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5 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2017

16 Jan

Class Sizes

As part of my look ahead to 2016 I put the issue of class sizes on the agenda.  It remains one of the issues that teachers and parents raise most with me but was largely absent from the political debate, despite class sizes slowly but surely increasing year on year.

With Kirsty Williams becoming the Cabinet Secretary for Education and class sizes being a central plank of the Lib Dem education offering at the election it seems we finally have this in the spotlight.

Hopefully we will have further announcements about how the policy will be developed in future and how it will be piloted.  It is important that if you are a critic of the proposals that you give them fair opportunity to show their worth.  This means not making rash judgments over short-periods of time but listening to the qualified feedback of the profession, looking at the wider impacts the policy has on pupil and teacher well-being and how it both directly and indirectly can contribute to standards.  For those of us that are supporters of the decision to make reducing class sizes a firm Welsh Government commitment it is also important we reflect honestly on the findings of the policy in the early stages.  That means recognizing both its successes and potential failures, assessing where changes and developments can be made to improve its delivery and working with the Welsh Government to ensure it succeeds.  It also means acknowledging if indeed it has been a success or not.

Supply

As with class sizes my 2016 blog was hopeful that we may finally get concrete action on supply.  As with class sizes we also made some real headway in regards to putting this issue front and center of the education debate.  The Children’s committee deserve a lot of credit for their report which, whilst potentially could have been more direct, made it quite clear that the current system failed pupils, parents and teachers and needed a radical overhaul.  The Welsh Government to their credit fully accepted the report and set up a task-force to make recommendations.

Those recommendations are in according to Kirsty Williams at the last education questions session in the Senedd.  We hope not to hear what the findings will be and that ultimately they lead to a system that is far fairer for those working in that sector, that offer a better provision for schools and lead to a more motivated and supported workforce.  If that can be achieved we have the potential to serious unlock a missing piece of the puzzle on education reform.

The Curriculum

This seems to me a never ending feature on these blogs but that just goes to show how crucial it is to get this reform right.  With the Diamond review findings having come and gone and the PISA rankings published, curriculum delivery remains the big hurdle for Kirsty Williams to maneuver.

Pioneer schools are still working on their proposals, with 25 new pioneer schools having joined the work in recent weeks highlighting that this is not easy to get right.  My big hope here is that without having seem any real framework thus far, and without seeing any firm plans to deliver the sort of sector wide professional development which will have to be undertaken to take a sector who have lived under prescriptive micromanagement in recent years to a freer more innovative workforce, time is given to getting this right.  I have always felt the timescales were short for proper delivery.  Being adaptable to change must be in the mind of everyone involved here.

Recruitment

This issue is one that must be viewed on several levels.  Firstly that we make the whole sector appealing.  Cuts to pay and pensions have undoubtedly forced many graduates to think twice about entering the profession.  The added workload concerns only exacerbate that problem.  The fact that we have failed to reach the target for secondary training places for each of the past five years, including falling a third short in the latest figures, shows that while this isn’t currently a crisis it is a growing concern.  We need to make teaching as a career and vocation viewed with the high standard of esteem that it has been in the past.  That means properly respecting the role and offering the sort of support throughout a career that reflects the importance it has in driving our education system, our economy and our communities.

It is also important we target the right type of recruitment.  As the recent science graduate story shows there are pockets of missing expertise.  Drawing more individuals with specific backgrounds into the profession is vital.  Naturally of course tackling many of the problems in part A of this conundrum will address those in part B also.  However, there must also be specific campaigns and measures considered for the unique challenges of making teaching an appealing choice for those from backgrounds that have not traditionally taken up the role.

Pay

With the Wales Bill comes the devolution of pay.  This has massive implications for the teaching workforce.  The Welsh Government have been very positive in their words and pledges around this issue.  That has, to an extent, appeased some concerns from a profession that has by and large been skeptical of such a move.  Getting this right may be both the biggest challenge and biggest success of education in the devolution era.  It presents the opportunity to stop the rot of declining terms and conditions.  It presents the opportunity to empower a profession and create a workforce and Government in dual commitment.  It presents the opportunity to put social partnership at the very heart of public sector delivery.  It presents the opportunity to make the Welsh teaching workforce the most attractive in the UK, drawing in the very best in talent and the most motivated and respected teachers.  Of course it also presents the risks of the alternate in every option should the Welsh Government fail to make it work.

