Tag Archives: supply teachers

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.


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.


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.


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.


4 Hopes for Education in 2016 Revisited

10 Jan

At the start of last year I posted a blog with my hopes for education in 2016.  I thought it would be worth revisiting that to see what progress was made.

1. Class Sizes.

When I originally wrote about this the issue it was largely being ignored.  I reflected at the time that Kirsty Williams AM had raised it in the chamber and I hoped it would lead to a wider discussion on the subject.  Little did I know that a few months later Kirsty Williams would be the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and this would be a central plank of her reforms.

We are awaiting the full details of how this policy is to be delivered but clearly it is going to be a significant policy for the Welsh Government in a way we haven’t seen for a number of years.  It is something teachers and parents alike will widely welcome.  Undoubtedly it faces challenges.  A number of Labour backbenches have already shown some dissent and opposition parties are skeptical, however I hope the pilot will be well designed and it will be given time to prove its value.

2. Election of Ideas.

My big hope for the Assembly election was that we would have an election of ideas in education rather than the often tribal and scaremongering rhetoric you see within the health debate.  As I reflected at the time I think for the most part we achieved that.  I ran a number of blogposts reviewing the manifesto commitments of each parties.  All of them had something within them that sparked debate.  That was certainly a positive outlook.

At the same time while the political parties put forward ideas worth debating that debate still did not really materialize, which was a shame.

3. The Supply Question.

I wanted supply to take a central stage in 2016 and it did.  We have more scrutiny and more action on the supply sector now than we have in the past decade.  The arguments against the existing system have been won and it is just a question of ensuring that we reform in a way that better supports individuals working in that sector and schools who rely on their provision.

The Supply Task Force was due to report their findings in December of last year but that remains outstanding.  It can only be hoped that the delay is due to a combination of the volume of evidence and a reflection of the importance of getting this right.  We should see the taskforce’s report in the immediate future and no doubt it will be a vitally important piece of work for Welsh education throughout the coming 12 months.

4. Pioneer Schools.

My hope for pioneer schools would be that they would be given the time and space to work effectively on the curriculum.  That, thus far, appears to be the case.  The fact that this week the Welsh Government announced that a further 25 schools or so would be joining the work perhaps reflects that this is a bigger job than originally anticipated.  We can take some positives of pioneer school work over the past 12 months but it remains vital that they are supported in the work they do in future months.

All in all I think the hopes have been positive to reflect on, which perhaps echoes the fact that the sector as a whole has a slightly more upbeat feeling in 2017 than it did at the start of 2016.  Over the next few days I will post the hopes for this coming year as has become an annual tradition.

And It’s Goodbye From Him…

18 Jan

The big news in Welsh education over the weekend, and in fact in Welsh politics in general, is the announcement by Huw Lewis AM that he will be standing down as an Assembly Member at the next Welsh election in May.

The Wider Picture

There is never any guarantee of continuity after an election.  We could have an individual at the helm from a different political party should Labour not get back in, albeit that scenario seems unlikely on current polling data.  We could also have a new political party running education through a coalition.  A far more likely prospect.  Perhaps the more rumored and expected outcome, had Huw Lewis AM not been retained in post, would have been a return Labour minority government with the potential of a new Minister due to cabinet reshuffles.  Still, what we do have now is a cast iron guarantee that we will be heading into the second half of 2016 with a new man or woman in charge of the nations education services.

I’m a firm believer that education needs a long-term approach with continuity at the heart of the agenda.  Education policy takes many years to bed in and have a noticeable impact.  It is a generational change.  I’ve said time and time again that those nations whose education system are internationally lauded have generally undertaken a 10, 15, 20+ year journey.  To that end having another new Minister will be somewhat unsettling, although there is no saying if the policy direction will change with that appointment of course.

