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It’s not exactly rocket science…..

16 Dec

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(ok maybe not this guy)

The BBC ran an important and interesting story last night on the lack of science expertise within the teaching profession.  The crux of the story is that 51% of physics teachers do not have a degree in the subject.  While it is not such an issue with chemistry (43%) and biology (38%) clearly there are still issues there also.

I’ll pause at the start of this blog to note that I am working on the figures compiled by the BBC from the EWC.  I don’t know the full picture, for example of those 51% of physics teachers how many hold degree level qualifications in subjects that are directly related to physics.  It may be that individuals have A levels in physics, mathematics and chemistry and went on to study maths or engineering etc. at university.  They would still have high level competence in the subject area even though they do not have a specific physics degree.  That said, for the purposes of this blog, that is another issue I’m going to park for now.

There are two real issues here.  Firstly what is the impact of this and secondly, why is it happening.  I’m going to try and explore some ideas and theories on those questions below.

What is the impact?

For students there is a legitimate fear that not enough teachers with specialisms in specific subjects is going to hinder the ability to provide the very best education.  As I have stated above this may be somewhat exaggerated in that a high proportion of those 51% of physics teachers without a physics qualification may have very relevant degrees and have high standards of physics knowledge and qualifications.  That said, I’m sure it would be acknowledged that we would all like to see that percentage brought to a more reasonable level.

One of the big impacts of this shortfall is on teachers themselves.  Where there are those without specific qualifications you do have to ask the question if they are teaching the subject with transferable skills, or if they are filling gaps and stretching their knowledge to do so.  Undoubtedly if there are individuals covering lessons because of a lack of subject specialism within the system, and within the school, that can have an impact on the motivation and well-being of a teacher who may feel under appreciate, disenfranchised and unfulfilled, not to mention isolated without the right professional development.  In all honesty I have no doubt that any physics teacher will be equipped with the knowledge to lead physics lessons, but it would be beneficial to see more teachers across a range of subjects coming into the profession with that subject specialism.

There is also a question of workload.  The fewer subject specialist we are recruiting the more those working in those subjects are having to spread themselves about, potentially covering more classes with higher numbers of pupils and taking on greater levels of responsibility for running departments.  That again has an impact on well-being and motivation which in turn will hinder the ability to ensure the very highest standards.

Why is it happening?

This, I think, is a pretty complex issue.  The fact that we have been talking about recruiting science graduates into the profession for a number of years, and yet the problem persists, goes to show that there is no single reason and no simple solution.  I think, in credit to them, the Welsh Government have been on the front foot in recognising the issue but as yet collectively we have all failed to address that deficiency.

There are a few things which have happened in recent years which will have undermined any real efforts to tackle the issue.  Firstly, pay and pension cuts initiated by the Westminster government have made teaching as a profession a much less attractive career choice.  This has not only created greater difficulties in recruiting people into teaching, irrespective of subject, but it has made it harder to retain those already qualified.  The continued issue of workload, as well as the way the esteem of teachers has been diminished due to some of the unfortunate rhetoric we have seen from governments in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay in past years has not helped that situation.  It is worth acknowledging that both Huw Lewis and Kirsty Williams have made great efforts to reintroduce that respect to the role and the launch of the teachers survey by the current Cabinet Secretary for Education will hopefully, in the long-term, help lessen some of the key workload concerns.  The jury is still out on the devolution of pay but its supporters would argue it also creates an opportunity to develop better terms and conditions for teachers here in Wales.

Another concern is that we are just not recruiting enough teachers into the secondary sector full stop.  Not once in the past five years has the target for initial teacher training spaces been reached.  Indeed, last year it was a third below expectations.  If we are struggling to recruit the number of teachers we want then you can guarantee it is going to be an even greater challenge to recruit the numbers of teachers we need in the subjects that have traditionally been hard to fill.

A final consideration is the issue of gender.  Science as a topic has traditionally been dominated by male graduates.  Huw Lewis even launched a campaign specifically focused on trying to encourage more girls to pursue science in school and beyond.  There is then an almost perfect storm of having too few female science students but too few male teachers.  I’ve written a few times about how the teaching profession does not draw in enough male entrants.  We are therefore left with a situation whereby women traditionally are the more likely to follow a teaching career but less likely to be science graduates.

What can be done?

Recruitment is clearly the key.  We need to recruit more girls into taking up science as options for their studies, we need to recruit more men into the profession, we need to recruit more science graduates (regardless of gender) into teaching and we need to ensure we are recruiting the right numbers of teachers regardless of subject.  How we do that is by a series of things.

