy.  the timing with the Edinburgh PFI school scandal is not ideal either.

UKIP: A Strong Voice for Wales

18 Apr

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I would always have expected to do a manifesto review for Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems going into a Welsh election.  Truth be told  probably would always have done a review of the Green manifesto, although not expecting them to make the often quoted big breakthrough.  This is the first time I would have been approaching the UKIP manifesto, not with a view of a potential AM but with the expectation of guaranteed representation for the party when the votes are counted.  With that in mind, while I don’t foresee the party having any route to implementing their policies due to the fact that both Plaid Cymru and Labour have categorically ruled out working with them in power, their offering in 2016 is more important than it has ever been in the past.

I half expected UKIP to put out very little in their manifesto but in fairness the education section is not lacking in policies.  Again I have not covered the FE and HE policy areas.

School Funding

In a strong start UKIP have funding as the very first item on their policy list in the education section.  One of the big concerns in the sector is that we know  Welsh pupils are being underfunded in comparison to those in England but we not longer know by how much.  It is therefore encouraging to see UKIP call for comparative data to be restored.  Only by knowing the true extent of the problem can we really get to grips with it.  One flag on this however is that the reason there is no comparison data is because of changes to funding in England.  Therefore I’m not sure how this can fully be achieved unless there is a UK Government input.  However, it is surely not beyond the wit of man and if there is a way for the Welsh Government to achieve it then that is a policy worth exploring.

UKIP outline that they would reduce the supporting costs of educational expenditure to get more money to the front line.  I’m never going to argue against money heading to the front line.  Schools desperately need it.  However I am always a little hesitant about how easy it is to take money from one budget and assign it to another without implications for doing that.  Much of the “support costs” of education come from local authorities buying services and providing services with economies of scale.  If that money is diverted to schools, meaning schools have to directly procure those services, that can lead to inflated costs and administration for those school leaders.  I’m not saying this can’t lead to better funding but that it is something that has to be approached carefully and that it is often something that seems enticing but doesn’t necessarily work in practice.  The best way to get more money to schools is to get more money in the education budget in the first instance.

The final proposal in this section is perhaps the most controversial.

Abolish the Education Workforce Council, whose fees amount to a tax on teachers and which drain schools of funds which could be spent at the front line

Many teachers would agree with the view that EWC contributions are a tax on teachers.  The idea of paying to register to work is not met with huge enthusiasm from the profession, particularly with the recent increase to this fee.  However, I don’t think scrapping the organisation is a positive approach.  There is an important role for the EWC to play.  There can be improvements to the way it operates and its roles and responsibilities but undoubtedly there remains a need for it.

Supply Provision

Ensure 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

This would be a very well-received policy.  The problems with supply are numerous but certainly the unfair pay and pensions provisions are at the forefront of supply teachers thinking.  Creating a level playing field, and undermining the negative influence of supply agencies at the same time, would be a really good step.

I’m a little unsure as to one of  UKIP’s other policies in this section which is to support the appointment of supply staff on two or three year contracts to cover a cluster of schools.  On the one hand there may be something in this to create continuity of teaching in an area and it provides stability for the individual.  At the same time if there is work to cover that period I would be far more inclined to expect schools to create permanent posts.  Also with the Agency Workers Regulations taking individuals over to a permanent contract rights after a continuous 12 week period of work then there is an element of questioning if someone would lose an entitlement under this proposal.  Naturally if the policy of ensuring supply teachers get parity of pay and pensions then to an extent this concern is perhaps a moot point.

Cutting Teachers’ Workload

UKIP will 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

What can you say other than this is a commitment that will be extremely attractive to the teaching profession.

Primary Education

There are two key policies in this section and I have to confess I have cause for concern with both.  Firstly UKIP promise to ensure access to maths and science specialists, from universities and other schools.  Under this policy these specialists will provide support and can ‘take at least some classes.

I don’t have any issue with sharing expertise and providing support.  There is no doubt we have some gaps in recruitment of maths and science specialist in Welsh education, albeit this is perhaps more of an issue within the secondary sector.  Having such people come in and work with schools is a good thing.  Where I have concern is the idea of them taking classes.  Teaching primary children is a unique skill, which is why we have a specific training programme for it.  There will be some people out there with fantastic maths and science skills but lack the ability to communicate them to children, particular young primary children.  Many secondary school teachers would say quite bluntly that they would have no idea how to communicate with those in primary education, and vice-verse perhaps.  We shouldn’t pretend that an aptitude for a subject naturally lends itself to an aptitude to teach that subject to all ages.  Whats more we shouldn’t allow those without the qualifications to teach to do so, which would be potentially the case with inviting individuals from universities.

The second policy is to increase the number of hours dedicated to the development of literacy skills.  The fact is schools are already earmarking huge amounts of time to literacy policies.  It is of course a very important element of the timetable and rightly gets a great deal of focus.  However, we already know from studies undertaken that this focus is hindering the ability to stay true to the ethos of the Foundation Phase.  We also know that such a major focus on literacy and numeracy has threatened to narrow the curriculum.  I fear we should not be straitjacketing teachers further, especially as it would completely contradict the new push to a more free and trusting curriculum.

