Tag Archives: School Banding

Painting the Picture of Categorization

29 Jan

“Give freedom to colours and then you shall meet the rainbow everywhere” – Mehmet Murat ildan

Yesterday saw the publication of school categorization, the system which places schools in a color-coded model running from Green-Red via Yellow and Amber.  It is the second year these figures have been published following the scrapping of the controversial and ultimately discredited school banding policy.

One of the early successes of categorization, in contrast to its predecessor, is the way the Welsh Government have attempted to communicate its worth.  Despite it supposedly not being the objective of banding the Welsh Government did appear to, intentionally or otherwise, promote the view that this was the primary way of judging schools.  Very quickly it became the go to measure for schools and created damaging competition and rivalry within the system, and mislead a great number of parents as to the quality of their local provisions.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that often the rankings contrasted wildly with Estyn inspections and by year two we saw some radical changes in rankings  where schools classed as the best in Wales one year were in need of emergency intervention the next. (or vice versa).

There were some real concerns with the effectiveness and foundations of banding.  You can read some of my thinking at the time here if you are feeling particularly nostalgic.  However, perhaps the biggest puzzle was why the Welsh Government had created a system that would not actually allow progress to be shown.  Under banding for any school that moved up the bands another had to drop down.  Why any government would wish to put in place an accountability measure that would not enable them to show positive results I have no idea.

It is therefore very pleasing to see that categorization has learnt from that mistake.  It is somewhat ironic that the positive news story being championed of so many additional schools in the green category this year could not exist under banding.  I am reluctant to get drawn into the discussion of saying all is well in Welsh education based on the fact that we have more schools in green for two reasons.  Firstly, changes to the way categorization is put together mean you can’t in all honesty compare like for like with last years results.  Although I am of the understanding that it certainly isn’t any easier to secure positive results this year compared to 2015.  Secondly, education moves in a cyclical motion.  Who knows how things will pan out next year when small changes in some schools make a big difference to the end result?

That issue of small changes having such a large impact is something small schools in Wales have felt aggrieved about.  I think they have a legitimate concern in fairness.  In a school of 1,000 pupils one individual under-performing will not have anywhere near the same impact on the schools overall outlook compared to a single pupil in a school of 100.  In that sense the system is unfair on them.  To credit the Welsh Government I do believe the nature of how categorization works, taking into account more than just raw data as banding did, does mitigate that concern in a better way.  However, it is still an issue that everyone should take into consideration.  We should always reflect on the system to see where ongoing improvements can be made.

While I would guard against seeing these categorization results as a definitive assessment of schools in Wales they, taken alongside the encouraging Estyn report; GCSE results; A Level results and other indicators, do show a growing narrative of positive action.  Progress is being made against the backdrop of continuing challenging times.  The hope is we can keep that momentum going as the new curriculum comes in and the New Deal is developed.  If we manage to get those two big policies implemented effectively, and that is a very big if still, then there is no telling where we could go.

Whatever your views on categorization, and there is still reservations undoubtedly about the system, it is a marked improvement on what we had before.  The Welsh Government have been far more prepared to discuss the system as a developing tool and have been more focused on making it a model for identifying support rather than proportioning blame.  The real test of course will be to see if that promise of support is delivered.  If we do see schools receiving quality support from categorization I think it could prove to be a useful and effective tool, if not then inevitably it will lose the confidence of the sector.  Fingers crossed for the former.


Banding Abandoned

26 Sep

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I have never been a big fan of school banding.  It has caused a great deal of problems for schools; has added little in terms of genuine accountability and has put huge barriers between parents and schools while simultaneously reducing the collaboration that goes on in our sector.  When I wrote my ‘6 hopes for Welsh education’ at the start of the year reforming banding was at number one.

It was not only me of course that had a real hang up with this system.  It had lost all credibility with the public and was an embarrassment to the Welsh Government.  It has been hard to find anyone that truly believes that it was a system that was working.  In their report on Welsh education the OECD were very critical arguing that banding needed an overhaul to make it more transparent; more coherent and with more mutually agreed criteria.

Given the above I’m sure no one will be surprised that I am very pleased the Welsh Government have taken the decision to finally do away with this policy.  At one point it did appear as if we were going to see the new ‘categorisation’ model brought in alongside banding.  Yet another performance indicator creating an even more confusing picture for parents while the discredited banding model limped on.  I’m very thankful that this is not the case.

We will of course have to hold our judgement on banding’s successor.  After seeing just how badly devised and implemented school banding was it is understandable that the education sector will have a fair amount of scepticism that the Welsh Government have got it right this time around.  It will be important that teachers on the ground have the confidence that if there are negative impacts as a result of categorisation, or unintended consequences, they can raise this with the Government and it will be looked at.  Equally, if there are any flaws in how the system comes together or is working the Welsh Government, in a way that they were not for banding, are open to working with the profession to resolve them.

On the face of it, while I am not convinced that any ranking system is really a positive thing, categorisation has at least looked at resolving one of the main issues with banding.  Under the banding system schools could only show improvement and move up the bands if another were to fall down.  It placed schools in direct competition with one another which ultimately has hindered the collaboration agenda.  By creating a new system in which all schools may be in the highest green zone or the lowest red zone it at least leads to a situation where school performance, as it is perceived by this model at least, is not dependent on illogical comparisons elsewhere.  This has the potential to start repairing the damage banding did to school-to-school support.  No doubt I will revisit categorisation as the system is presented in depth in future.