A further concern, teased out in the ITV interview I did over the weekend, was the risk to momentum that this announcement could create.  It has to be said that there seems a greater sense of optimism in Welsh education on a policy basis than at any other time since I took up my post.  That is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy.  Far from in on some levels.  However, there is certainly a sense of relative united support for some big policy projects such as the ‘New Deal’ for teachers and the curriculum reforms.  These have been developed, and are being developed, with a closer sense of cooperation between the Welsh Government, local authorities and schools than many other changes we have seen in the past.  Losing the Minister that initiated them will threaten that momentum. That said I think so long as there remains a commitment to the causes that shouldn’t derail progress.  The fact the Welsh Government gave Professor Donaldson the independence he needed to go about his work, and crucially have retained his input for the implementation stage of the curriculum, is a real boost in keeping this process going.  It is also positive that much of the legwork on curriculum reform and the new deal design is being done by the profession itself through pioneer schools. That should hopefully mitigate any possible turbulence a change in Minister could create.

Perhaps the big fear is the foot being taken off the gas.  There was always the risk of that happening in going into an election anyway.  I don’t have any doubts that Huw Lewis AM will remain committed until he signs off as Minister, but with an outgoing head of an organisation in place it does always ask questions of those working underneath.  That’s something we need to keep an eye on from top to bottom within the sector.

Reflections on the Minister

It is no doubt still early to be writing the obituaries of a Minister in post but I thought it was worth having a brief look back at some things given his announcement.

I think it is fair to say that Huw Lewis took over at a time when relations between the Welsh Government and the teaching profession were extremely strained.  His appointment was therefor very welcome simply because it presented the opportunity for a fresh start.  One I think both the Welsh Government and teachers very much needed to grasp.

In what seems like a different lifetime now I was formally a Plaid Cymru employee.  Huw Lewis, to me as someone who didn’t know him personally, appeared to represent the tribal politics of Labour.  (For the record I have no doubt that every party has its tribal stance.  I imagine back in my more blinkered days I could have been described in similar terms from another side of the argument.  I sincerely hope that I have proven to be far more mature in my relationships across the political divide in since leaving my job at the Assembly.  Having worked with politicians from every party I am sure it is an objective I have succeeded in).   With that in mind I did have some trepidation about the way the Minister would work.

I am pleased to say my preconceptions have been thoroughly confounded.  As an individual politician Huw Lewis may, or may not, be tribal in his approach.  I have never dealt with him outside education so could not say.  I can only confirm that he has proven to be a very constructive Minister to work with since his appointment.  There have been some major steps forward under Huw Lewis that have helped bring back the ability to have positive dialogue with the Welsh Government.  Even where there have been disagreements on policy, and there have been many still, they have been aired in a more conciliatory fashion, by all parties.  Compromises have been reached and a focus on understanding the rational and thinking of others is more central to this new approach.  It is this style and attitude that has enabled the Minister to secure such buy in from teachers to major changes in policy and one he should receive a lot of credit for.

Legacy is hard to evaluate for Education Minister’s as I have stated.  It takes time to see how things work and there is no security that Huw Lewis’s successor will not come in and simply rip up his work.  However, I think he can look back and recognize that he brought a more positive approach to cooperation between schools and government; he presided over the development of a new Welsh curriculum (albeit much of this work remains to be undertaken) and he has been perhaps the Minister most explicit about the need to address the gap in access for teacher’s continued professional development.

To be critical, I think it is a real shame there have been no strides to tackle the continued unpopular and divisive national testing, particularly for the very youngest pupils and in light of the fact the OECD and Donaldson curriculum review have noted they are not fit for the way we wish to deliver education in Wales.  It is also a shame that we continue to have major failings with our supply sector, including a controversial preferred bidder contract set up with one supply agency in particular.  Finally, our workload scandal continues, although it has to be stated that the Minister has taken steps to put this on the agenda for pioneer schools so his work there may yet yield some tangible changes in the future.

There is still time for the Minister to get to grips with these issues before he leaves of course and in fairness he has at least recognized the problems with supply which have for too long been ignored.

It is a shame the Minister is standing down when there is still so much work to do on some of the agendas that he has been so pivotal to developing.  That said, having worked for politicians in the past I have seen first hand the sort of pressures it puts on an individual.  You cannot therefore begrudge someone who has been an Assembly Member for almost 17 years wanting to have a change.

