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Western Mail Article – The amalgamation of the ATL and NUT

4 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Western Mail Article – The Devolution of Pay

17 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for Welsh education? – Western Mail Article

28 Apr

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

Plaid Cymru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Liberal Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

The pupil premium was one of the big wins for the Lib Dems during the past Assembly term.

Their negotiations with the Welsh Government secured a major boost for schools and the money was a huge relief for school leaders.

Underfunding of Welsh schools is not a new problem sadly – and it is one that is seemingly getting continually worse.

Any additional funding is always going to be critical and having a continuation of the pupil premium, let alone the proposed increase, is certainly a policy that will register with those on the frontline.

Green Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UKIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Conservatives

What we have had from the Welsh Conservatives is a series of policies that are constructive, are largely positive and offer a collaborative way forward.

They are, for the most part, in line with what the profession has been doing and focus on some of the gaps that are already identified and would be welcomed by the profession.

At the same time, they are detail-light and perhaps in some instances do not move the debate on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Labour

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

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

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

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

It is a little disappointing there’s no reference to class sizes or workload. There is also a little bit of a vagueness running through the document.

For example, there is a welcomed commitment to a new supply model but no detail as to what Labour believe that should look like.

That said there are some real positives contained within these pages and I think it offers a far more constructive vision than we saw from the previous minister’s “Education Makes a Difference” plan.

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

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

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

You can find the original version online here.

‘Everyone should be concerned with teaching days lost due to stress’ – Western Mail Article

9 Jun

The pressure of excessive workloads is a common complaint amongst teachers.  There are a variety of contributing factors to this consistent problem and it is having a devastating impact on the profession.  Increasingly unmanageable class sizes; punitive and meaningless accountability measures; budget cuts leading to redundancies; teachers covering too many subjects or responsibilities due to understaffing; initiative overload, the list goes on and on and sadly there are only more and more things being added to the daily grind.

The impact of these unsustainable workload pressures is that last year 47,283 teaching days were lost due to stress induced mental health illness amongst the teaching profession.  Let that number sink in for a minute or two.  Over 47,000 days of teaching were lost in 2014 due to teachers being worked to the point of mental illness.  That is a horrendous statistic that everyone concerned with education standards and public services in Wales should be deeply worried about.

If you believe this to be a blip then I am ashamed to say that you would be mistaken.  Freedom of Information research conducted by NUT Cymru has shown that year on year the number of absences due to workload induced stress related mental illness is consistently around the 50,000 day mark.  On average over the past three years 49,524 teaching days have been lost.  At a time of rising class sizes and staff redundancies this is the equivalent of seeing an additional 253 full time teachers being employed in Wales.

Those teachers who have been signed off with stress related mental illnesses do not wish to be away from work.  For many it is incredibly difficult to return to the role due to a loss of confidence; fear of a reprisal of the pressures that caused them to become ill in the first instance; a concern for the educational wellbeing of their pupils and the worry of slipping behind the curve of new initiatives and practices.  Indeed, for a significant minority of individuals being forced to take stress related sick leave is the first stage to the end of their careers as they never return to teaching.  This is a problem not only in terms of losing a valuable human asset in regards to the experience and quality of those practitioners, but also in the sense that there is a time and finance cost of training new entrants to the profession to cover this turnover.

Of course there are further reasons to push this issue high on the agenda in Wales.  Tackling this problem will not only help to protect the wellbeing of our school staff, it also offers huge opportunities elsewhere on standards and school finance.

Reducing the instances of stress related leave will enhance the continuity of teaching in our classrooms and ultimately improve standards.  Teachers who spent time fostering relationships with their pupils over time will have a better chance of seeing the fruits of that hard work than if a pupil’s education is disrupted by having to re-establish trust in a new supply teacher, or several if the issue persists over a prolonged period of time or intermittently.

Basing the cost of supply on an average of £170 per day we can see that, as a conservative estimate, stress related illnesses are hitting school budgets by around £8.4m each year.  While it will be impossible to completely eradicate that expenditure, putting measures in place to avoid workload pressures manifesting themselves in stress related sickness in the first place, and offering better support for those who do suffer when it does happen, could reduce that bill significantly.  This would put more money back into the system, alleviating some of the unprecedented financial challenges schools across Wales are currently facing.

So what needs to happen?  In the first instance we need to fully appreciate exactly what the situation is on the ground.  We know the impact of workload pressures and have countless examples of anecdotal evidence.  What we need now is the cold hard facts.