Modern Languages

I’m a big believer in language teaching and so I don’t disagree with the focus on it in the UKIP manifesto.  I do question however where we are going to find the Russian and Mandarin secondary teachers to deliver their broader range of language policies being advocated, although it does say this is a policy aim to be delivered over time.

Sport

I’ve blogged many times on the importance of sport in the curriculum and so am positive about what UKIP propose here in protecting playing fields and promoting sport within the curriculum.  I would widen the definition, in the way Sport Wales have, to physical literacy.  Many children want to be active but not in a sporting or competitive sense.  We must cater for the wider way in which we can achieve the benefits of physical activity on education.

Qualified Teachers

Ensure that all classes in Welsh state schools are led by a qualified teacher

This is an important pledge, which has been a universal constant across the political parties in Wales.  It does seem to be contradicted by the previous policy I discussed where UKIP were to invite university staff in to teach classes.  That can’t happen if those lectures do not have QTS under this policy.

There is an incentive based focus on recruiting graduates of STEM subjects, something all parties appear to want to get to grips with.  A welcome pledge if light on detail of what those incentives are.  Equally light on detail is the promise to give teachers support to deal with bullying and poor discipline. No one would argue against it but again there is no depth to what that commitment means.

There is, in this section, a criticism of the use of support staff to cover lessons and the explosion in numbers of such staff in schools against the declining number of teachers.  Side by side with it is the pledge to shift resources from adding support staff to a provision of well-trained teachers.  In principle I think this is a bold policy and something I have touched on previously.  It is interesting that UKIP, and thus far UKIP alone, who seem to have referenced this in their manifestos.  My only hesitation is that support staff do play a vital role and the figures and ratios are something that need careful consideration, as well as the funding implications of the policy.  Sadly once again the depth of detail is missing here even though the policy is one which will cause debate.

Estyn

What UKIP are proposing is a series of policies to revamp the way Estyn inspects schools in what they predict will make inspection less intrusive and more routed in a realistic appraisal of the school.  I think shorter inspections is a positive thing and shorter notice periods are also welcomed so long as they are matched by a realistic expectation and changes to what and how things are undertaken.  Overall this section is an interesting piece of work and again it appears that, thus far, UKIP alone have put this on their agenda for the manifesto.  As an aside it is also interesting that UKIP have specifically mentioned the concern there may be around the capability or agendas of inspectors.

Sex Education

There appears to be a great deal of mistrust around the fact that sex education exists in Wales.  There is a specific section on it as well as a note under the Estyn page.  Personally I think teaching sex and relationship education should be a statutory requirement for all children. The importance of relationships should be taught at an early enough age to ensure children have an understanding of the issues with teachers afforded the flexibility in schools to vary what they teach according to the needs of parents and children in their individual school communities

Grammar Schools

This was the headline grabber for most of the media when UKIP launched their manifesto.  It is a shame in many ways as it overshadowed what actually is a manifesto with some debate prompting education policies.

I watched the Daily Politics show on Sunday and to be honest Neil Hamilton’s explanation, or perhaps defense is a better word, of the policy seemed only to make things worse.

This is what UKIP are promising to implement in relation to grammar schools.

  • fund all secondary schools according to a single formula, taking into account Special Educational Needs, to ensure underfunding such as with secondary moderns in the 1950s cannot be repeated.

  • introduce University Technical Colleges to Wales on the Baker Dearing model which has proved so successful in England

  • allow existing schools to become grammar schools or vocational schools

  • base grammar school selection on an exam taken by all pupils in the final year of primary school

  • introduce transfer examinations available at ages 12, 13 and 16 for academic late developers

  • reserve a minimum of 10% of grammar school places for children from less advantaged backgrounds – as historically measured by eligibility for free school meals

  • ensure that grammar schools truly act as ladders of opportunity for bright working class children.

I simply cannot get on board with this proposal.  It is an outdated and discredited system that would be a retrograde step for Wales.  Say what you will about the Welsh education system but, as the OECD report concluded, one of our strongest assets is a positive comprehensive model of education.  It is something we can, and should, take pride in and remains a platform for success.

It is very worrying to me that UKIP believe in identifying children on their perceived ability at 12/13, as if this is fixed at such a young age.  I could rehearse the many, many, flaws in the grammar schools system but this EduFacts breakdown produced by the NUT does a better job than I could.

The Verdict

Whisper it….but there are actually some very supportive and positive policies in this document that would play well with the teaching profession.  Don’t get me wrong, the whole infatuation with a discredited and backwards looking grammar school policy pretty much jettisons the legitimacy of anything else.  While UKIP cling to that narrow focused policy it is pretty hard to give them credibility on other areas.  That said, the commitments on workload, funding and in particular supply are all very attractive.  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 they have played up to the UKIP stereotype in other areas that have undermined that.

Welsh Lib Dems: A Wales That Works For You

15 Apr

IMG_2467It has to be said the Lib Dem manifesto has quite a meaty education section.  One that I will work through in its entirety.  However at the beginning they have highlighted their three key education policies.

