Tag Archives: class sizes

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.

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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.

The Williams Deal

27 May

I found this Western Mail article really noteworthy this week.  Ignoring the politics of the alleged Labour fallout, albeit that is of course interesting, what struck me is the concessions negotiated by Kirsty Williams.  For someone who does not bring Labour a majority these 9 key announcements are pretty impressive.  Accepting of course that some will be policies that Labour are happy to deliver, and indeed may have done so regardless of the Lib Dem role in cabinet, there still remains some big areas for Kirsty Williams to claim as victories.

The infant class size reduction is a major win.  This was arguably the key election pledge of the Lib Dems in their election manifesto.  What is more it is a policy that has been criticised and opposed by both the previous Labour Education Ministers who disputed the impact smaller class sizes would have on standards.  It begs the question perhaps if such a deal would have been feasible had either, or both, returned to Cardiff Bay for this term.

The policy is a highly popular one among the teaching profession and so perhaps is an easy sell in coalition/agreement discussions.  I am delighted it is set to be introduced.  That said, it is not a cheap option.  Money will have to be found for this, and additional money at that.  To reach a 25 pupil cap the Welsh Government will have to ensure that schools have an adequate compliment of staff.  This at a time that when class sizes are increasing, partly as a result of schools having to make teachers redundant due to ever constrictive finances.

One of the big pledges from Labour at the election was for an additional £100m investment to improve school standards.  It may be natural to earmark park of that £100m spend for this policy thus seemingly killing two birds with one stone.  Or delivering two pledges with one budget if you will.  I wouldn’t find that a fair proposition.  Given this money was never intended for this purpose it would be slightly disingenuous to mesh these two policies together.  I think it is a reasonable expectation to expect both policies to be delivered in their entirety and separate to one another.

It will also be important to monitor how this policy impacts on other funding streams.  This includes money already set aside for the curriculum review and implementation, the New Deal continued professional development programme and schools challenge cymru, to name but a few.

The other area of interest with the 9 agreed that relates to schools is a review of the school surplus places policy.  This is somewhat ironic given that it is a policy that led to the end of Leighton Andrews tenure as Education Minister.  It will be interesting to see what comes of this, particularly with the emphasis on rural schools in light of much of the unrest in Powys given Kirsty Williams own constituency allegiances.

4 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2016

8 Jan

It has been a bit of a tradition of mine to blog on my hopes for Welsh education at the start of the year.  I previously did it in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions also looked back with the hindsight of 12 months to see how progress had panned out.  I thought it only right that I did so again for what is possibly the most important year for the sector since I started working in it.

1.  Class size

For a while now I have wondered how class sizes have been absent from the political agenda in Wales.  Almost without fail when I attend a conference, committee of general catch up with teachers and they raise the issues that are concerning them the most class sizes will inevitably come up.  I couldn’t quite relate that experience with the fact it wasn’t being discussed at a political level.

With that I was pleased a few weeks before the end of the last Assembly term of 2015 when Kirsty Williams AM brought it up at First Minister’s Questions.  The leader of the Welsh Lib Dems challenged the First Minister on why 30+ class size were rising in Wales.  His response was:

“Well, you must ask the local authorities that. As you know full well, local authorities are responsible for delivering education. We have done our bit; we’ve protected education spending relative to the block grant that we have received and it’s a question that’s best answered by them.”

I have to say it is not a response that I think either addresses the question nor fills those interested in education with much confidence.  I am not absolving local authorities of their responsibility.  The First Minister is right that they have a role to play.  However, it is undoubtedly a situation where the Welsh Government must take a level of responsibility and passing the buck doesn’t sit very well with me.

Since that exchange the Lib Dems announced one of their key election pledges on education for the Welsh Election next May.  They have come out with a pledge that infant class sizes will be capped at 25.  It is a policy I think will gain a fair amount of traction from classroom teachers.  Hopefully it will also instigate further thinking around this issue from the other parties who may also be considering class sizes in their manifestos next year.

As a side note to the above I did notice, and indeed challenge but without reply, the First Minister’s assertion on twitter in December that class sizes have reduced under the Welsh Government.  My reading of the Welsh Government’s own census data (pages 17 and 18) was that this is not the case.  In fact the opposite is true.  the average class sizes for both infant and junior age pupils have risen.  The percentage of those in classes of 30 or less has decreased while, inevitably I suppose, the percentage of pupils in classes of 31 and more has increased.