NUT Cymru have written to the Education Minister to ask that the Welsh Government conduct a workload survey to get a clearer picture of the reality of teaching for those working in the sector in Wales.  It has to be said that Huw Lewis AM has often spoken up for the profession since he was appointed to the role.  He is clearly a keen supporter of teaching as a profession and his drive to rekindle some of the lost respect for teaching has been very welcome for a profession that has often felt under siege in recent years.  I don’t think anyone doubts the Minister’s commitment to reducing the bureaucratic burden on teachers; to allowing them to get on with the role of teaching or in promoting the profession within the education sector and beyond.  The Minister has indicated that he is open to the idea of a workload survey being discussed with officials.  Hopefully this does lead to some tangible progress.  With that information we can set about creating a fairer and more manageable system that works with teachers and for pupils.  Ultimately we cannot continue with a system that results in a new teacher being pushed to exhaustion and forced to take time off through mental ill health on average every 5 hours.

This origionally appeared in the Western Mail on Saturday June 6th.  You can see it here.

Another Test

15 May

Sometimes when discussing education policy it is all too easy to drift away from the human aspect of what we do.  In fact one of the main complaints I hear from teachers is that we are dehumanizing pupils due to the obsession with data modern education systems have been infected with.  There is less and less focus on how John, Jim or Jenny are feeling and developing and more on how many children from gender/socio-economic background X have reached level Y.  That is really quite depressing for those teachers that went into the profession to change the lives of children.

One area where this sometimes happens is in discussing testing.  That sterile approach was challenged last year when NUT Cymru produced the feedback on a survey I conducted of teachers about standardised literacy and numeracy testing.  The uncomfortable human impact of this policy was all to clear to see.

I just thought I would blog briefly to draw attention to this piece by Cathy Owen in the Western Mail.  It is worth a read.  Not only does it offer a personal view from a parent it also reinforces the view that most educationists have long since accepted, which is that a standardised test does not fit all individuals equally and in many cases offers a badly misleading view of the capabilities of a child.  Something we should keep in mind as schools again undertake those annual exams.

Western Mail Article – Lessons from the Isle of Man

4 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Mail Article – Michael Gove’s Sacking

21 Jul

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“Michael Gove is Commons Chief Whip. He’ll have an enhanced role in campaigning and doing broadcast media interviews. #Reshuffle.”

That was the tweet David Cameron published to seal the fate of the former Secretary of State for Education. To the layman you can just as easily read; “Michael Gove has been sacked.”

It appears that the Prime Minister and his team have finally woken up to the reality that many people already knew; Michael Gove and his policies have been incredibly unpopular amongst not only the teaching profession but also the wider general public.

YouGov polling shows that between March 2010 and December 2013, support for the Conservative party amongst teachers, who are generally individuals motivated to exercise their right to vote, dropped by -17%. An opinion poll in January this year showed the Conservatives 41% behind Labour amongst teachers. The gap was just 8% going into the last general election.  A few months on and no doubt that gap will be widening further still.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the NUT highlighted that just 8% of parents thought the Westminster Government’s reforms were a good thing for education. Only 6% of parents said they trusted the former Secretary of State with education compared to 58% support retained by teachers.

These are of course UK figures. Through Huw Lewis AM Wales has its own Education Minister setting the priorities and direction of our policies. However it is still clear that Gove has become electoral poison for the Conservative Party.   The statistics make sobering reading for David Cameron and they were no doubt an important factor in the cabinet changes he made. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while the MP for Surrey Heath may still be seen in the papers from time to time, an enhanced broadcast media role he will not enjoy.

In many ways Michael Gove’s departure from post is an important step. Teachers across Wales who have seen their pay and pensions slashed, and policies introduced that threaten the very sustainability of the role, will be celebrating. Michael Gove has presided over a crushing attack on the professionalism of teachers with his consistent, and highly misguided, views being a key reason that we have seen plummeting morale, motivation and engagement in the sector.

While we are fortunate enough that devolution has helped shield us from some of the more ludicrous approaches that are evident in England; namely the development of Acadamies, Free Schools and classes lead by unqualified teachers, the areas that are still in the gift of the Westminster Government have meant that Welsh teachers have been equally hindered by Michael Gove’s approach. While the vast majority of education decisions come under the responsibility of Cardiff Bay, Westminster remains responsible for pay and pensions. Policies around those issues have, unfortunately, been implemented to the detriment of the teaching profession here and are directly responsible for the decision of many to pursue alternative careers outside the sector. Schools in Wales have already lost enthusiastic and intelligent practitioners who have become disillusioned at the way they have been treated.