  • Reduce infant class sizes to 25
  • Expand the Pupil Premium
  • Increase access to university

As I have noted in my reviews of the Plaid Cymru and Green manifestos I am going to park policies outside the scope and impact on schools and so I’m just going to take the first two in this list.

Class Sizes

I am really pleased to see class sizes being promoted as a key pledge by the Lib Dems.  This is a policy they have previously announced and I did, at the time, write a blog welcoming the commitment.  I’ve said many times that class sizes are an issue that are always top of the agenda for the profession and I have little doubt that this will go down well, particularly in light of increasingly tight school budgets actually resulting in class sizes going up more often than not.  Interestingly the Green’s have undercut the Lib Dems here by promising class sizes of 20.  If I’m honest mind I think the teaching profession would snatch your hand off at either proposition.

Pupil Premium

This 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.  Under funding 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 front line.

It is also positive to see a commitment to ensuring schools are properly funded.  The funding problems we face have been hammered home by the profession so often they have almost become something of a white noise problem in Wales.  People are so familiar with our schools financial concerns that they are no longer shocked into action.  having it recognized in a manifesto is an important point.

There is a significant focus on early years education in the Lib Dem manifesto with a whole host of pledges.

  • Offer 10 hours a week of free, quality childcare to all working parents from the end of paid parental leave (nine months) until their child is two.

  • Offer 10 hours a week of free, quality childcare for all children aged two to three by removing childcare from Flying Start and reinvesting this funding in more flexible, universal provision.

  • Increase the statutory duty on local authorities to provide a funded early education place for three to four year olds to fifteen hours a week.

  • Introduce a Qualified Early Years Teacher qualification and promote Apprenticeships in Early Years and Childcare.

  • Increase access to parenting programmes, ensure programmes and support promote relationship building and bonding, and support parents to develop their child’s early language skills in the home.

  • Develop training through Flying Start for health advisors and midwives to recognise signs of neglect.

  • Require all nursery staff to complete an officially recognised paediatric first aid course.

  • Promote the use of community buildings, leisure centres and school premises to increase the level of childcare provision in Wales including wrap-around care.

  • Support children’s opportunity to play in public places, and make it easier to close off roads temporarily for play.

Taken as a whole I think it is encouraging that there is such a recognition that the early years have to be right if we are realistically going to ensure that pupils make the most of their potential throughout their school lives.  The start pupils have is critical.  That there is yet another report today about children starting school without basic skills, something I’ve blogged on previously, really emphasizes the necessity of some of the policies around childcare and statutory early education.

In principle I don’t have any real opposition to a specific early years teaching qualifications.  It is such a unique environment there may well be scope for developing that accreditation.  However, my one reservation would be is it leads to a barrier for people moving into that field.  Does it apply only to the foundation phase and if so would other primary school teachers be restricted from gaining experience by dropping down year groups?  Does it also mean for those that have it that they cannot experience working across years in the primary sector.  For many teachers in the primary sector they become more rounded and experienced teachers by working across all ages.  I wouldn’t want this qualification to hold back individuals from doing that.  I guess the key will be how and when this qualification would be delivered.  Is it a determination individuals have to make when entering initial teachers training or do they have the opportunity to undertake it in addition to their QTS while working in schools.  The devil will very much be in the detail of that one.

Freedom for Schools

Perhaps the biggest dissatisfaction with the Welsh Government from teachers over the past Assembly term has been in relation to the increased bureaucracy.  Initiative after initiative, dictate after dictate.  Credit where it is due, Huw Lewis has sought to address this to an extent.  Still this is the overriding impression the profession still has in regards to the way they have seen the government operate over the past five years.

The commitment to here to allow schools the freedom to operate without that level of interference will be well-received.  Schools work best when the profession is trusted and respected to know what best to do for the pupils they know better than anyone.  One potential red flag is the statement

“We will allow schools which have demonstrated key values of leadership, innovation and improvement to gain new powers and autonomy from local and central government, providing they maintain a demonstrable track record of excellence.”

The notion of allowing schools to be autonomous from local government sounds dangerously close to Acadamies.  The reason I don’t have any general concern with this proposal is I know how strongly opposed to acadamies the Welsh Lib Dems are.  I am sure that this is far and away from what they actually mean and what they intend is no doubt simply restricting the political interference that schools have sadly become accustomed to.  However, the language may cause some fears for teachers.

Another brief issue I had on this section is the proposal to establish an ‘Educational Standards Authority’ to set the curriculum content.  The Lib Dems say this body will develop the curriculum covering issues such as;

financial literacy; physical and mental first aid; political education and citizenship; coding; and age-appropriate sex and relationship education, tackling issues of gender identity, sexuality, consent and healthy relationships.

I don’t have particular issues with the focus of the curriculum as outlined.  It is broadly inline with what the Donaldson review has put forward, which I fully support.  However I am just not sure we need a new body, even if it is independent of government, to set the curriculum.  This policy seems to jump the gun a little.  At present there are a host of pioneer schools working on curriculum development and I think it would be best to see what and how they propose the curriculum should be designed.

