Tag Archives: science

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.

It’s not exactly rocket science…..

16 Dec

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(ok maybe not this guy)

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

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

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

What is the impact?

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

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

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

Why is it happening?

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

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

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

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

What can be done?

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

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

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

 

Results Day

23 Aug

Yesterday was the 6th GCSE/A Level result day since I started working for NUT Cymru. You can almost set your clock by the media coverage. Standard photo of girls, usually with blonde hair, jumping for joy with their results on the front page of newspapers; TV coverage of some pupils opening their results to the inevitable straight A grades; stock questions on “are teachers letting children down” or “are the exams too easy” depending on an increase/decrease in the pass rate. This BBC article is quite good at highlighting the language of results day, for which I am sure I am equally guilty of employing.

Getting back to yesterday, three things that stood out with regards to this year’s GCSE results:

Narrowing the gap with England

It has been noted that the gap in attainment of top grades between Wales and England has narrowed. In Wales the percentage of those gaining A*-A remained at 2012 levels of 19.2%. Due to a decline elsewhere the gap with rest of UK narrowed, from 3.2% in 2012 to 2.1.

On the positive while results have dropped in England we can take heart in Wales that we have kept a consistency in our achievements and that pupils reaching the highest standards have not failed to repeat the great results of 2012.

Now, I’ve never been one to set the standard of our education system by its comparison with England, however tempting that can be. Our education systems are increasingly diverging under devolution and in the very near future will be almost unrecognisable from one another. By any indicator is it becoming more and more complex to compare the two.

That said, I certainly don’t think that narrowing the gap as a result of a decline across the border is worth celebrating. We should certainly welcome the success of achievement in Wales, and as stated the fact that we have shown a consistency in results while the rest of the Uk have not is something of a positive, but we want to narrow the gap by our own merits.

Results in Core Subjects

This has possibly been the focal point of the GCSE results in Wales. Most news outlets lead with this as their main reports yesterday, perhaps rightfully so.

The tale of the tape was that English A*-C grades were down from 60.9% in 2012 to 59.6%; Maths A*-C grades down from 55.5% in 2012 to 52.8% while the biggest drop came in Science where A*-C grades fell from 57.3% in 2012 to 51.2%.

On the face of it this could be alarming. Wales is seeing a decline in standards in the core subjects. However the reality is very different. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to these results.

Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of 15 year olds that have sat the exams early. This has played a significant role in depressing pass rates. The poorer performance of young entrants relative to the appropriate GCSE age group, and the increase in their numbers, has ensured a lower overall success rate. Secondly, but equally importantly, is that there has been an active decision to both make the exams harder and to mark them more harshly. This has, as the WJEC reported to BBC Radio Wales on results day, had the consequence of making the A*-C grade far more difficult to achieve in the core subjects. Knowing this, it is therefore completely expected that results should be down.

What is most important with this in mind is that we do not simply compare and contrast core subject results this year with those of previous years. To do so would be misleading. We may find, and I would argue it is very likely the case, that individual pupil performance in these subjects has not seen a great, if any, change over the course of the past year. Had the exams in 2013 been taken and evaluated on the same standard as those in 2012 for example who is to say the pass rate would not have seen an improvement.

This year’s core subject results should therefore be seen in isolation and judged on their individual merits, establishing a new baseline (assuming future exams take the same approach) rather than being compared to previous outcomes.

Overall Pass rates

The overall pass rate in Wales remained at the same level in 2013 as it was in 2012. (98.7%). While the A*-C pass rate fell very slightly by 0.1% to 65.7%. These are figures that we can be proud of and show that pupils in Wales are achieving high standards in their qualifications.

However, I think there’s a case to be especially pleased with such a small percentage drop in A*-C when the above factors regarding core subjects are taken into account. For an almost negligible pass rate decline to have been achieved when English, Maths and Science saw a -0.5%, -2.7% and -6.1% decrease respectively as a result of a combination of externally imposed factors, is actually a quite remarkable achievement and shows how well the performances across other subjects has been.