Hopefully in 2016 we will see this issue get a lot more traction.  Ideally we will see a reduction in class sizes to support pupils and teachers.  At the very least it would be positive to see all parties actively discussing their intentions to tackle the issue in the build up to the election.

2.  The Election Of Ideas

I blogged last year about how I was hopeful education wouldn’t be the political football the NHS was prior to the Westminster election.  Thus far it seems as if, while different parties may be critical of each other and be on the attack, they are putting forward ideas to be debated.

What I really want to see in 2016 is a continuation of policy debate.  I may not agree with everything that is put forward but no one single person, organisation, union, group or political party has all the answers to creating the best education system for Welsh students.  It is important to have a blend of views.  Education really does have to be front and center for any debates going into the Welsh election and I am excited to hear the competing, and perhaps, complimentary ways those standing before the electorate want to support teachers, parents and pupils.

3.  The Supply Question

Finally at the back end of 2015 we had the publication of the Children’s committee report into the supply system in Wales.  I do think the committee’s report could have been stronger.  It appears somewhat watered down in places to me.  Perhaps that was in order to ensure that it secured universally support from members.  That said there are some very important messages around the ineffectiveness of essentially establishing a monopoly, which has all but happened through the current preferred provider contract.

The below statement in the report is of particular interest in this regards:

“The Committee is concerned that the current model for supply teaching does not appear to be working effectively. The Committee believes that consideration should be given to reforming the way in which supply teachers are employed, including the possible use of cluster arrangements or employment through a national body as just two examples. In doing so, the Welsh Government should give careful consideration to national models elsewhere, such as Northern Ireland.

“The Committee acknowledges that the existing contract will need to be honoured and as such any new system could not become live until at least August 2018. However, the Welsh Government should start work now to design a new model for the employment of supply teaching, to ensure that the new system is in place in readiness for the end of the current contract.”

One thing for certain is that there really does appear to be a consensus that the system at present does not work for supply teachers; does not work for value for money and ultimately does not work for pupils and standards.  There are some real questions to be asked around the preferred provider contract and what happens when that runs its course.  2016 presents a real opportunity to start getting things in place for a more appropriate system that can finally put an end to years of mistreating this core section of the teaching profession.

4.  Pioneer Schools

I have been a supporter of the Welsh Government’s idea of establishing pioneer schools.  Schools have been identified to pioneer work in developing the new curriculum; creating a digital framework and looking at the ‘new deal’ on professional development.  Having those experts to deliver this work will hopefully mean we end up with a curriculum that is teacher and child friendly; a digital framework that works in parallel with what is already happening across the curriculum in schools and a new deal that finally allows the profession to become empowered through training, based on their individual needs and the needs of the school and system.

I was particularly pleased that following extensive research work undertaken by the NUT on stress related illness among teachers, the Minister announced that he had also instructed pioneer schools to look closely at workload implications for what they will be proposing.  Often in the past we have seen new initiatives which are entirely well-intentioned, and have credible ambitions, but fall down because they have simply failed to take into account the pressures they put on teachers.  They have either underestimated the workload commitment to delivering the new initiatives or else they have failed to reflect on the impact it will have on other areas of school life.  Hopefully given this direction from the Minister that will not be the case this time around.

Having spoken to some pioneer teachers I am encouraged at the way they are approaching the work.  My big hope for 2016 is that the work of any pioneer school, in any pioneer area, is not done in isolation.  We simply cannot have three separate strands of pioneer work that contrast one another.  They must come together as complimentary visions.  The new digital framework must sit well with the new curriculum and both must allow space for the ideas of professional development brought forward by the new deal pioneers.  I really do hope there is a pause for thought at the end of this process where the proposals of all the pioneer groups are looked at together and not on an individual policy basis that does not take into account changes elsewhere.

Class Sizes

10 Dec

For a while now I have wondered how class sizes have been absent from the political agenda in Wales.  Almost without fail when I attend a conference, committee of general catch up with teachers and they raise the issues that are concerning them the most class sizes will inevitably come up.  I couldn’t quite relate that experience with the fact it wasn’t being discussed at a political level.