Reducing workload, improving the respect of the profession and tackling the issues of pay and pensions which will all contribute to making teaching a more appealing profession than it has perhaps been in previous years.  The Welsh Government, who have created incentives in the past around recruitment to subjects, may well need to revisit existing systems to see if more can be offered as a way of enticing science graduates, while also looking at the way teaching is marketed to those potential teachers with science as a background.  This need not just be about financial incentives but the whole package around science teaching should be considered to see how it can be competitive when placed next to other career options for science graduates.

There is no easy fix.  This may take a few years to get right but having already recognised the problem for a number of years it is an issue we really do need to focus on resolving.

 

School Swap: Korea Style – 2

30 Nov

Yesterday I blogged on episode one of the BBC documentary about South Korea’s education system.  I was a little bit critical of the fact the piece seemed to gloss over, or at least not give great attention to the significant concerns that exist with the emotional impact of a Korean style system.  This morning I caught up with the second, and final, episode.  You can find it here while it remains active on iPlayer.

I found the focus on the celebrity teacher a touch odd and unnecessary.  Clearly the career path of this individual was pretty unique and not the norm.  I’m not sure if the show was trying to give the impression that all teachers in South Korea can become millionaires but that isn’t the case.  This is just an example of someone who has found a gap in the market.  It is like saying that Professor Brian Cox is somehow representative of the average university professor.  That said I did appreciate the fact the show made a point to emphasis the respect that teaching as a career is afforded in Korea and the standing teachers have in their community.  Undoubtedly this is one issue that plays a significant role in school discipline as well as community support for the actions and endeavors of a school.  This was reflected also in the demand for teaching training roles.  As we discovered 3,000 individuals applied for a teaching course where only 36 were given places.  This replicates a similar demand to join the profession from nations such as Finland, whose philosophy on education is in stark contrast with South Korea yet whose esteem for the teaching profession is equally high.  Contrast that with Wales where we have failed to fill our secondary teachers training courses for the past five years including attracting a third fewer than the target last year.

To give credit to Sian Griffiths and the production team I was clearly too quick to jump the gun in my criticisms yesterday that they were overlooking the negative impacts on childhood that accompany a South Korean style system.  In this episode there was a blunt reflection of those issues, including first hand accounts of individuals who had been emotionally scared through the process with the suicide rates laid bare to see.  It was particularly interesting to hear the views of the former education Minister, someone who had overseen PISA success yet recognised the potential damage that had caused to creativity and freedom to enjoy childhood.

My lasting thoughts would echo those of the headteacher from Ysgol Dwei Sant.  There’s lessons to look at and learn from South Korea but equally there are key lessons they can also learn from us, particularly around that deeper thinking, creativity, communication, cooperation and emotional development of character.  This is the nature of education policy.  It is looking at the best and recognising how, what and where it can influence Welsh education, but in doing so remaining committed to the core values that are the foundation of our society.

Notes:

*Whoever chose Kung Fu fighting for both shows soundtrack needs a geography lesson.  Kung Fu originates in China.  Carl Douglas who did the song is a recording artist from Jamaica and it was an ode to Chinese culture.  

*Finally good on all the Welsh students for ending with a hug, and particularly Tom who used the typically Welsh ‘see you later’ when leaving for a 10 hour or so flight home. 

The Stats Behind the Profession – Part 3

18 Oct

Following my previous posts about the numbers and gender of teachers in Wales I wanted to look in this blog at the ethnic group and national identity of our school staff.

I did blog a while back asking the question if our classrooms reflected our communities. With that as a background it is interesting to look into the stats compiled by the EWC.

We can see from the EWC annual digest that 86.1% of teachers in Wales identify themselves as ‘White:British.’  That is actually below the make up of our communities according to the 2011 census, in which 93.2% identified themselves in such a way.  What is perhaps interesting is that between 2001-2011 that ‘White:British’ population in Wales decreased while the EWC stats show there has been an annual increase in that ethnic group registering as teachers annually between 2012-2016.  To be clear, on both counts we are talking marginal changes.

One group we are clearly failing to entice into teaching is the Asian (Pakistani, Indian & Bangladeshi) communities.  EWC stats show individuals from this ethnic group make up just 0.2% of registered teachers, while the census notes they make up 2.3% of wider Welsh society.

It is evident that overall the teaching profession in Wales is roughly representative of ethnic backgrounds with Welsh census data.  However, in an ever more multicultural society, and certainly in a post-Brexit world of racial tensions, we should be reaching out and ensuring that teaching is a profession which is open to attracting the creative and enthusiastic talents from right across community backgrounds.

The Asymmetric School Week

14 Sep

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

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

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

The Benefits

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

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

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

The Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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