4 Hopes for Education in 2016 Revisited

10 Jan

At the start of last year I posted a blog with my hopes for education in 2016.  I thought it would be worth revisiting that to see what progress was made.

1. Class Sizes.

When I originally wrote about this the issue it was largely being ignored.  I reflected at the time that Kirsty Williams AM had raised it in the chamber and I hoped it would lead to a wider discussion on the subject.  Little did I know that a few months later Kirsty Williams would be the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and this would be a central plank of her reforms.

We are awaiting the full details of how this policy is to be delivered but clearly it is going to be a significant policy for the Welsh Government in a way we haven’t seen for a number of years.  It is something teachers and parents alike will widely welcome.  Undoubtedly it faces challenges.  A number of Labour backbenches have already shown some dissent and opposition parties are skeptical, however I hope the pilot will be well designed and it will be given time to prove its value.

2. Election of Ideas.

My big hope for the Assembly election was that we would have an election of ideas in education rather than the often tribal and scaremongering rhetoric you see within the health debate.  As I reflected at the time I think for the most part we achieved that.  I ran a number of blogposts reviewing the manifesto commitments of each parties.  All of them had something within them that sparked debate.  That was certainly a positive outlook.

At the same time while the political parties put forward ideas worth debating that debate still did not really materialize, which was a shame.

3. The Supply Question.

I wanted supply to take a central stage in 2016 and it did.  We have more scrutiny and more action on the supply sector now than we have in the past decade.  The arguments against the existing system have been won and it is just a question of ensuring that we reform in a way that better supports individuals working in that sector and schools who rely on their provision.

The Supply Task Force was due to report their findings in December of last year but that remains outstanding.  It can only be hoped that the delay is due to a combination of the volume of evidence and a reflection of the importance of getting this right.  We should see the taskforce’s report in the immediate future and no doubt it will be a vitally important piece of work for Welsh education throughout the coming 12 months.

4. Pioneer Schools.

My hope for pioneer schools would be that they would be given the time and space to work effectively on the curriculum.  That, thus far, appears to be the case.  The fact that this week the Welsh Government announced that a further 25 schools or so would be joining the work perhaps reflects that this is a bigger job than originally anticipated.  We can take some positives of pioneer school work over the past 12 months but it remains vital that they are supported in the work they do in future months.

All in all I think the hopes have been positive to reflect on, which perhaps echoes the fact that the sector as a whole has a slightly more upbeat feeling in 2017 than it did at the start of 2016.  Over the next few days I will post the hopes for this coming year as has become an annual tradition.

Books of the Year

3 Jan

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Over the past few years I’ve done a books of the year list from what I read over the prior 12 months.  At the start of this year I began blogging reviews of each book as well as charting how I leave the books I’ve read for strangers to find in public places.  Sadly my passion to keep that blog going wavered after I got to 98 books and still only had a response from one person who had found a book I’d left.  I’ll keep leaving them but as I pass the 100 mark I’m less hopeful.  Anyway……here is this years list.  There have been some brilliant read in there.  My love of Keigo Higashino and Haruki Murakami continued to grow thanks to some superb entries from them.  Overall I must say I think both on quality and quantity (I failed to reach a book a week for the first time in 3 years) this was a poorer year than the last.  2016 though eh.  Am I right!