World Class Standards

Again this section sees a great number of recommendations put forward under this section.  I don’t think you could accuse the Lib Dems of not identifying their policies in this manifesto.

  • Establish a nationwide high attainment programme.

  • Enhance individual pupil monitoring so schools report on how they support each pupil individually, and automatically place schools which do not adequately support the development of all pupils into special measures.

  • Set a clear ambition to eradicate child illiteracy and innumeracy by 2025.

  • Introduce a Talented Head Teachers programme to draw top leaders to the schools where they are most needed.

  • Establish a Welsh Academy of Leadership to ensure we have excellent leaders in Welsh schools, commission an up-to-date Teachers’ Qualifications Framework and set up a new, national scheme to deliver cutting-edge continuous professional development for teachers.

  • Introduce closely monitored targets for the uptake of modern foreign languages.

  • Expand the remit of the Education Workforce Council to include accreditation of initial teacher training and continuous professional development, and introduce elected representation from the teaching profession.

  • Conduct an annual teachers’ workload survey.

  • Ensure that the National Youth Musical Ensembles are provided with the necessary resources to thrive.

  • Support schools in Wales to establish a Parent Teacher Association and establishing a National Parent Forum, as in Scotland.

  • Expand access to educational psychologists by establishing national guidance based on the needs of children and eliminating the current quota-based system.

  • Set July as compulsory holiday between school years, enabling Welsh families to book more affordable holidays at home and abroad.

  • Abolish regional consortia.

Given the number of polices here, much of which it is hard to take issue with, I’m just going focus on the few that really stand out for me.

Illiteracy:

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.

Continue Professional Development:

It is good to see that the Lib Dems are also echoing some of the mood music we have seen from the Plaid and Green manifestos, as well as language that has come out from the Welsh Government, on CPD.  This is such a huge issue and challenge that it is important to have a cross-party view on it and good to see it in this document.

Conduct an annual teachers’ workload survey:

I am absolutely delighted to see this policy pledge.  This is something the NUT has been campaigning on for some time.  We made the call last year after the unions research uncovered that we are still seeing some 50,000+ teaching days lost to stress related illnesses.  That has a major impact not only on the individual suffering but also on school finances and continuity of standards.  Having a annual workload survey would help gain better understanding of the pressure points within the system and give a voice to teachers both in highlighting where the problems are and in developing coordinated strategies to resolves them.  A big thumbs up for this.

School Holidays:

I’m not convinced by this policy.  If it helps create pockets of affordable holidays, and does not reduce a teachers annual leave entitlement, then it may very well be a positive plan.  Let’s not forget when we discuss families who are hindered due to having to take holidays during the school holidays that always applies to teachers regardless of their family situations.  My fear is that the market will follow the school structure and whenever we create school terms we will see prices reacting accordingly.  I could just be a little cynical mind you.

Abolish regional consortia:

You wont find many teachers shedding tears over this should it come to fruition.  Consortia have generated a poor name in the sector and scrapping them was also a policy, premised by their ability to show improvement, in the NUT manifesto.

Beyond the areas of FE and HE the remaining section on schools focuses on equality and diversity.  I won’t really delve into it other than to say it is an important area to promote and I’m not sure there is much to disagree with.

The Verdict:

For a party facing potential wipe-out, certainly losses, it may have been easy to churn out a few sides of A4 and just crack on with the campaign.  Credit to the Welsh Lib Dems then that what they have put forward is a credible, challenging and interesting manifesto with a good deal of focus and thought on their education policies.

What is interesting is that I think the Plaid Cymru manifesto appears to have taken up the mantel on some of the areas that are omitted from this set of policies.  Equally the areas of focus on the Lib Dem manifesto, mainly class sizes and the funding gap, are issues that are less in the spotlight with Plaid’s policies.  I hate the whole coalition talk* but there’s no denying that these two education pitches would sit relatively comfortable, and in some areas complimentary, next to one another.  Granted there are also some clashes in view but then that’s why we have political debate I suppose.

*Genuinely I couldn’t care less for it.  A coalition, should one be needed, will be formed after the election.  I’ll be voting on whose policies appeal to me most not on who convinces me best that a vote for party X will deliver party Y.

 

The Green Party: For People. For Planet. For Wales

12 Apr

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The first of my manifesto reviews featured Plaid Cymru’s offering last week.  I’m a bit baffled by the slow progress of the other parties.  As of this morning we were 23 days from election day and yet only one party had made their policies public.  I’m not naive enough to think the public at large are sitting down and going through these documents word for word.  However, it does seem a little lacking in transparency and commitment to the democratic process to be getting so close to an election and to still have no idea exactly what the potential programme of government will be for the vast majority of candidates standing.

Thankfully the Green Party have filled some of the vacuum by today publishing their proposals.  Their ‘For People. For Planet. For Wales’ document lists 10 priority areas running from housing through to democracy.  Under their education pitch the party says they will:

“create a free universal early education and childcare service from birth to the beginning of formal schooling – which would be started at a higher age. We will end the programme of school closures especially in rural areas We will scrap tuition fees for Welsh students studying in Wales and reinvest in Further Education colleges.  We will fund lifelong learning for all and further invest in adult learning opportunities.”

