Tag Archives: IWA

IWA Article

13 Apr

Last week the Education Workforce Council published the first ever National Education Survey.  For a number of years teaching unions, and indeed others interested in seeing a full picture of the state of the sector, have argued for such a survey to be conducted.  The Westminster Government, which has certainly not been seen as a friend to the teaching profession in recent years, has conducted these regularly, albeit at times only publishing the results when dragged kicking and screaming to do so.  Yet despite this, successive Welsh Education Ministers have held steadfast against conducting a similar piece of research in Wales.

With the appointment of Kirsty Williams, and the commitment to an annual workload survey in the Welsh Lib Dem manifesto, this has changed.  The current Cabinet Secretary for Education and the Welsh Government certainly do deserve credit for following through on that commitment.  Furthermore what was produced was ultimately a far more in-depth and substantive piece of work than that which was originally outlined.  In addition to the aforementioned parties the EWC itself also deserve praise for what we have brought forward.

That said there was not much of a fanfare from the Welsh Government around the launch.  One reason this has potentially been given, for want of a better description, a ‘soft launch’ is that much of it makes for uncomfortable, if perhaps unsurprising, reading.  From a school teacher’s perspective and by extension the perspectives of pupils and parents, there are some hugely concerning headline figures, such as:

  • 78.1% of teachers felt workload was an issue.
  • 88.3% of school teachers disagreed or disagreed strongly that they were able to effectively manage their existing workloads.
  • Full-time school teachers revealed they regularly work an average of 50.7 hours during a working week.
  • 33.6% of school teachers indicated they intended to leave the profession in the next three years.

These figures do not paint the picture of a sustainable workforce.  That a third of teachers are intending to leave the role within the next three years, and such a significant proportion of the entire profession feel unable to cope should set the alarm bells ringing within the DfE.  Quite clearly this can’t continue and a lack of action risks sending us to a crisis point.

Unions have been warning that the situation was unworkable for some time.  The anecdotal evidence and case studies could fill the shelves of Cardiff library.  We also know from research carried out by my own employer that this has had a dramatic and disturbing impact on the mental health of the teaching profession with an average of over 50,000 teaching days being lost every year due to stress related illnesses.  What we now have is the concrete baseline statistics that back up that view.  All of this of course is before we ask teachers to do even more with regards to the big changes they are facing.  So what of those changes, the survey also offers some insights there:

  • 45.5% of school teachers stated they were not very or not at all familiar with the new Welsh Government Digital Competency Framework.
  • 71.1% of supply teachers and 38.6% of school teachers indicated they were not very or not at all familiar with the content and recommendations in Professor Donaldson’s report which forms the basis of the new Welsh curriculum.

The above statistics should encourage everyone to pause for thought when considering the effectiveness of implementing policies in the education sector in Wales.  Too often in the past we have seen well-meaning and sometimes well-thought through ideas fall by the wayside because they have not been articulated to the profession properly; they have not taken into account the impact on other areas of work, they have not been adequately resourced, they have not gained the confidence of the teaching profession or they have simply not been given the time to show their worth.  The views expressed here suggest we are at risk of making the same mistakes with policies that have, by and large, received universal buy in from stakeholders.  There has been little dissent within the education sector about the principles and objectives of the Donaldson review.  The Successful Futures document was widely welcomed but a number of people have publicly and privately been raising the fear that the rush to deliver could mean the failure to do so successfully.  Getting this done right is more important than getting this done right now.  The existing holes in knowledge and understanding around these key issues, especially in relation to the Digital Competency Framework which is already in existence, should be given a lot of consideration.

I don’t write these words to berate the Welsh Government, the Department for Education and certainly not the Cabinet Secretary.  The workload burden and morale issues that are evident were not developed on her watch.  Nonetheless they now exist within her landscape.  The most important thing about this survey is not to carp on about the problems it has exposed.  The results are not something to use for blame but as a point at which we can all ask the big questions about how we react.  How can we encourage more professionals to want to remain in their teaching roles?  How can we reduce the workload burden, especially the administrative side which does little to improve standards?  How do we ensure the timing for delivery of the new curriculum is such that the sector is on board instead of attempting to shoe horn new ideas in blindly?  These are the debates the survey must spark but that can only happen if those who commissioned it put it at the heart of their thinking.  The responses tell us the home truths we least want to hear but perhaps the messages that must be given the most attention.

This piece first appeared on the IWA click on Wales website.  You can view the original here.