Of course what we really need, the holy grail of performance evaluation if you will, is a system that charts the progress at individual level, where recognition is given to how far a child develops their personal potential.  This would be a system that reflects not just where a child has ended up but the distance they have gone from where they started.  We live in hope on that one.


Postcards from the Isle of Man

7 Jul

P1010779a(The NUT delegation outside the Professional Development Centre.  Far right is the Isle of Man Minister for Education, Tim Crookall)

I recently went to the Isle of Man to visit some schools and look at their education system and what Wales could learn from it. I thought I’d reflect on some of what I saw in a blog post.

The first thing to note about my experience is that during the entirety of the 4 hour bus travel to Liverpool airport on a Sunday afternoon the headteachers that were accompanying me were wading through reams of paperwork and iPad data entry. If ever there was an example of how the work-life balance has been tilted in the wrong direction this would be it.

We started out the next day at the island’s central professional development centre. The fact that one exists at all is a clear testament to how the IoM Government values the continuing upskilling of its sector. To the headteachers who were with me this was like a flashback to a bygone era. CPD in Wales has just not been given this sort of focus in recent years. I have to say that I am more hopeful at present than at any other time since I joined the NUT that this is now finally going to be addressed. The Education Minister, to his credit, has publicly recognised that teachers in Wales have been short-changed in regards to the access and quality of training. His ‘new deal’ for teachers, while not actually offering any new funding, does at least put in place a legal requirement for all teachers to access professional development from the start to the end of their careers. A promise that will only be worth anything if it is delivered in practice but the signs are positive that this could be the first tentative step towards a greater social partnership between the Welsh Government and the profession. Something I have no doubts both sides would welcome and that would ultimately be a huge benefit to pupils, parents and teachers alike.

Hearing the IoM Minister for Education, Tim Crookall, was really quite uplifting. It was probably the least political speech I’ve heard from a politician. He spoke of his pride at the work going on in schools on the island but was quite humble in his clear stipulation that it was entirely down to the teaching workforce. Perception goes a long way in life and having an Education Minister speaking about the profession in such glowing terms instils a respect that has been missing in Wales. I don’t say this as a criticism of Huw Lewis. I have been pleased with the tone that he has taken. As a former teacher himself he clearly has a respect for the role and he has started the process of raising the self-esteem of the sector, both in the content and delivery of his policies, and deserves credit for that. However we do have a job of work to do in Wales. This was an issue that the OECD highlighted in their report.

The Minister was also keen to impress the commitment that the Government had made to encouraging schools to develop their own unique identities. There are 37 schools in total on the Isle of Man, 32 primary and 5 secondary. The mantra of the Minister was that he wanted to see 37 different schools. Each with a curriculum designed to suit the needs of that particular school, its pupils and its community. Each school is celebrating its differences while working towards shared goals. In contrast, through our own restrictions and standardised policies, specifically the data driven overview, the expectation and reality is that schools are increasingly aiming to look and feel like one another. The vanilla to the IoM’s neapolitan approach. Of course we are ourselves currently going through a curriculum consultation. Within that process Professor Donaldson, who is leading the review, is asking what freedoms schools should have to shape their own curriculum, within the focus of delivering the core expectations. There is therefore the opportunity for change to be delivered that empowers schools to similar ends.

While 37 schools may seem too small a number for comparison with Wales what was interesting is that they essentially acted as a microcosm of the Welsh picture. Within those 37 schools there were small rural schools with a cohort of white British pupils, the type that would be seen in Carmarthenshire or Gwynedd, as well as multi-ethnic larger schools more akin to the challenges that would be faced by a school in the middle of Cardiff or Swansea.

Anyone who has read my blog in the past will know that I do not subscribe to the view that standardised testing of children truly reflects their capabilities or improves their education. In fact I would go further and suggest it stifles their progress. As Pasi Sahlberg, arguably the worlds leading education authority at present says;

“standardisation is the worst enemy of creativity and innovation in school.”

I was delighted therefore to see that standardised testing is not an avenue pursued by schools on the IoM. The motto of one primary school I visited was simply “do your best.” It is a very simple but powerful phrase. In Wales teachers will sadly often see a child’s best and be told by a consortia consultant or Estyn inspector that this child is a failure. I do not wish to lower the bar. Ambition is paramount to success and all children should be encouraged to aim higher and consistently improve. However, often we curtail that internal drive by establishing the fear of failure in children at too young an age. Without the approach of testing children, some incredibly young and just one year out of the Foundation Phase, the IoM have been able to largely eradicate the fear of failure amongst children. In fact failure, just as success, was celebrated as a way of learning how to adapt and change approach. Mistakes were not the difference between doing well or being a failure but a richer learning experience empowering reflective self-improvement.

Now I am not suggesting this doesn’t happen in Wales. It does. What I am saying that it is done as a result of the system in the IoM rather than in spite of it in Wales. Teachers here deliver that great practice by bucking the trend of what is expected by the different tiers of accountability.