As with my review of Plaid Cymru’s policies I am going to ignore the FE and HE stuff as there will be people with better insights than I able to offer contributions on those themes.

The main pledge here then for schools is to stop school closures, especially in rural areas.  I know from speaking to many teachers in those rural areas that will go down well.  Closures in some areas are leading to significant job losses, loss of community engagement for schools and pupils and teachers having to travel some ridiculous distances to access their nearest provision.  In some areas along the boarder with England it is even resulting in parents opting to send their children to learn in the English system rather than remaining here in Wales.

The downside of that of course is that in some cases these school closures are supported by teachers and parents as they accept they will lead to a better provision.  It really is a case by case basis and, while I appreciate it is hard to quantify that in a manifesto, that does need to be recognized.  There is also a need to justify how this will be done against funding constraints and I don’t see any major commitment outlined on additional funding for education.

There is some greater detail on the free universal early education and childcare service pledge later in the manifesto, where the Green Party outline how it will be a system run by local authorities and would also rely on parents and other volunteers.  This echoes somewhat the mix of provisions that was evident in Plaid Cymru’s childcare policy.  It does sound a little ‘big society’ and there is no real depth of analysis of how it will work.  However, the pledge itself is welcome and again shows how political parties are starting to join the dots that early intervention must be at the heart of providing a positive platform for pupils entering school.

Further down in the manifesto there are some more specific pledges.

  • Raise the starting age of formal education putting more emphasis in the foundation stage on social cohesion play relatedness and character building as well as knowledge and skills making it a unique education stage in its own right.

I like this as a policy.  We have somewhat moved away from the ethos of what the foundation phase was originally designed to deliver.  I’ve blogged in the past on how establishing age-related expectations in the foundation phase, and the mission creep that comes with setting formalized and standardized testing immediately after children leave the phase, has undermined its approach.  this commitment from the Green’s does aim to get the Foundation Phase back to its routs.  It echoes the style of approach that is evident in Scandinavia and I think Foundation Phase practitioners would be supportive of it.  That said I’m not sure why you would state you wish to raise the starting age of formal education without actually outlining to what age you believe that should be.  It creates a little uncertainty.

  • Insist early years educators have qualified teacher status with specialist knowledge of early years education; and ensure all other staff are qualified to level 3.

I’m a little confused by this.  As far as I am aware any teacher in the Foundation Phase should already have qualified teacher status.  No individual leading a classroom in Wales should be doing so without QTS as it is.  What is worth noting is that we have an adult:pupil ration in the Foundation Phase.  For that stage of education to truly be effective we should move to a teacher:pupil ratio.  Our teaching assistants do invaluable work in schools, and I would support ensuring they have greater access to CPD.  However only teachers are qualified to teach and strengthening the Foundation Phase will only benefit those pupils going through it.

  • Take action to reduce teacher workload, assess pay levels and provide effective professional training for all teachers and teaching assistants.

It is hard to argue against this.  A welcome commitment and an important one to be recognized.  It will be interesting to see if every manifesto makes specific reference to the huge issue of teacher workload that is continuing to lead to 50,000+ teaching days lost to stress related illnesses each year.

  • Aim towards class sizes of 20

One of the few criticisms I made of Plaid Cymru’s manifesto was that they had not covered the issue of class sizes.  It is an issue that consistently is raised by teachers.  Class sizes of 20 would be a utopia to teachers in Wales who regularly deal with 30+ pupils every day.  It would undoubtedly make a major difference to standards in Wales.

  • Continue the policy of no Academies For Free Schools in Wales.

This is good to see and continues the political consensus to oppose the misguided and highly flawed Acadamies system that sadly is being imposed on mass in England.

  • Ensure all pupils have access to mental health support services.

Early intervention on mental health issues are crucial and supporting schools in identifying how and where best to offer these services would be beneficial.  It is just a shame there is no detail to what this policy will look like in practice.

  • Ensure the right for every child with disability to access mainstream education.

Again it would be good to have an outline of exactly where changes can be made to support this objective, or even examples of how it is currently an ambition being neglected.  That said of course the outcome is one that would be universally supported.

  • Protect the right of children and families to choose home education and flexi schooling.

I am a strong believer that the best education a child can have will be in the school setting and so I am not enthused by the proposal on an educational level.  However, parental choice remains in place and so it isn’t something that leaves me anything other than indifferent.  i’m a little confused why it is in there as I am not aware of any particular move to scrap the right of parents to home-school?

The Verdict

This is a far less in depth manifesto than was published by Plaid Cymru, but then I think Plaid’s was a pretty comprehensive piece of work.  The general policies here 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 who 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.

Plaid Cymru: The Change Wales Needs

7 Apr

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In some previous blogs I said that I planned to blog on each of the education policies put forward by the political parties when they published their manifestos.  First out of the blocks was Plaid Cymru with their ‘The Change Wales Needs‘ offering.