With all the above being said it is very important that we remember that while the personalities may have changed at the Department for Education the policies, for now at least, remain the same. Where teachers have been taking strike action; arranging lobbies of parliament; discussing concerns with MPs or holding street stalls in town centres to speak directly to parents, they have done this not in opposition to Michael Gove but in opposition to what Michael Gove has been doing.

It is not the name on the door of the Secretary of State’s office that is troubling classroom teachers but the implementation of policies which have little evidence to support them and that will not improve standards. In fact policies such as performance related pay have been widely discredited within education systems across the world with no recognised proof that they will support better teaching. Even Conservative MPs have come out in opposition to these reforms.

While Michael Gove’s sacking does not mean there is a change in focus for those campaigning against changes that mean teachers are working longer, paying more and receiving less in return, it does at least offer a little hope. Discussions have in the past been solely focussed on the implementation of policy rather than why representatives right across the education debate have grave concerns about them. This is in contrast to the Welsh Government’s Education Minister. Since Huw Lewis’ appointment there has been clear dialogue. It is true to say that there are disagreements on the areas that are devolved. It would be foolish to suggest the profession is supportive of school banding or standardised tests for example. However, these are concerns that have been debated in a rational fashion. This has enabled relationships to be developed that where agreement is found there can be collaboration and support. In losing the confidence of the workforce Michael Gove failed to build those bridges.

Nicky Morgan MP has it in her power to rebuild some of the damage her predecessor caused. She can become a proactive and progressive voice in listening to the teaching profession and addressing the failures that past policy mistakes have created. That is the challenge now facing the new Secretary of State and the Westminster Government. Failure to do so will not only be a failure for the Westminster Government but a failure for all the teachers, parents and pupils who remain invested in creating a world class education system.

You can read the article on the Western Mail website here

Western Mail Article – Saturday April 26th – “Education report heralds time to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ in Wales.”

6 May

Below is an article I wrote for the Western Mail on the OECD report and the need to act on the criticisms it makes of existing Welsh Government policy.

If the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results were described as a “wake-up call” to the education system by the former Education Minister Leighton Andrews, then the recently published OECD report into education in Wales is very much the smell of a strong cup of coffee.

Firstly, we should not ignore the positives.

In Wales we are far too eager to berate ourselves, rather than recognising what we have got right.

It is not all bad news and indeed some of the excellent strengths of our system, that are often overlooked during the rush to assign blame for perceived poor performance, are highlighted here.

Central to this is the acknowledgment that “schools offer positive learning environments with good teacher-student relations and classrooms conducive to learning.”

The basics are there for a progressive and positive education system.

It is also good to see that the OECD recognises the Welsh Government was right to reject the ideologically-driven and educationally unsound academy programme seen in England.

The report reflects that “a comprehensive school system emphasising equity and inclusion” is a key strength in the existing set up. However, we also need to be realistic about just what the report tells us.

It pulls no punches and is clear that there are some things that need to change. Ignoring those warnings would be foolish.

Overall, the report does chime closely with many of the things NUT Cymru and other representatives of the workforce have been saying for some time.

Specifically, that literacy and numeracy tests narrow the curriculum and the years covered by the tests should be reduced; that the pace of reform has been high and lacks a long-term vision; that access to continuing professional development is not good enough; the esteem in which the profession is held needs to be increased; that the frequency of school banding should be reduced; and that school banding undermines collaboration.

To the vast majority of teachers, and indeed parents and pupils, that list will actually read as nothing more than common sense. But the report should make uncomfortable reading for the Welsh Government.

It is critical of the speed of its reforms as well as, in places, the nature and quality of what has been implemented.

It is fair to say from the report that the OECD is suggesting that the Welsh Government, at least to an extent, is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Therefore, that the initial re-sponses from the Welsh Government seem to suggest they believe this report vindicates their approach is quite worrying.

The OECD makes some very clear recommendations and some very hard hitting, but important criticisms.

The easiest thing for the Welsh Government to do would be to carry on regardless; re-imagining the content of this report as supportive of the current direction of travel and filing it away, doubtless never to be seen again.

But while it gathers dust, children, parents and teachers in Wales will not be getting any better service.

Schools will not improve and the problems with existing policy that the OECD have uncovered, both in its focus and implementation, will persist and increase.

It is easy to find with reports of this magnitude – 143 pages long – that we look at the headlines on the day they are published and then they are forgotten, consigned to only be mentioned again as a reference point for any potential future failures. That the Daugherty report, presented to the Welsh Government in 2007, made many of the same points about the need to establish long-term strategies and invest in teacher training is testament to the need to take action on these issues. We cannot waste another seven years.