Further to this lack of testing is the lack of league tables or banding. Schools are not placed in constant competition with one another and are therefore allowed to flourish as individual entities. What is more, in contrast to what takes place due to banding in Wales, there is a real sense of collaboration between individual teachers, schools and clusters on a level that is not realistically allowed to happen here. Yes there are some excellent examples of where this does happen in Wales. Policies such as the lead-emerging schools programme and Schools Challenge Cymru can also aid and support that. However there will always be that restriction based on the fact that currently schools know that their banding performance is, to an extent at least, dependent on how they do in relation to ‘rival’ schools. While that system exists we will never be able to fully embed working across school boundaries and catchment areas in the same way. This is again an aspect of education that we as a nation and a sector talk about in detail but have barriers to achieving. The introduction of school grading for primary schools threatens to undermine this aspiration even more. We can but hope that the development of a fairer categorisation system could ultimately prove the silver bullet that is needed to resolve this issue. Let’s just hope that banding has not sullied the good will of the profession beyond repair.

Testing and banding aside the big one is that the Isle of Man does not have an inspectorate. No Estyn. No Ofsted. Do not be fooled into thinking that this equates to a lack of accountability. Far from it. What it does mean is that accountability is driven by internal responsibility in a way that is not allowed to develop in Wales. It is an accountability system based on rigour and respect not driven by simplistic data evaluation and pressure on schools.

What is the chief benefit of this? Well 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. It is not about making sure that school X, Y or Z hits its floor targets by the next quarter. It is about ensuring that Matthew, Mark or Megan develop as rounded, confident, employable individuals who are contributing to their communities and who remain passionate and engaged in learning after they have left school. The barriers to the culture of fear that fill the corridors of Welsh schools have been broken down. Children and teachers are once again seen as individuals by the system not as crude data sets. This lack of fear also sets the tone for more honest relationships with central government. Schools can be confident in coming forward to say, ‘we need help with this,’ without expecting to be pilloried by officials, placed in special measures and see teachers pushed out of the profession through a punishment first approach.


Ultimately the lack of an inspectorate; testing and banding has created a system in the IoM that is far more child-centred than ours. It is one where data is undeniably important but it is not the primary determination of school performance and improvement. There is a wider view of developing pupils not numbers. On the island they are practicing what we in Wales often preach. It is a sector doing what Welsh teachers would love to be doing and what they used to do. It is why they got into teaching in the first instance. As one secondary school staff member said to me on my visit;

“People say to us ‘you have fantastic young people. If only you focused even more on data.’ I say in return ‘yes but then would we still have fantastic young people?‘”

Now not everything is perfect in the Isle of Man. There remains a great deal of challenge there and there is little doubt that there are plenty of strong positives in the Welsh system that they could learn from. Picking out some of the fundamental things they have got right in comparison to Wales certainly gives the perception that things are all doom and gloom in Wales when they are not. Still, I did leave having very much noticed that the mentality was different. One head teacher told me about the really tough challenges she faces but said she is excited about the next 5-10 years and what she can do with the school. In Wales the picture is of headteachers worried about being able to maintain staff and standards in the face of constant judgments with limited, if any, support while surviving rather than thriving over the coming 5-10 years. That is if they can remain in the profession for that long without burning out.

All that the IoM do is reflected in their results as schools there outperform England by an average of 10% at the end of school results.

The Isle of Man is not a paradise island in education terms but there’s no doubt to many teachers in Wales aspects of their approach may look pretty inviting.

OECD Report: Reflections Part III

9 May

As part of this mini-series looking at the OECD report into Wales’ education system I have been working through the documents recommendations. You can find links to part I and II, as well as some other posts relating to the report, at the end of this blog. Today I am looking at recommendations that the OECD suggest will ‘create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.’

Ensure that student assessments support learning for all and align to national objectives. Ensure objectives and targets are inclusive for all students and reflect the country’s focus on quality and equity. Investigate the impact of national tests on narrowing the curriculum. In the longer term, consider reducing the number of years covered by the Reading and Numeracy Tests, and consider the use of sample-based assessments to measure wider skills.

It is timely to look at this recommendation given it is this week that schools in Wales are undertaking the annual standardised literacy and numeracy tests for 2014. NUT Cymru launched a survey of members following last year’s tests and the results were not encouraging. The minor changes that the Welsh Government have brought in may have an impact but we won’t necessarily know how much until the teachers survey is replicated at the end of this test cycle.

The OECD are perfectly right to warn that the tests risk narrowing the curriculum. More and more the focus on literacy and numeracy, as valid as it may be, is driving out support for other subjects. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the time for teachers to develop the social, emotional and creative elements of the school curriculum. More than just the tests this is an impact of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) in general. Between the tests and the LNF we are seeing the fundamental ethos of the Foundation Phase eroded. Many schools have admitted to re-introducing formal literacy and numeracy sessions in the morning to ensure children are able to perform well in the recently introduced Year 2 reading and numeracy tests. It is therefore clear to see that the tests are changing the very nature of the well received and respected Foundation Phase. You can hardly blame those schools when so much importance is being placed on these high stakes tests in evaluating school performance in the primary sector. Furthermore, moves to introduce assessment against the LNF in the Foundation Phase will only add to the marginalisation of the ‘learn through plan’ approach to education in our early years.