Perhaps the easiest to review will be Labour.  As the party who have been the Welsh Government for the past Assembly term, and indeed in charge of education for the entirety of the devolution period, they will have already sketched out much of their policies in reflecting the direction of travel Huw Lewis set as Minister.  That said, he has radically unpicked the reforms originally put in place by Leighton Andrews which goes to show the impact different personalities and views can have on a portfolio.

Perhaps the second most straight forward review will be that of Plaid Cymru.  Simon Thomas, as their education spokesperson, has been pretty proactive in promoting the big picture policies he sees as the key components of his parties education offering.  Many will already be familiar.  Aside from that it has to be said that Plaid Cymru have been positive in engaging with the profession in formulating their manifesto and so some of the things not previously announced will still feel somewhat familiar to me.

Below I have attempted to shed some light on what is being proposed, what positive impacts they could have and what concerns may accompany them.  For clarity as someone who works in the schools sector I have not gone into examining FE and HE specific policies unless there is a clear reason to do so.  You can follow the link here to access Plaid’s manifesto online should you wish to look into those areas in-depth yourself.

There are of course a vast number of policies throughout the manifesto but central to them is Plaid’s three main ambitions. A well Wales, a well-educated Wales and a wealthier Wales.  Within the well-educated column we have three sub-steps to delivering it.

  1. Free universal pre-school care for children from 3 years of age
  2. A National Premium for Teachers: raising standards in our schools
  3. Pay off £18,000 worth of debt for graduates who work in Wales and create 50,000 extra apprenticeships.

I am going to ignore the third point here and just look at the first two in the context of their impact on Welsh schools education.

Free universal pre-school care for children from 3 years of age

The above is obviously a pre-school commitment but we know that early intervention and support is absolutely crucial to supporting a solid start for pupils in schools.  Other parties have also focused on childcare as central offerings in this election, and I will come to them when reviewing their manifestos at a later date.  Gareth Evans, the Western Mail’s education correspondent, has flagged it up as one of his ‘five big education issues‘ in the run up to the Assembly election and I think he is right to do so.

The Plaid proposals are to be introduced incrementally starting with 15 hours of free childcare a week by 2017/18, attending class for full mornings rather than for 2 hours a day.  By 2021 full-time early education of 30 hours a week will be provided.  The party proposes to deliver this through a mix of schools, voluntary providers and private nurseries.

I have commented in the past on the importance of ensuring that children are school ready.  I think this is ultimately the role of parents but no doubt having support through policies such as this is a welcome step.  There are clearly a host of further benefits to the Welsh economy and Welsh society in creating a foundation that enables and empowers individuals to gain access to work without the financial penalties of child-care.  Educationally, depending on the exact mix of providers, this is also a potentially powerful tool in closing the attainment gap and in focusing core skills of pupils before they enter school properly.

What I particularly am pleased with is that the approach is flexible.  Some people, including myself, are still hesitant to view starting school at such a young age as the best option for children.  Where there are high quality alternatives then there is a case for starting school at a later age, such as is the in some other high achieving nations, most notably Finland.  Plaid Cymru in their manifesto have suggested that the ‘additional year of early education would be optional as not all parents of young children want their children to attend school from this early age.’  What I would hope to see is other avenues of support and development for those children if they are not starting school.

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A National Premium for Teachers: raising standards in our schools

In terms of an eye-catching, head turning, policy for teachers on a personal level this will be hard to beat during this election.  What Plaid Cymru are proposing here is a 10% annual bonus to all teachers who reach certain CPD standards.  The aim is two-fold.  Firstly to reinforce the status of teaching as a profession on the same formal standing as doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.  Secondly to build professional capacity to ultimately have a Masters level workforce.

The notion of a Masters teaching workforce has long been one with widespread sector support.  The Welsh Government’s Masters in Education Practice system was one that was greeted with a lot of optimism and backing.  Sadly I think it is fair to say that they didn’t get the implementation right.  It should either have been a qualification open to those practitioners who had more experience to build on their knowledge or perhaps an extension of the initial teacher training programme.  What it should never have been is an add-on to the Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) process which put additional strain and pressure on new teachers already under stress working towards their Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).  It was in a sense a missed opportunity.  It is almost a forgotten policy now with sporadic mentions and lip-service paid to it but almost being allowed to fizzle out.

What I imagine Plaid Cymru will attempt to do is contrast the two competing presentations on access to professional development we would see from their vision and that which has been lightly floated by the Education Minister over recent months.  While Huw Lewis deserves huge credit for finally being a Minister willing to recognise the vacuum in CPD provision in Wales, and for starting the process of trying to address that with the New Deal policy, the profession have been a little concerned with views that in future if you want professional development you will be paying for it.  The idea of CPD coming through increased contributions from teachers to the Education Workforce Council (EWC) have not been met with much enthusiasm.  Many still view the EWC subscription as a tax on teachers and being expected to pay more for the privilege of working as a way of accessing CPD has not gone down well.  Of course this isn’t formal Labour policy, we will have to see if there is anything of that nature in the manifesto, but it is something the Minister has put on the table at a number of public forums as he headed towards dissolution.  Plaid Cymru will undoubtedly seek to present their Teachers Premium as a way of paying/rewarding teachers for CPD undertaking rather than charging/punishing them for the right to access it.  Realistically, access to CPD and an increased pay proposal, particularly against the backdrop of huge pensions cuts and increasing real-terms pay cuts, will be a big potential vote winner.