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Goodbye Schools Challenge Cymru

19 Oct

“Endings to be useful must be inconclusive” – Samuel R. Delany

I wrote an article for the Institute of Welsh Affairs back in August questioning if Schools Challenge Cymru was going to be given enough time to prove itself a positive policy.  The answer came in yesterday’s budget when the policy was no where to be seen.

Now, on one hand analysis of the policy suggests it has not created a significant uplift in the way some had envisaged at this stage.  The independent review referenced in my IWA piece presents quite a mixed picture of SCC.  Clearly it hasn’t been a big bang impact of intervention.  However, I’ve never expect that it would be.  We are only a few years into the programme and examples from London and Manchester suggested that similar systems took years to wield the sort of results we would want to see.  While no one would want to see such a significant amount of money invested in a project that doesn’t deliver, there are questions to be asked about if Schools Challenge Cymru has been given the necessary time to prove itself.  It also puts doubts in the minds of those in the sector around the viability and longevity of future policies.  It is getting harder and harder to convince teachers to become invested in embracing a new approach when experience tells them they will be starting afresh in a few weeks, months or years.  For example, how do we know if future policies, such as the reduction of class sizes, will also be funded long enough to ascertain if they will create a tangible benefit for Wales.

Given that it has been brought to an end what is important now is that we ensure that the funding for it is diverted to other important areas within the education portfolio, and that those schools who were involved with the Schools Challenge Cymru policy are continued to be supported in other ways in future.  The additional finance provided within the Pupil Deprivation Grant is certainly a positive step forward.

The Programme for Government: ‘Could do better’ – IWA Article

23 Sep

“Our future prosperity and stability depends on the skills and values of the people of Wales.  Education has a fundamental role to play in personal fulfillment, community development and wealth creation.”

The opening to the education section of the Welsh Government’s ‘Taking Wales Forward’ document makes a pretty important point.  Often, especially when commentators speak about education in relation to PISA, it can be all too easy to see our school system as nothing more than a factory for tomorrow’s workforce.  For today’s teaching workforce, who deal with pupils day in day out in classrooms across the country, it is far more than that.

Of course education is an economic driver and that is both reflected in this opening gambit, and indeed in the structure of our skills based curriculum, but it is also about personal development and building a socially responsible and creative community.  With that in mind it is pleasing to see a range of pledges focused on this aspect of learning.

There is a reaffirming of the commitment to the Foundation Phase (albeit that it is sometimes hard to qualify this against the introduction of age-related expectations and literacy and numeracy testing which has skewed the ethos of the policy); there is a very welcome extension of the pupil deprivation grant; early years intervention strategies and specific focus on looked after children.  This is not to mention the politically controversial “legislation to end the defence of ‘Reasonable Punishment” – or smacking ban to you and I, finding its way onto the agenda.

Aside from this we see the key Labour and Lib Dem election pledges of an additional £100m of investment for school standards and a reduction in class sizes respectively both featured prominently.  We also see some big thinking policies such as the new curriculum, new ways of delivering supply teaching and the roll out of the digital competency framework.

However, while the above is encouraging, what is apparent throughout the document is that this is not a list that is heavy on accountability.  There are plenty of commitments to ‘review,’ ‘examine,’ ‘promote,’ and ‘prioritise’ but few targets to measure how those policies will be judged as successful.  At a time where one of the biggest bugbears of the education workforce is the harsh accountability measures and implications that go hand in hand with them, we seemingly have a programme for government without the metrics of measurements to fully hold the Welsh Government to account. What in practice does ‘developing closer links between universities and schools’ mean? How do we determine if the Welsh Government has succeeded in ‘supporting families and parents to reduce adverse childhood experiences’ in practical terms and how is a review of the current policy on surplus school places a policy in itself rather than the action it wields?  Even on those key pledges we are not given the fine print on where that £100m comes from and how it will be filtered out to schools or when and how the class sizes policy will be implemented.

The IWA’s Acting Director wrote a pretty damning review of the programme for government this week.  I have to say I very much share her sentiments that we should hope that this is “just an initial document and more detailed policy plans will be published over the coming few weeks and months.”

If what the Welsh Government intended with this piece of work was to simply establish a roadmap to the next 5 years it may prove to be a useful reference point.  The skeleton of their body of work will have been established with meat  to be added to these bones throughout the term. In many ways that is a natural position to have. We have to remember that in education more than anywhere else, as a result of a coalition of ideas between Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos, it may take time to work through the practicalities of delivering these policies.  However, if this document is designed to be the measuring stick by which the government expects to be held accountable then it will have failed to build a sense of trust from the education sector or the wider public.