I also think the OECD are correct to suggest that the number of years covered by the tests should be reduced. I would argue that the age at which students start the tests should be increased. Again, referring back to the NUT Cymru survey, teacher’s feedback suggests that these tests had an absolutely terrible impact on the wellbeing of pupils. Children, who through the Foundation Phase should not have undertaken any ‘formal’ education, are being tasked with sitting in an alien environment and placed under high pressure. The very concept of sitting at a desk is new to those pupils who are extremely young taking the tests, yet they are put in a sterile environment with no support from their teachers. What does that achieve other than damaging the pupil-teacher relationship and disengage pupils with school.

The statement about ensuring student assessment supports all learners is also a very valid one given the concerns that were raised with the first round of testing last year in relation to their accessibility for pupils with special educational needs.

Simplify professional standards. Simplify and reduce the number of professional standards and base them on a vision of the Welsh teacher and leader. Revised standards should cover all career stages, beginning, intermediate and advanced, and be extended to teaching and learning support staff.

As with most things in education less if very much more. It feels as if with every review we have added things into the system without either taking things out to make space or considering the consequences of that action. Simplification should really be the mantra of any Welsh Government when looking at changes in policies in future. That certainly is the case with professional standards. The Welsh Government’s revised standards of 2011 had 55 separate areas for teachers. This is not only far too prescriptive it is time-consuming and does not benefit teachers or pupils. A more streamlined set of standards will give greater focus while not changing the fact that teachers will undertake the additional expectations on their own performance. That the OECD suggest the standards should be looked at in the prism of what we want a Welsh teacher to look at across the length of their career is also positive. Hopefully this will lead to professional standards being far more aligned with the requirement for career long continued professional development.

Build school evaluation processes that support school improvement. Ensure the two external school evaluation systems (Estyn’s and the school banding system) have greater coherence. In particular, consider making the school banding calculation method more transparent, reducing the frequency with which schools are banded and judging schools on mutually agreed criteria for quality.

This is a recommendation that should be extremely high on the Welsh Government’s agenda. No one is opposed to parents, or for that matter teachers themselves, having information about school performance. Accountability is crucial in any walk of life and education is no different in that regards. The major problem we have at the minute is that we have far too many indicators and often they are competing and inconsistent with one another. We not only have School Banding and Estyn Inspections but a host of other data driven evaluation models. Now the Welsh Government are also proposing the introduction of categorisation while the other forms of performance indicator prevail. Quite frankly something has got to give.

Realistically how can any parent honestly make an informed decision about their local school within the current confusion of the system? Ignoring the many faults that exist with banding as a performance indicator, how can a parent seriously decide if a school is doing well on banding scores when in many cases those scores are completely undermined by Estyn inspections, and vice-versa.

What the OECD has said here about the need for greater coherence between banding and Estyn, which you could easily add other indicators to, was echoed by Robert Hill in his review of the system. What we need is a far clearer picture of performance focused on a fair and transparent assessment of the facts and ideally in a single format. The evidence banding looks at is not necessarily wrong but the way it is presented, boiling down a host of different data into one single figure, certainly is.

The report is absolutely correct to say that what evaluation processes must aim to achieve is a structure that supports school improvement. I have written previously about how banding is currently hindering that ambition. If it is to stay, and with the introduction of categorisation I do believe that is a real question that needs to be addressed, banding has to change. The Welsh Government has recently announced it will be reviewing the implementation of the banding policy. As the OECD suggest, and as I have previously argued, reducing the frequency of the publication of banding is a starting point to that review.

Strengthen evaluation and assessment competencies at all levels. Develop teachers’ capacity to support students by assessing them against learning objectives using a range of formative assessment methods. Develop data-handling skills among school leaders to inform their school improvement efforts and to appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes.

I do wish to excercise a little caution at the idea of “Develop(ing) data-handling skills among school leaders.” Yes let’s help schools interpret data better and CPD on that as well as any issue is always welcome.  However we don’t want to marginalise the creativity or professional judgement of the workforce at the same time. It is important that teachers still see children in their class not just numbers and targets.  Equally when assessing students, at least at the very early years, it is important to retain the stage not age principle.  Not all learners develop at the same pace or in the same way and we need to be mindful of that.

I welcome the proposal to “appraise school staff, as part of their school development planning processes” if what that means is identifying how CPD can be utilised in a development plan.  There is currently a Welsh Government consultation open on school development plans and it is positive to see that they believe identifying CPD is an integral part of that process.  If this recommendation is viewed in that context then it can potentially be a good thing.

The final part of the mini-series looking at the OECD’s recommendations will examine how the Welsh Government can ‘define and implement policy with a long-term perspective.’

You can click on the following links to read my initial response to the report, comparisons with the 2007 Dougherty report , part I and part II of the mini-series looking at the reports recommendations and my article in the Western Mail on the importance of this piece of work.


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

OECD Report: Reflections Part II

28 Apr

I’ve been away on holiday for the past week or so. Lovely it was too. Before I went I posted part one of a mini-series looking at the recommendations of the OECD report. You can read that here. Below I am looking at the second section of the reports proposals to improve the education system in Wales.