The Best 

Journey Under The Midnight Sun – Keigo Higashino

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

The Taliban Shuffle – Kim Barker

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

Hear The Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami

The Second Coming – John Niven

Murder On The Orient Express – Agatha Christie

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Nomad – Alan Partridge

The Best of the Rest

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

The Amateurs – John Niven

The Actual One – Isy Suttie

Fade Away – Harlan Coben

The Let Downs

Jonathan Unleashed – Meg Rosoff

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

Bullet Points – Mark Watson

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth

Full reading List

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (1)

Reasons to stay alive – Matt Haig (2)

Disclaimer – Renee Knight (3)

Personal Days – Ed Park (4)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy – John le Carre (5)

The Girl In The Red Coat – Kate Hamer (6)

The Taliban Shuffle – Kim Barker (7)

11/22/63 – Stephen King (8)

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson (9)

Kill Your Boss – Shane Kuhn (10)

Jonathan Unleashed – Meg Rosoff (11)

The Amateurs – John Niven (12)

Hear The Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami (13)

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George (14)

Pinball – Haruki Murakami (15)

The Second Coming – John Niven (16)

Concussion  – Jeanne Marie Laskas (17)

Murder On The Orient Express – Agatha Christie (18)

Bullet Points – Mark Watson (19)

Shoot The Messenger – Shane Kuhn (20)

Stay Close – Harlan Coben (21)

The Actual One – Isy Suttie (22)

I Saw A Man – Owen Sheers (23)

Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby (24)

Deal Breaker – Harlan Coben (25)

Hitman Anders and The Meaning of It All – Jonas Jonasson (26)

Prey – James Carol (27)

The Long Dry – Cynan Jones (28)

Drop Shot – Harlan Coben (29)

Fade Away – Harlan Coben (30)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (31)

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh (32)

Ways To Disappear – Idra Novey (33)

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth (34)

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (35)

The Girl With a Clock For A Heart – Peter Swanson (36)

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami (37)

Journey Under The Midnight Sun – Keigo Kigashino (38)

Animal: The Autobiography of the Female Body – Sara Pascoe (39)

Back Spin – Harlan Coben (40)

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman (41)

The Decagon House Murders – Yukito Ayatsuji (42)

A Midsummer’s Equation – Keigo Higashino (43)

Nomad – Alan Partridge (44)

The Green Man – Kingsley Amis (45)

 

For Wales….Don’t See England

22 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections of Election Day

28 Apr

Next week Wales goes to the polls to vote for the make-up of the next Welsh Assembly, and as a by-product its next Welsh Government.  On that day I will be in work as normal.  I will go to the gym as usual before getting in.  I will work until 5pm; drive home; put my kids to bed; walk up the polling station to vote; have some food; watch some TV or read and probably go to bed and to sleep by 10pm.

On Election Day five years ago things were very different.  I had some fantastic results nights during my previous life working and consumed by party politics.  I worked for Plaid Cymru the year they went into government and on a constituency scale having worked for Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards I knew only winning.  In the case of RGT, if I recall correctly, we won the highest majority in Wales outside of Dafydd El in 2007.  However, to repeat a sentence already used in this blog post…..five years ago things were very different.

There’s a sense of optimism on any election day.  I think over the course of the campaign there has to be so much positive reinforcement and outward looking promotion that you almost inevitably become a little indoctrinated.  By consistently having to talk up your chances, regardless of the actual state of play, for the sake of the media and your own party campaigners, it is easy to start believing it.  There’s something of a self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome taking place.  Party activities, members, staffers and candidates all brainwashing themselves into thinking that this is their year.  This is their election.

Five years ago I was realistic going into election night.  I don’t think anyone in Plaid Cymru was under any illusions that the election would be anything other than tough.  In fact, it was the commonly held view that there would be a trade-off in electoral success for the positive referendum result.  That was a view accepted before even the One Wales agreement had been signed.  During the campaign I flagged up quite early that I thought Llanelli was in trouble.  That said, you live in hope more than expectation at times.

The saying ignorance is bliss is certainly true on election day and there’s a sense of euphoria in knowing that you’ve always got a chance to win while the polls remain open and, after such an exhausting period of work, whatever happens it is at least coming to an end.  Having spoken to a few people working in different parties during this election it is clear the race to the end is still an existing phenomenon and not confined by political colours.  The pressure and hours that staff, and of course candidates, put in over not just the election period but the months leading up to it shouldn’t be underestimated.  Even ignoring the stupidly long days, the lack of time away from work and the constant over analysing ridiculously minor issues, just think about the toll a month or more of stodgy on the go food has on your mental and physical outlook!