The Future

What Huw Lewis will leave is a lot of potential.  We have many strands of work open with a firm direction set.  Any new Minister will of course want to stamp their approach on their department and portfolio.  You can expect nothing less.  What I sincerely hope does happen is that whomever comes in continues to appreciate the need to secure support for, and support from, the teaching profession.  Any policy will fail if those delivering it are not convinced of its merits.  Perhaps Huw Lewis’s greatest achievement as Minister is that for some of the biggest proposals he allowed teachers to feel part of the development process.  That’s a lesson any Education Minister will be wise to learn.


4 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2016

8 Jan

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

1.  Class size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  The Election Of Ideas

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

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

3.  The Supply Question

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Pioneer Schools

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

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

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

5 Hopes For Welsh Education in 2015 Revisited

17 Dec

In January I wrote a blog looking at my 5 hopes for Welsh education in 2015.  The original post can be seen here.  I thought coming to the end of the year it would be worth reviewing them to see what, if any, progress had been made.

1.  Schools Challenge Cymru:

My original post had a lot of hope for this project, and indeed I still do.  I have heard excellent things about the London Challenge from teachers who engaged in that process and I really had/have high hopes that we can replicate similar results in Wales.  One thing I did warn of at the start of the year was that this could not be seen a s a quick fix.  That remains the case.

In October Plaid Cymru produced figures that showed the uplift in performance for schools involved in the challenge Cymru scheme was only 0.3% greater than those not in the mix.  There is a number of ways to look at this.  You can, as Plaid Cymru have, suggest that the scheme has not worked.  It is a relatively fair conclusions and where public money is spent it is naturally correct to hold results under a spotlight.  Certainly the way the initiative has been talked up by the Welsh Government you would perhaps have expected even more dramatic results.  It could very well, on reflection, be a case of the Welsh Government overestimating the initiation impact making it extremely difficult to reach expectations.

Personally I have two other angles in which I view these result.  firstly, the schools involved in Schools Challenge Cymru were identified as being those that would benefit most from, and who were most in need of, support.  With that in mind you can assume that their ability to show progress was from a lower base.  It is therefore perhaps not unfair to suggest that even matching the attainment uplift of other schools shows that the scheme is working.  Bypassing them should, in effect, be a point of celebration.  The other point is that this is the first year.  It takes time to get new initiatives right, and if there is one thing the Welsh Government should have learnt in recent years it is that getting the implementation a new policy right has to be a key concern.

The other point I made back in January was that this had to have long-term funding.  We have the £20m figure for the coming years, although the identification of the exact monies from within the education department still appears to be somewhat clouded in mystery.  However, there is no guarantee to ensure this policy lasts into future years beyond what has thus far been outlined.  We are playing a year by year game.  Still, it was very welcome news to see the Education Minister recently tweet he is committing to it for a third year at the minimum.

The jury may still be out on the effectiveness of the programme but overall I think we can put Schools Challenge Cymru down as a positive for the year.  The big test will perhaps come when we analyse the date for the coming 12 months.

2.  Support for supply teachers:

I started 2015 noting how the Children and Young People’s Committee were embarking on an inquiry into supply teaching.  The delays in publishing the final report have been frustrating to say the least.  That being said what finally did come out was very encouraging.

Sadly the reality is that little is going to be done until the Welsh Government’s preferred supplier contract with New Directions comes to an end.  As things stand schools and local authorities pretty much have their hands tied in terms of an ability to operate outside the stranglehold of this contract.  Yes they have the option of providing supply through other avenues but the truth is the pressures on them through the caveats that go with doing that makes it virtually impossible.

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

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

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

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

That the committee have made the recommendations they have will hopefully put the sector and the Welsh Government on alert going into the next year or so.  Something has to be done about this issue if we are to see a real ability to ensure consistency of standards across contracted and supply teachers.  At least we have potentially made a start on that process.

3.  Funding:

It would be foolish to suggest that our funding picture has been made any better in 2015.  In fact the amount of money schools receive per pupil fell in 2015 for the first time in a decade.  Schools across Wales are looking at teacher redundancies as a way of balancing their budgets.  That will lead to a rise in workload, higher class sizes and even less quality teaching time spent individual with pupils.  None of this is good news for pupils in Wales.