The second area of recommendation was for the Welsh education system to:

Build professional capital and a culture of collective responsibility for improved learning for all students:

There were four more detailed recommendations for how this should be achieved.

Raise the status of the profession and commit to initial teacher training. Attracting and developing high-quality human capital in the profession will be essential to moving the system forward towards educational excellence. In addition to raising the entry requirements into initial teacher training, implement campaigns to strengthen the perception of the profession, continue the ongoing reform and improvement of initial teacher training and engage schools to offer trainees placements. In the longer term, consider raising initial teacher training to the level of a Masters degree.

The decline of how teaching as a profession is respected has been an increasing factor for practitioners for quite some time. It almost feels that the days were teachers were held in high esteem within the community are gone. Partly that is due to the political rhetoric around education within the UK.

That is not to say the trust in teachers isn’t still very high. They remain one of the most trusted professions in the UK according to regular opinion polling. Yet at an individual and school level that is very much an eroding picture. For example, no longer is it the case that when teachers identify problems with pupils are they met with parents who are keen to work with them to resolve them or improve the child’s capabilities. Now it is a case of “well what are you doing about it.” That is a generalisation of course, there are examples of excellent parent-teacher-school relationships, but there is a growing sense that it is only teachers and teaching that is responsible for standards. That all plays into the narrative of the blame game and the diminishing respect for the profession as a whole. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve taken part in phone in radio programmes where the topic is something along the lines of “are teachers lazy/useless/stupid” (delete as appropriate).

The report is absolutely correct to state that any educational system is only as good as its human capital. To an extend this is a truism widely acknowledged. You can’t read a statement by the Welsh Government, a policy advisor, Estyn, etc. that does not state that teachers are the main driver in performance. It remains absurd therefore that there has been so little emphasis in supporting morale and professional development amongst this key component. Recognising the importance of teachers while systematically undermining their professionalism is wholly counterproductive, yet it is something that many teachers feel has taken place in Wales since 2011. Indeed, it is the sort of approach that has taken place across many of the world’s education systems in recent years.

Implementing campaigns to enhance the standing of teachers is a very worthy and worthwhile approach to follow. It is no surprise to see that those nations that lead PISA, be they in the Far East or Scandinavia, value their teachers both within the education system itself and in their wider society.

Increasing the entry requirements for teacher training is one way to build in respect but there does need to be a level of caution applied to this recommendation. Firstly, we must already acknowledge that this is already taking place in Wales as the GCSE levels for English and Mathematics for individuals starting the teacher training programme have very recently been raised by the Welsh Government. Some of this work is therefore being done.

My one concern with the idea of making entry to the teaching training programme harder is how reflective it is. Will this hinder high quality candidates from applying or getting on the course? Potentially there is an aspiring teacher of 30 years who has a 2:1/1:1 university degree, and years of experience in another profession, that would have developed skills ideal to empowering that individual to teach. However, as they had a C grade in their GCSE 14 years previously, they would not be allowed onto the course.

Furthermore, there is a need to recognise that teaching is more than just relaying information. It is making that information come alive and establishing relationships with a classroom of pupils so that they are enthusiastic about developing their skills and knowledge. Teaching is as much a creative art as it is a science. Not all teachers will necessarily have a first class degree from Oxbridge but having an innovative approach to teaching that translates well to the SEN pupil from the valleys can often be far more valuable.

There may be scope to look at the entry requirements, including interviews and assessments, but we need to be careful that we do not create a system that filters out talented teachers.

Finally, for this recommendation, I think the Masters issue is a very important one. The Welsh Government has been right to look at developing teaching into a Masters profession. It will undoubtedly enhance the quality and respect of teachers. What is concerning is how it currently works.

One of the most difficult periods for a teacher will be their first year, working towards achieving qualified teacher status (QTS). This is where they are essentially thrown to the wolves. The arduous prospect of preparing lessons and dealing with the almost 24/7 nature of teaching is made even more daunting by working towards that all-important QTS. That practitioners are now also expected to complete a Masters programme at the same time is creating even greater pressure. It does feel like this is a policy with the right intentions but questionable implementation.

Not only does it place huge pressures on newly qualified teachers (NQTs) it is also restrictive. Those already in the profession are not allowed access to undertake this Masters while those that do are given a very difficult choice of signing up straight away or lose any opportunity to have it funded. There must be a better way?

Ideally, I think it would be better to potentially extend the teachers training programme, or to enhance the level at which it is taught, so that those undertaking it compete their Masters studies before going into schools full-time. Not only will this enable those individuals to have a less intensive first year in the workplace as NQTs, it will also ensure that they have the solid grounding the Masters provides when starting out. An alternative approach would be to open the Masters up at a later date. This would be for any and every teacher to access but in the long-term as we move towards a full Masters profession it could be for those of 3-5 years’ experience. These individuals will have undertaken their first few years, they will have achieved QTS and will have become accustomed to the demands of the role. Then, having found that solid base they could take on the Masters with greater confidence.