As with any policy implementation of course will be key.  I think teachers will overwhelmingly welcome the innovation and opportunity of this policy but the cynics will question the capacity to deliver high quality CPD in the system, not to mention the ability of schools and individuals to undertake it against the bureaucratic burdens they consistently fight against.  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.

Delving deeper beyond these two key areas of education policy I want to now just work through some of the further topics within the manifesto.

Global Attainment Goal

Here Plaid Cymru are looking at Wales place in the controversial PISA standings.  The outline here is for the ‘teaching profession in Wales to set an agreed national strategy for raising standards of educational attainment relative to UK and international performance, equivalent to reaching an average top 10 placement in Europe across the five areas covered by the PISA tests – literacy, numeracy, science, problem-solving and financial literacy by 2026.’ 

I continue to have reservations about the PISA tests in their methodology and even their importance.  I accept that we are perhaps not in a position to completely ignore their value.  Parents are now aware of them and while I have never heard of a parent actually refer to them I am sure it is something that credibly cannot be set aside unless a Welsh Government are able to justify doing so.  Leighton Andrews created such a policy change off the back of the PISA tests that they remain the benchmark unless there is  different way of showing international progress that carries the same political, public and media weight.

I think it is a positive that Plaid Cymru have incorporated the view of the profession here in calling for teachers to agree a strategy.  Classroom experts have previously been dictated to on national policy, although that has shifted under Huw Lewis.  Including them in the process does engineer greater ownership of policy and support for it.  That said, I do have reservations about setting targets against PISA scores.  I do think target setting is important in order to hold public services and governments to account.  However we have previously seen how much damage can be done by setting PISA promises.  It was a major embarrassment for the Welsh Government in the past not to mention the warnings that experts like Pasi Sahlberg issues around doing this.  Those nations that set the evaluation of their education systems against reaching targets rather than against being the most inclusive often find they narrow their focus.  That is not to suggest Plaid Cymru wish to be narrow in their plans.  I am sure the Welsh Government did not/do not wish to be but that has been the implications of policies such as national testing that has been driven towards PISA improvements.

Self-Regulation

We will transform the currently narrowly focused Education Workforce Council into a comprehensively independent, self-regulating professional body, similar to the Ontario College of Teachers, responsible for teachings standards and continuing professional development. The College will decide who can enter teaching, what training must include, what standards must be reached, how classroom practice is to be assessed, and what happens to teachers who persistently fail to achieve these agreed standards. So the people to whom we entrust our children’s education are the best trained, have the highest standards and police their own profession to weed out poor teaching.

In some ways this makes sense.  I think the biggest concern with regards to the formation of the EWC is that some of the functions around CPD delivery have been added on to its remit rather than outlined in the original bill in which it was established.  That created the fear of mission creep.  The statement that Plaid would make the EWC an ‘independent‘ body is important as there remains concerns around the Ministerial appointments process.  More detail on what ‘independent‘ means in reality would be important.  However, there will be questions around how this beefed up body would be funded.  At present the Education Minister has suggested that an expansion of role for the EWC will come at a direct cost to teachers through increases in their subscription fees.  They have already seen those fees, essentially a tax on working, increase in recent months and any further increase will be vigorously challenged.

Within School Improvement

‘We will build on the examples of outstanding practice that do exist in Wales, though as successive Estyn reports point out, they are not widely shared and are not a consistent feature of the system. As almost every school has teachers and departments within the top deciles of performance we will use these within-school examples of excellence as the building-blocks of improvement, helping schools internally benchmark against their own best teachers in order to standardise best practice.’

I’m not sure anyone would argue with this.  We all want to see the opportunity to see ‘best-practice’ spread within schools and beyond.  It is often the case that it is just difficult to secure release for those excellent teachers to do that, although this is a hurdle that is being overcome with schools working closer and closer together, in particular since the banding system was reformed taking out that league table element that previously pitted schools against one another.

Teacher Training, Reserach and Innovation

We will create a single national centre for Initial Teacher Training. This National Institute of Teaching – working in tandem with Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol – will restructure teacher training and continuing professional development with the aim of making teaching a Masters level profession. It will develop a national network of pedagogical research centres, with laboratory schools in every region and a national Education Innovation Lab to promote the adoption of promising new approaches where the evidential basis is strong.

There is some strong positives to come from this plan.  Having a national institute will certainly provide more consistency in teachers training and I would welcome both the moves to ensuring a Masters level profession in the long-term as well as putting CPD as a central focus.  At a time where Wales is developing a curriculum designed to be flexible and adapting I think building a stronger link with pedagogical research as part of teachers training is crucial.  of course as with any structural change the proof of these plans will be in the pudding and it will remain to be seen if such a different approach will improve the offering for teachers entering the profession.