Come 10pm on May 5th 2011 I was exhausted.  As well as the weeks and months of work that had preceded it I’d been up since about 4am delivering ‘Get the Vote Out’ messages.  If I recall I think I slept for about 45 minutes, if that, under a desk at Ty Gwynfor (Plaid HQ) after the polls closed before waking ready for feedback to start coming in from election counts.

History will tell you that it wasn’t a good night for Plaid and no doubt you can imagine the atmosphere.  The only comparison I could make would be the loneliness of the changing room of a losing boxer.  You put so much work and effort in and ultimately there is no consolation for coming second.  There were a few positive rounds.  Seeing the Plaid Cymru Ministers from the One Wales Government returned, quite comfortably, despite strong constituency challenges showed that there was an appreciation of what had been accomplished previously.  From a personal perspective it was also great to see my former boss and friend Rhodri Glyn back.  Still, there was no doubting it was a unanimous points defeat.  The Llanelli result perhaps tipping the analogy over into a late TKO.  That seats like Llanelli and some regional swings came down to such fine margins was a bitter pill to swallow.  A couple of hundred votes spread in different ways and the narrative drastically changes.

I was particularly upset with the Llanelli result as there wasn’t a challenge.  There had been a bundle recount but when there was only 80 votes in there I couldn’t believe no one called for a full recount.  I’m not suggesting the result would be different.  The recount could have returned the exact same result, it could also have returned an even bigger win for Keith Davies.  However, not asking for it just became a little symbol of a defeatist attitude to me over the course of that night.  Then again, sitting in a room in Cardiff it was perhaps easy for me to take a more objective view than those more fuelled by the emotions of the night on a local level.

Politics at its worst is a tribal game.  I speak from the perspective of someone no longer involved, directly at least, with politics in Wales, and certainly not in any party political capacity, but it’s the very reason I decided to want out.  I’ve no doubt my younger self was just as petty and tribal as some of the politics we see today, but I am so glad to be out of that environment and have had the opportunity to work with and challenge politicians from all parties since that election.  Just seeing some of the individual and even official twitter accounts involved in Welsh politics is enough to make me despair.  I really hope that come 10pm on election night we see some grown up interactions.  Remember that someone who has put their life on hold to campaign will be feeling the loss more than anyone.  It is a personal rejection of sorts.  For some it will also mean the end of their livelihoods, perhaps even careers, and that includes support staff.

I doubt very much I would ever be involved in politics in the same way again but if I ever was then I could only hope it was with a view of cross-party working.  That the Assembly has lost in Jocelyn Davies on of its greatest political collaborators, someone so skilled at finding resolutions across the political divide, is a particular sadness for me in looking forward to the 5th Assembly.  The likely make up of the institution post May 5th mean politicians of her caliber and approach are needed more than ever.  They exist in every party and hopefully they set the tone for the next five years.

One of the things I really remember from that night in 2011 was a text from Adrian Masters.  It may have been a throwaway line and I am sure, knowing how nice a person Adrian is and his political fairness, that he would have text around contacts in all the parties.  However his message just simply saying (don’t quote me verbatim but something like) “hope you’re ok” meant a lot at the time and still does. He may not remember it even. I do.

I haven’t gone through the various discussions, fallouts and feelings from that night.  Partly because I’m not sure what good it would do; partly because it may not actually be that interesting and partly because those conversations where not mine alone to disclose.

I’m sure there are many a story from the different political party HQs that both mirror and contrast with my own experience.  Indeed, I have many others of my own that do.  All I will say is that to everyone who is sitting down with such an investment in this election good luck, and don’t forget to take a step back and appreciate the wider landscape when the dust settles.  Life inside the campaign always feels that bit narrower, that bit more pressurised and that bit more immediate than it should.

P.S.

One final piece of advice that has helped me.  Whatever you do, hold on to the friendships and relationships you make in politics, but make sure you have some outside that world to get some real perspective on what is happening around you.  No one else is constantly discussing anywhere near the things you are, and only talking to the same people about the same things will eventually drive you mad.

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.

Post-14

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.