Scotland’s model is one where teachers begin accruing credits towards a Masters diploma during their initial teachers training. They then have a period of time over a number of years in which to complete different modules, which can be accessed through a range of different universities, to fulfil the Masters. This offers a far more manageable workload while encouraging practitioners to access a broad range of materials and experiences.

Getting the thinking right around this issue could become even more critical in future if, or maybe when, teachers’ pay is devolved. We would all expect teachers in Wales to be paid at least the same as England. If that was ever not the case it would be astonishing if our Masters qualified profession would remain committed to Welsh schools when they would be more qualified but less rewarded than their counterparts across the border.

Ensure quality continuous professional development at all career stages. Work with schools, training institutions, and school improvement services to strengthen the provision of high-quality professional development aligned with national education priorities. Consider phasing in the new literacy and numeracy strategy and the new teaching skills required.

This is an absolutely crucial recommendation. For far too long, as admitted by the Education Minister at the back-end of last year, Continued Professional Development (CPD) in Wales has been marginalised. The ability of teachers to access CPD is almost non-existent at times. The cut to INSET days by the Welsh Government has not helped in this regards. The quality of the training is also questionable, especially when it is initiated by the Welsh Government directly. It is also a concern that increasingly schools are feeling unable to provide CPD that is not literacy or numeracy focused. While both are extremely important this is leading to the narrowing of the curriculum.

The best education systems in the world have CPD at the very core of their success. I could write for hours on how this is not being done correctly at the moment and why it would prove massively beneficial to do it better. Instead I’ll just say that the Welsh Government have recognised the failings through the Minister’s speech. Now the OECD has put it in hard cold evidence. It is time to stop with the dithering and start to get on with making a markedly improved investment in this area. I know this is something the Welsh Government, and the current Minister in particular, is keen to make progress on. Hopefully they will get their ambitions aligned with the OECD’s standpoint as it could very well be the single most important deficiency we have in our system at present.

The phasing in of the literacy and numeracy strategy is an interesting line. Or rather the word ‘phasing’ is an interesting word. That approach would be welcomed. Too often we have seen, indeed with the literacy and numeracy framework being a prime example, policies that are just dumped on schools with the expectation that they will be implemented and embedded in school’s DNA within a matter of hours. Polices that may have a great deal to offer in theory have been hampered by a lack of foresight in their delivery. It takes time to change a culture in education. The Welsh Government would be wise to take a phased approach with all of its policies in future and working with the profession on time tabling and resource requirements would also be a major step forward.

Streamline and resource school-to-school collaboration. Develop and implement a Welsh strategy for school-to-school collaboration, creating an architecture which encourages schools to select appropriate partners, in an atmosphere of transparency, awareness and support.

Schools and teachers are the first to say that the best way to improve is to work with, and learn from, one another. School to school collaboration is vital. One of the problems in Wales is that we haven’t just developed one policy for such collaboration to take place but have duplicated and thus confused the picture.

A few months back the Central South Wales consortia announced that it was to establish a Schools Challenge programme that was focused on schools working together to improve standards, similar to the successful London and Manchester Challenges. A matter of a few days later we heard about the Schools Challenge Cymru project launched by the Welsh Government which will be doing much the same thing. These are both, on paper, laudable and ambitious schemes but did we really need two? Thankfully it appears as if there will only now be one project, the Welsh Governments, progressing. However, that doesn’t hide the fact that working completely in isolation to each other, despite being integral partners, there was duplication in development that no doubt exhausted resources that would have been better spent on supporting schools. The fact that aside from these policies we also still have the lead and emerging schools programme in existence arguably focused on much the same thing just goes to show how it feels as if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to when it comes to formation and delivery of policy in Wales. On the positive side there is the potential for these initiatives to deliver strong and supportive action. The proof, as ever, will be in the pudding.

What is even more worrying is that as well as the policies to support school to school collaboration we also have in existence in Wales systems that totally undermine that approach. While the lead-emerging schools programme and Schools Challenge Cymru may be focused on collaboration; school banding (a policy that comes in for heavy criticism within the OECD’s report) pits schools directly in competition with one another. Under that system no school can improve and move up the bandings without another dropping down. It is extremely hard therefore to expect two schools to work together on improving when each knows that the others success could very well mean failure for them by the banding judgements. Unless this aspect of the existing education system in Wales is radically re-examined then collaboration is highly difficult, if not impossible, to fully achieve.

A further problem with banding is that it actually hinders the final recommendation here, namely a push for transparency, awareness and support. The Welsh Government’s My Local School website provides all the detail that makes up banding. Any parent can go online and read up about the attainment levels; free school meal figures; per pupil spend etc. of any school in Wales to make an informed evaluation about performance. The problem with banding is that it takes that variety of information and boils it down into one single figure. In doing so instead of getting a transparent picture of performance across a series of indicators, parents instead get a simplistic banding score which they judge a whole years’ worth of work. It is quite simply not a true reflection of performance. With it comes disengagement. We’ve already seen how parents have voted with their feet moving pupils to different schools due to misleading banding scores which are having a significant impact on the quality of community relationships for schools.

Given banding features later in the report’s recommendations we will return to that again.

Treat developing system leadership as a prime driver of education reform. Offer potential school leaders better career development pathways, including a qualifications framework, mentoring and additional professional development, as part of a coherent national leadership development strategy. Invest in developing leadership capital across the education system, so that school improvement can be led from within Wales by schools, local authorities and regional consortia.