Furthermore, given this report has cost the taxpayer a significant amount of public money, and more importantly the comprehensive independent analysis it provides of the Welsh system, to marginalise it would be a real shame and prove a disservice to all pupils, parents and teachers in Wales.

It will hurt to take an introspective look at the performance of the Welsh Department for Education.

It will not be an enjoyable task to sit down and say we got this, that or the other wrong.

No-one at the Welsh Government will realistically take any pleasure in saying their reforms were implemented too quickly; without the right levels of long-term planning, support and simplicity; or that they, in the case of standardised testing or banding, have just been wrong in their implementation. However, it will be the right thing to do.

Changes in approach are never easy but this is one that will be based on independent international evidence, supported by the profession and which could lay the foundations for a system shaped from a united agenda.

You can read the original from the Western Mail here

One Union

29 Mar

“One love, one heart . . .
Let’s get together and feel all right” Bob Marley

If Michael Gove has achieved anything as Education Secretary it is actually fostering a greater sense of professional unity.  This is not intentional on his behalf of course but the unintended impact of his policies.  Teachers at all levels and experience, irrespective of where they are at along their career path, will have seen the negative impact of his educational reforms.  It doesn’t matter if it is pay, pensions, morale or their general concerns for how teaching as a profession has been marginalised, there is a sense of united concern at what is consistently seen as a sustained and deliberate attack on the education sector.  Teachers from all unions have worked together closely in opposing these plans and have seen the benefit of speaking with one voice.

It has long been a key policy of the NUT to have just one union representing all teachers.  The more united the voice of teachers the stronger the case we can make.  Where teachers have had the most success in recent years defending education it has been as a result of doing things in partnership across different unions.

Every year the different teaching unions will attend student enrolment days to allow those going on to teaching training courses to sign up as members.  The question that is raised without fail at these events is, ‘why is there not just one teachers’ union?’

The truth is that the structures and roles of each union are very similar in offering support, guidance and representation for members.  In some cases the duplication of work in having different unions, at least at a local and school level, potentially detracts from the service that could be on offer if there was a more concentrated approach.

The four major teachers’ unions in Wales are all affiliated to the Wales TUC and all have representatives on workforce groups interacting with regional consortia, local and national government in various forms. Within these bodies, their voices are similar and mutually supportive.  There may at times be differences in approach but the general focus on policy is not too dramatically different. Joint proposals, attitudes and motions are more frequent than rival propositions.

Now, it is true there are differences in views and policies across the various unions.  However, many of these have become less and less visible as we have worked together successfully in opposing attacks on the education sector in recent years.  Such are the similarities, and so close are the parallels, that they would not present a mountain of difficulty to overcome in seeking to mould the conflicting bodies into one. Most mergers between commercial companies or amalgamations of unions face far more severe gulfs to span.

On Saturday, 1 March the NUT organised a very successful professional unity conference.  A packed meeting was addressed by speakers from the NUT, ATL and UCAC, Ritva Semi, OAJ the trade union for teachers in Finland and Howard Stevenson, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Nottingham.  Head teacher unions NAHT and ASCL also sent messages of support.

The case for professional unity was eloquently made by Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, who said:

“The unprecedented attack on the profession makes it more vital than ever that unity is achieved. Our organisations may have differences but what unites us is our concern for education and our desire to do what’s best for children and our members.  It therefore makes sense that we stand together.

“The high education standards achieved in Finland owe much to the voice of the profession being heard strongly through a single teachers union. The NUT is very proud of our history but we would be as proud to be part of forming one union for all teachers.”

The point about Finland is especially important.  There they have one teaching union who are always an integral partner for the Government when education policies are devised and implemented.  It is therefore no real surprise that they have an effective, efficient and harmonious education system that is revered around the world.

The message from the professional unity conference was overwhelmingly that this debate should be encouraged in schools, locally and nationally on how this can be achieved.  By working together we can win together.

What is the prize for such a commitment?  A single teachers’ union would be one of the largest unions in the TUC. It would be one of the largest teachers’ unions in Europe.  Its power to negotiate would be formidable and it could help secure long lasting improvements for teachers, parents and pupils.

Securing a single teachers union will not be an easy task but it is one where the benefits are huge for the profession and education as a whole.  A new body would truly be the voice of the teaching profession and could be the start of a historic period in education.

You can read the article as published in the Western Mail here.