We have to accept that the Welsh Government did receive a very difficult settlement from Westminster.  In many senses the budget they announced in December is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.  We can also be somewhat pleased that within the education budget there was some additional funding for the curriculum, teaching and leadership.  Three key areas in critical need for investment as we seek to develop and implement the new curriculum and new approaches to continued professional development.  That being said I doubt anyone is particularly celebrating where we are at.  2015 has proved a dispiriting year for education finances and the future at present looks more difficult still.

4.  The New Deal:

Looking back over the year I have to say that I had expected more meat on the bone for the New Deal.  What the Minister announced sounded very positive but we were not given any real clear guidance on how that professional development was going to take place, what funding was going to be attached to it and how schools and teachers were going to secure it.  The best part of 12 months later and I am not sure we can say with any certainty that things at all that much further along.  I would have hoped that the New Deal would have developed as a concept into something more tangible a lot sooner.  In that regards 2015 is a bit of a disappointment for the policy.

That being said it is at least not a soundbite that has been forgotten as has often been the case with teachers professional development in the past.  We have seen the establishment of pioneer schools who are tasked with looking at the development of the New Deal.  I very much like the concept of the profession, through these pioneer schools, taking this forward organically and hopefully it can lead to a more clearly defined picture in 2016.  What is also really positive is that in conjunction to much of the workload campaigning that NUT Cymru did in 2015 those pioneer schools, and others looking at the curriculum, are also factoring in the impact on workload in doing this review.  That may just mean that what we end up with is something that helps teachers in more than one way.

5. Education isn’t 2015’s NHS:

I had a terrible fear at the start of the year that education would be used during the Westminster election as a way of kicking the Welsh Government and being sensationalist.  Thankfully it wasn’t.  In fact, education on a UK or Welsh level hardly featured at all.  As we approach the Assembly election, a much more appropriate arena for discussing education delivery, I expect that focus to come sharply into play.  Thus far, having heard some policies put forward by opposition parties I am feeling positive that what we will get is a battle of ideas.  You may agree or not agree with what each party is putting forward but they will be aiming to win votes on education based on the merits of what they want to implement not simply on ripping up everything that is currently being done.

Zero-Hour Teaching

13 May

One of the big issues throughout the election was the debate over zero-hour contracts.  Labour even took a pledge to the electorate, set in stone I should add, that they will end exploitative zero-hour contracts.  David Cameron himself admitted that there is no way he could live on such a contract.  This got me thinking about the plight of supply teachers.

The truth is that to all intents and purposes supply teachers are living with the very definition of a zero-hour contract.  Put on restrictive contracts by agencies, in many cases teachers are only allowed to earn a weekly wage if they are released to schools by those agencies.  In some cases teachers are forced into signing away their rights under the agency workers regulations, which would entitle them to equal pay and conditions after a 12 week period in a school, or else they will not be able to access work at all.  With some local authorities awarding prefered agency status, and some even signing exclusivity deals with certain agencies, there are teachers who have no options but to sign with a particular agency regardless of how they are treated.

Those teachers, while of course always looking for work, find themselves on a zero-hours platform in so far as if their agency determine they should work, and they do not, they often find themselves blacklisted.  This means individuals have no ability to seek out supplementary work of their own or indeed, and this is crucial in terms of standards, access to professional development.

This isn’t an issue that we can pretend hits just a few teachers working in the supply sector.  Almost all teachers have or will be supply teachers at some point during their careers.  What is more, with redundancies taking place as frequently as they are at present; and budgets being cut as dramatically as they are at present, every teacher is potentially one step away from being a supply teacher.  This issue impacts everyone working in the education sector in Wales.

We should make no mistake about the extremely restrictive nature of the current supply system in Wales.  It is something I have written about on numerous occasions on this blog, including as part of my hopes for education in 2015 piece.  The Children’s Committee at the Senedd are currently looking into the issue and I feel as though it is something this particular Minister is taking seriously.  If we fail to get to grips with it in the next few years, especially given how important the supply sector is going to be during the process of curriculum development, then frankly we cannot expect to continue to see the sort of progress we have achieved in recent years, or even simply to tread water.

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.