Treating teachers in general as the prime driver for education reform needs to be central to policy formation, but certainly the quality of leadership within the system does have to be given focus. There is much to say for revisiting the existing development structure for individuals within their career paths, if they are interested in entering leadership or not. It is vital that those that decide that they wish to remain as classroom teachers without taking on leadership and management roles are still given CPD throughout their career to help ensure that they refresh and renew their skills and remain motivated.

For those wishing to pursue leadership positions then mapping out a clear and progressive career pathway, which includes access to opportunities as well as the quality of training on offer, is crucial.

The Hill Review did make recommendations as to how to encourage greater levels of leadership within the system but time is still to tell if those initiatives will have the desired impact. One aspect of those proposals was to look again at the effectiveness of what is currently offered through the NPQH. There is sometimes a criticism that it is a qualification that is little more than a hoop that teachers have to jump through. The quality of the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) is, to an extent, questionable. There is a distinct lack of investment in developing personal skills and staff-management abilities. Some individuals have gone through the NPQH qualification but have found headship challenging, in part because the soft skills of management are not integrally embedded within the process.

If we are to look at leadership perhaps we also need to look at it in the context of how in touch it is with the academic side of a school. Very often individuals will reach the heights of Headteacher because they are excellent classroom practitioners and want to take on more responsibilities in leading schools. However, when they get there they realise that the administrative burdens of running a school; the data entry requirements; health and safety; accounting; personnel management etc. result in them having little contact with the delivery of education either directly or indirectly working with staff and or pupils. Is there a recognised need to look at the business management side of schooling, separate to the role of a Headteacher who is delivering the educational lead to an institution? Currently the combination of the roles does place huge amounts of pressures on individuals and often it creates a situation where not everything can be done to the desired standard.

Part III of this mini-series will look at the recommendation to “create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.”

For 2014 see 2007

24 Apr


The BBC are running an interesting story today about a confidential report in 2007 that makes similar warnings to this years OECD report.  Namely, that the Welsh Government has failed to establish a long-term vision for education in Wales.  There are some key findings in the report, authored by Professor Richard Daugherty, which while written in 2007 are very much still relevant today.  These include:

  • the lack of “a consistent set of messages” about the governing principles of the curriculum

This is a major issue still for teachers in Wales.  Even at a policy level there are some very confused messages being put forward.  We have the lead-emerging schools programme and the Schools Challenge Cymru initiative which both aim to foster a sense of collaboration amongst schools.  At the same time we have the School Banding system pitting schools against one another in competition.  These two aims are quite clearly contradictory and have left headteachers in a state of limbo trying to understand how best to work the system.

We also have confusion on a pedagogical level.  The Foundation Phase empowers children to learn through play, developing their critical thinking and problem solving abilities in an open and creative setting.  However, the very first year they are out of that setting, despite not having even sat at a desk previously, the standardised testing regime places them in a sterile environment under strict exam conditions.  The whole clash is counterproductive and has fundamentally threatened the nature of the Foundation Phase.  With such competing agendas teachers are left to question if the Welsh Government has a fully coherent vision for what it wants teaching to look like in Wales on a long-term basis.

  • no full evaluation of the effectiveness of education strategies in terms of pupils’ results

It is the case in recent years that we have seen policies put in place without the foresight to examine how they will be implemented; the impact on teachers and pupils of that implementation and how they will impact on other strands of education policies. Often it has only been when policies have been rolled out have the pitfalls been recognised. That needs to be addressed to reinstall future confidence in new initiatives.

In terms of the long-term approach to evaluating the effectiveness of education strategies you need only look at what is happening to the Foundation Phase.  Not only are standardised testing narrowing the culture of the policy the Welsh Government is to introduce annual expectations from the LNF into the Foundation Phase, further eroding its objectives.  It genuinely feels to many practitioners as if Wales is loosing its nerve with the Foundation Phase despite the fact that the very first cohort of Foundation Phase pupils are yet to complete their path through the school system.  This is no doubt a reflection that education policy has been developed, perhaps understandably from a political perspective, on election cycles rather than a 10, 15 or even 20 year cycle like it should.

  • aspirational language of policies not accompanied by clear targets for improvement

It is still the case that the aspirational language of the Welsh Government on policy formation is not always interpreted in the same way by local authorities, regional consortia, Estyn inspectors or support partners at an implementation level.  Too often the picture painted by the Welsh Government as to their expectations for policy outcomes are markedly different to what teachers are told by those that come into their schools to challenge them.  That does create a great deal of problems, which are not necessarily the Welsh Government’s failing, but more the failing of people further down the chain to follow that message consistently.

In terms of targets I do think that the Welsh Government has began to match the aspirational language with more clearly defined targets.  What the more important question we must ask now is if those are the right targets and what will meeting them actually mean for learners if and when they are achieved.