With that I was pleased a few weeks ago when Kirsty Williams AM brought it up at First Minister’s Questions.  The leader of the Welsh Lib Dems challenged the First Minister on why 30+ class size were rising in Wales.  His response was:

“Well, you must ask the local authorities that. As you know full well, local authorities are responsible for delivering education. We have done our bit; we’ve protected education spending relative to the block grant that we have received and it’s a question that’s best answered by them.”

I have to say it is not a response that I think either addresses the question nor fills those interested in education with much confidence.  I am not absolving local authorities of their responsibility.  The First Minister is right that they have a role to play.  However, it is undoubtedly a situation where the Welsh Government must take a level of responsibility.

Since that exchange the Lib Dems announced one of their key election pledges on education for the Welsh Election next May.  They have come out with a pledge that infant class sizes will be capped at 25.  It is a policy I think will gain a fair amount of traction from classroom teachers.  Hopefully it will also instigate further thinking around this issue from the other parties who may also be considering class sizes in their manifestos next year.

As a side note to the above I did notice, and indeed challenge but without reply, the First Minister’s assertion on twitter that class sizes have reduced under the Welsh Government.  My reading of the Welsh Government’s own census data (pages 17 and 18) was that this is not the case.  In fact the opposite is true.  the average class sizes for both infant and junior age pupils have risen.  The percentage of those in classes of 30 or less has decreased while, inevitably I suppose, the percentage of pupils in classes of 31 and more has increased.

“Call time on the exam-factory”

27 Apr

This article by Labour UK Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, makes for interesting reading and is potentially a pretty big departure from recent PISA driven reactions to education policies.  In the piece Hunt essentially argues against the continuing march across the vast majority of Western, or Westernised, education systems towards systems based on exams and testing.

He will not find much opposition to his views from me.  I have written several blog posts criticising the testing regimes here in Wales and the nature of education systems that put passing tests above developing a whole-child approach to education.  (As an aside I have also blogged on Ken Robinson’s TedTalks presentation that is referenced in the piece).

Now I don’t agree with everything that is said in the article.  However, it is refreshing to hear Tristram Hunt state views such as:

“We need to call time on the exam-factory model, ensure a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching rather than fruitlessly reforming school structures.”

Education is of course devolved and so what Tristram Hunt wants to see as the Labour UK spokesperson is not something that Huw Lewis may, or may not, wish to see implemented in Wales.  I think it is fair to say in recent years that the fact we have had the protection of devolution for education has saved a lot of misguided policy upheaval for our students.  Still, this is a view that may need to chime this side of the border.

Hunt’s views come at a time where we continue to have the intrusive and highly divisive standardised testing regime in Welsh primary schools.  We already know how unpopular and educationally disturbing these have been for teachers, pupils and parents alike since they were introduced, especially amongst the very youngest pupils.  We are also putting the Foundation Phase at risk by introducing assessment against age related expectations for those very youngest pupils.

Bizarrely, in some respects, while the above is ongoing in schools we also have the contradictory approach of the new curriculum review in Wales which is clear about the need for a more informative and light-touch assessment regime than we have at present.  Something I feel also came out of the OECD’s evaluation of Welsh education.

It certainly appears at present that the direction of travel we are aiming for in terms of curriculum design, as well as some of the principles of our system in regards to the Foundation Phase and philosophy of qualifications, remains somewhat at odds with the high-tariff, punitive accountability and testing measures currently in place.  We will need to square that circle at some point to ensure that the progressive changes that Huw Lewis is currently implementing are as effective as they can, and should, be.

On a separate issue it is also worth noting recent commitments by Tristram Hunt on class sizes.  This is something that Labour in England have put as a high priority with a specific election pledge on capping numbers.  At the same time we have seen a small, but steady, increase in the percentage of children taught in class sizes of 30+ in recent years in Wales.  With the state of school finances leading to redundancies there is a fear that number will only continue to increase.  It will be worth watching what all political parties say on that issue as we head towards the Welsh election in 2016.  I know from discussions with teachers that it is certainly one of the issues that trouble them most.