Few in the education sector would argue against the aims and objectives of the Welsh Government.  The ambitions of this document are right but in spite of its publications we remain somewhat unclear as to how they will be achieved or evaluated.

The above was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.  You can find the original here.

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.

Uncertainty hanging over Schools Challenge Cymru – IWA Article

5 Aug

Back in early 2014 the Welsh Government announced their flagship policy for school improvement.  Schools Challenge Cymru was set to be the Welsh version of the lauded London and Manchester Challenge initiatives which had seen some radical and inspiring results.

With an initial pledge of £20m for at least two years there was financial backing for the programme.  This proposal was introduced at the height of the policy fatigue in the Education sector we saw during the last Assembly term.  Thankfully the recruitment of some key personnel from previously successful challenge programmes, including the impressive communicator Professor Mel Ainscow, did help alleviate some fears.  A little over two years on inevitably people will ask the question “has Schools Challenge Cymru worked for us?”

It is essential with any project of this nature that we are continually reviewing its progress to ensure it is providing value for money.  When there is a large financial investment, especially considering education budgets are so tight at present, it is crucial that teachers in schools are seeing a tangible benefit for their pupils.

The evidence from the first independent review suggests that thus far progress is patchy.  Some had already voiced their uncertainty of the impact of SCC.  When data showed the 40 schools in the SCC programme were just 0.3% better than those not included, the then Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, said in October last year:

“The Labour government’s flagship SCC programme was intended to deliver swift, sustainable improvement to schools that face challenges – but it hasn’t delivered the results.”

However, putting those results into context the aforementioned Professor Ainscow, writing for this very website, stated that:

“Overall, the picture for the Pathways to Success schools is beyond my expectations.  Indeed, neither the London nor Manchester Challenges made the same progress after just one year.”

So what does the review tell us? Perhaps most worrying is that “interviewees, in just over a quarter of the visited PtS schools, indicated that they felt that, following inclusion in SCC, they had seen an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.” (Page 87)  By extension therefore there are a significant number of schools who are not seeing that same level of improvement.  Conversely however, “The majority of interviewees in 32 of the 38 PtS schools we visited indicated that they felt that participation in SCC had had a positive impact on their school.” (Page 92)

For me one of the key lines of the report is that:

“In most cases, interviewees welcomed the opportunity afforded to PtS schools by their inclusion in SCC and the availability of additional support to help clusters overcome their barriers to improvement. That said, in most cases, interviewees reflected that work undertaken to date was not dissimilar to that which had been undertaken prior to the launch of SCC.” (Page 5)

This is perhaps the crux of the concern.  Teachers are open to sharing views and building towards the promise land of a self-improving education system.  While I recall initial hesitation from some practitioners at the potential stigma of being included in the 40 SCC schools, they were also open to embracing support and cooperation.  Sadly, as with many past Welsh Government initiatives, implementation hasn’t always matched the ambition.  Where it has worked, it has worked well.  Where it hasn’t there is a need to examine why and to improve on the offer being made to schools.

Clearly there are some teachers and some schools who are seeing the positive effects of the Schools Challenge Cymru program while others are yet to be convinced.  What we do know is that similar initiatives, such as the London challenge, were delivered over a much longer period.  These were many years in the making and by comparison Schools Challenge Cymru is very much in its infancy.  It may be that we cannot fully make a judgement on how impactful this approach will be for a few years.  Education reform does not happen overnight.  The world’s leading education systems have taken decades to develop.  Wales will not be unique in that regards and patience with any new policy is very much a virtue.

I think in some regards teachers are reluctant to embrace a new proposal if they are uncertain of how sustainable the commitment to it is.  While the initial money set aside was promising, the lack of a long-term commitment, for whatever reasons, did perhaps hinder the buy in from the sector.  A profession that has have become jaded by policies announced to great fanfare one day only to be scrapped the next were always going to view a two year guarantee as short-term.  Even today, in light of a new Government and a new Cabinet Secretary, with the Minister who brought this project to life no longer an Assembly Member, the uncertainty continues to hang over the policy.

If it is to be a success then it will be important to communicate where there have been successes and replicate that action across schools and local authorities.  Perhaps the biggest question we can ask of Schools Challenge Cymru is if it will be afforded the time and investment to truly prove itself the game changing initiative it was announced to be.

This was originally an article written for the IWA Click blog and can be found here.