  • outdated teacher training not designed to meet the needs of a “rapidly changing school system”

I could wax lyrical about the failings to provide continued professional development all day long but I’ll aim to be a little more concise.  The fact is we have seen a perpetual revolution in education policy over the past Assembly term.  A whole new stream of policies and initiatives have been introduced into the system but the support and training for it has been almost non-existent.  The regional consortia developed to provide this support are still far from being able or willing to deliver it, almost three years after they should have been ready.  If you truly want a new system with a new focus and new ideas then you have to accept that the profession need training and support to implement it to the desired standards.  Cutting the number of INSET days available to schools to provide CPD at a time of rapid change in itself shows how badly the training element of the workforce has been managed.  The Education Minister has recognised publicly that his predecessors got this part of education policy wrong in the past.  Now is the crucial time to get it right.

It does appear that some of the recommendations from this leaked report seem to have either not have been acted on at all or at least not with any particular degree of urgency.  What we cannot allow to happen is that a similar complacency is seen in regards to the OECD report published this year.  There is a lot of concern that the criticisms the OECD have made in regards to issues such as the Welsh Government’s approach to standardised tests; school banding; policy implementation and CPD provisions will go unheeded.  These recommendations have to be given priority and worked through in partnership with the profession.  Hopefully any inaction from the 2007 report will act as a learning curve for dealing with these most recent recommendations.

Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective

10 Apr

The OECD report commissioned by the Welsh Government looking at our education system has been published today, and to quite a bit of coverage.  No doubt it will continue to be a topic of debate when the Assembly is next in session.

Overall the report does chime closely with many of the things I have been saying on this blog.  Specifically that literacy and numeracy tests narrow the curriculum and the years covered by the tests should be reduced; that access to continue 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; that school banding undermines collaboration as well as the nature of the agreed criteria for assessing quality. I’d like to believe the OECD are big fans of the carrot cake diaries but the truth is much of this is simply just a matter of common sense.

The report will 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 implimented.  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.

I am pleased that there are some clear strengths recognised by the OECD including crucially the line, “a comprehensive school system emphasising equity and inclusion.” This is a major recognition that the Welsh Government were correct in their approach to ruling out Acadamies in Wales.

There are also recommendations as to where improvement can be made. These have been broken down into the following headings.

  • Meet the learning requirements of its students and deliver equity and quality.
  • Build professional capital and a culture of collective responsibility for improved learning for all students.
  • Create a coherent assessment and evaluation framework.
  • Define and implement policy with long-term perspective.

Each of these headings contain three or four recommendations.  Over the next few weeks (it would be days but me, my good wife and the Gryffalo are off to Spain on Tuesday) I’m going to work through each of the particular areas and their recommendations in detail.  It is easy with reports of this magnitude (well over 100 pages) that we look at the headlines on day one and then they are forgotten about.  Given this report cost the Welsh taxpayer over £200,000, and more importantly the comprehensive analysis it provides of the Welsh system, I think that would be a real shame.

How volatile is school banding?

31 Jan

After the Western Mail broke this story about the possible end of banding I thought it was important to look at the legacy of the policy and its impact on schools.

I have argued before that one of the major failings of the banding system is its volatility.  It seems that banding publication day goes hand in hand with the phrase “yo-yo effect,” but just how bad is it?

I’ve looked at the difference in the standings of schools between their banding positions in 2013 and 2011.  The results have really highlighted just how unpredictable the system is and how poor, as a result, an indicator it is for teachers, parents and the general public at large to use as an effective measure of school performance.

Of the 216 schools that have three years of banding results 77 (35.6%) of them have moved up at least one band.  15 of those have moved up two bands while 14 have moved up by three bands.  On the face of it that could be seen as good news.  Progress is being shown as those schools move up the bands.  However, as many people warned with the introduction of school banding, the nature of the system means that schools within the bandings can only improve if others decline.  It is no surprise then to see that a similar number of schools have moved down at least one band as have moved up.  87 (40.2%) schools made the reverse journey with 30 of them moving two bands lower, 5 moving three bands and 1 moving down by four bands.  Of course this is just comparing the positions of 2013 and 2011.  In any given year 2011-2012 or 2012-2013 there could be a greater number of schools that went up or down 2, 3 or 4 bands.

Over the three years of banding a total of 52 schools are in the same band in 2013 that they were in 2011.  However, of those 29 moved at least one band up or down before returning to their starting point.

Overall 164 schools (75.9%) are either up or down on their original banding positions with 193 (89.3%) schools having moved at least one band at some point during the three years.

It is quite clear that there is a huge amount of instability in the system at present.  I hope banding is scrapped.  The Education Minister has tweeted that this is not going to be the case and banding is here to say. The Minister has given a welcome commitment to a review of how the system operates which is essential as in its current form banding simply cannot secure the confidence of teachers, pupils or parents.

In Conversation With…….Simon Thomas AM

20 Jan

The second politician that I’ve spoken to as part of the ‘In Conversation With….’ series I met with Simon Thomas AM


Simon is an Assembly Member for the Mid and West Wales Region and Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Education, Skills and the Welsh Language.  Prior to taking up these positions Simon was a special advisor to the One Wales Government and a Member of Parliament representing Ceredigion.

We discussed the recent PISA results and issues around that test in general.  We also discussed banding, the curriculum review, standardised testing and supply teaching.

You can hear the conversation in full by clicking on the following .

Alternatively you can hear it on my Soundcloud here.