‘We will create a National Cooperative Agency for Supply Teachers which will ensure that supply teachers receive the same entitlement to training and standards as classroom teachers.’

Supply is going to be a hot topic for teachers at this election.  It is consistently a major concern within the sector.  Not only are we seeing teachers undermined and devalued by supply agencies but that is having an impact on quality within the classroom.  The moral of supply teachers is not only being driven down by their depressed terms and conditions but also by the limited, if any, access to CPD has hindered the implementation of some key policies.  At a time of crucial curriculum and qualification reforms that is a situation we simply cannot allow to continue.

The Children, Young People and Education committee inquiry into supply services was quite damning at the back-end of the last Assembly.  It was critical of the national procurement contract put in place by the Welsh Government, critical of supply agencies and critical of the support being afforded to those teachers working in the supply sector.  It is an issue that has cross-party focus for change and so I would expect every and all parties to have specific plans for the supply sector going into May’s vote.

I would want to see the devil in the detail of what a National Cooperative Agency would offer the sector in terms of pay and conditions parity with contracted teachers.  It would also be very interesting to see more details around how such a system would address the ability to tackle the skills gaps in different parts of Wales with more efficiency.  In that I mean sourcing subject specialism and language experts in different areas, albeit I am sure a national structure run independently not-for-profit (which I assume is the case here) would achieve better results than hundreds of agencies pressuring teachers to teach subjects they are not familiar with on what are pretty much zero-hour contracts or face being, for all intents and purposes, blacklisted.

I am encouraged by the commitment to secure the same entitlement for supply teachers as full-time contracted teachers to CPD which, again is my assumption, would also coincide with accessing the 10% teachers premium offer Plaid are putting forward.  When consulting with the thousands of NUT Cymru members during the CYPC supply inquiry I have to say it wasn’t their own pay or conditions that came through as the biggest concern for supply teachers but training.  Overwhelmingly teachers were telling me that they wanted to be able to get CPD in order to feel able to deliver the newest initiatives and the newest techniques and fit seamlessly into school settings when they undertook supply work.

Building School Links

One of the big issues I have been pushing on the blog for some time is the view that education cannot be seen as a the sole responsibility of teachers.  We must always hold our teachers and schools accountable for their job of work.  Few play as crucial a role in academic and personal development as teachers.  However no teacher can secure a pupils full potential if there is not wider community support.  As Professor Donaldson continually stressed during the presenting of his curriculum overhaul, children spend the vast majority of their time outside the school setting.  Expecting schools to achieve international success alone is therefore short-sighted.

Two of the policies put forward by Plaid here are things I have previously blogged support for.  Firstly the party says it will encourage parents to become part of their child’s learning, and avail themselves of learning opportunities themselves.  The importance of parental engagement was something I championed here and here.  Of course many parents are brilliant at this but recognizing it is an area that needs bridge building is vital.

Secondly Plaid aim to ‘turn schools into Community Hubs – open at weekends and into the evenings – with pools, gyms, libraries and childcare facilities open to the public and appropriately resourced, relieving cost pressures on other parts of the public sector.’  Again this is something that I have blogged about. Of course enabling this to be implemented effectively relies heavily on the quality of those very buildings.  We need a radical investment beyond the existing 21C schools project to allow this to happen in communities across Wales.  Plaid do address that concern stating that they will (through NICW) ‘be bringing forward a radically expanded programme of investment in school building and facilities to enable these changes.’  That is very positive albeit there is, as far as I can see (but stand to be corrected) no figure given to identify what that expanded programme is in reality.  Remember the gap between what was originally identified by local authorities as being needed to get our schools up to scratch and what is currently being earmarked for investment sits in the billions.

Child Welfare

I’m pleased there is section focusing on child welfare and personally am very supportive of the notion of introducing a smacking ban. That was a real failure of the last Welsh Government.  In this section there is also a commitment to scrap the existing truancy fines policy which has caused significant difficulties at school level and remains a confused picture given the differing views on its implementation expressed to schools by Welsh Government and local authorities.  Anyone who reads this blog even sporadically will know that’s a pledge I support fully.

The Verdict

I think there are some real big positives in this manifesto.  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.  I think all parties have potentially learnt from the mistakes of the implementation approach of 2011.

I would have liked to have seen something on class sizes.  This is an issue that is consistently raised by practitioners and it would have been good to have that reflected in policy proposals.  There isn’t, unless I have overlooked it, a great deal on qualifications and the curriculum, although in fairness this could simply be a reflection of the consensus that has been built thus far on those issues and in recognition that pioneer schools have yet to report their findings and suggested ways forward.

Overall this is a positive and strong marker set down by Plaid.  It will be very interesting to see how the other political parties meet the challenge.

(There are some other areas of the manifesto I have not touched on, most notibly local government, that will have impacts on the delivery of education.  If anyone wishes to raise a particular policy I’d be happy to update the blog.  I simply wanted to reflect the bulk of the education section of the proposals.)

UPDATE: Simon Thomas has confirmed to me that the limited discussion on qualifications and the curriculum is indeed a reflection of the fact there is a consensus and it would be wrong to prejudge the work of pioneer schools.