Supply and Demand

17 Sep

I have previously blogged on some of the issues facing supply teachers here. In that post I touched on the frustration of waiting for the publication of the Wales Audit Office/Estyn report into the impacts of the current set up. I’m pleased that this report has now been put before the public.

On the face of it I have to say I am a little disappointed with the depth of research. As stated by the press release the Wales Audit Office/Estyn visited a total of 23 Primary and Secondary Schools. While I’ve no doubt they had a good indication of existing concerns through those discussions that is still only 23 schools from a total of around 1,700 schools in Wales. Of course the resources to go around each and every school simply do not exist, but I would have thought a higher percentage would have been necessary given the complexity and importance of this issue.

The report itself makes three key recommendations to drive up standards and reduce costs, which I will look at in turn.

Improving the management of cover arrangements in schools, including developing polices that focus on learners’ progress and more effective use of resources.

I would agree that improving the planning of cover could have positive impacts on both the budgets and quality of a school. However, much of this is often dependant on the sources that schools can access their supply cover from. Some local authorities in Wales have instructed schools to only access supply cover through supply agencies. In some cases specific agencies have been given a contract to cover all schools in that locality, essentially creating a monopoly on the service. This makes it extremely difficult for both schools and teachers given it has created a “sellers” market. Schools are well aware that they have to go to these agencies for their cover, and teachers seeking work know it is either through a supply agency (often a particular supply agency) or there is no work at all. This makes raising any concerns with the practices of those agencies very difficult for individuals to pursue.

A further concern is the practices that are employed by agencies to avoid their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR) 2010. Under these regulations any supply teacher that is in post for 12 weeks or longer is entitled to be paid at a rate equivalent to a full-time teacher, rather than the depressed terms and conditions they generally face that drives down morale and motivation. Unfortunately, we are increasingly aware of anecdotal evidence of teachers being pulled from roles as they near that time limit so that agencies can avoid paying this higher rate. Should a school, who will potentially have found that supply teacher to have been performing well and working with the right ethos of the school, wish to employ them directly they may have to pay a huge flat fee to the agency. What is more many teachers working through agencies are finding themselves locked into long-term restrictive contracts. You may ask why they would sign such contracts that impact on their take home pay and ability to find direct employment? The answer goes back again to the monopoly that these agencies have. Supply teachers, caught between a rock and a hard place, know unless they sign such a contract they may not be able to work at all.

What would help both schools and supply teachers in acting on this recommendation is if the Welsh Government and local authorities worked together to establish in-house services. These would provide a list of well-trained and motivated teachers that could be available to schools without the difficulties of operating through the agency system.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning in covered lessons by making sure that work is set at an appropriate level

In an ideal world this would be a recommendation put into action tomorrow. In some cases where supply cover is anticipated (maternity leave/training purposes etc.) it is an issue that schools can look at and see if improvements can be made to their current set ups. Of course illnesses can not always be well planned. Teachers, like anyone in any walk of life, can become ill. Common illnesses are actually more likely to be spread in a school setting than the vast majority of other workplaces. Where this happens again we go back to the need to ensure that there is a ready, available and motivated supply structure. Another reason that local authorities and the Welsh Government must revisit the current approach to allowing supply agencies to run roughshod over standards, pay and conditions.

A second consideration to this recommendation is how we can reduce the amount of sick days. While I have stated above that often sick days can not be planned, and general infections can spread easily in the classroom environment, one area of sickness that does hit the teaching profession more than most is stress induced sickness. Teachers, as a profession, have some of the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression respectively. Teacher support estimate that as many as 40,000 people working in education, right now, could be experiencing some kind of mental health issue. In 2011 Channel 4 News reported the high number of teacher suicide rates, including an 80% increase in 2009. With recent hits to teachers pay and pensions to be factored in I dread to think if there could be an increase in coming years. (The mental health impact of teaching is an issue I think I will return to in a separate blog post another time).

You need only look at the recently independent TES survey to see that changes over recent years in Wales have hit morale amongst our practitioners. If not just for the scandalous mental health impact of teaching and the wellbeing of the profession, tackling the cause of stress related illnesses at a classroom level will help reduce the costs of supply cover for schools and ensure a greater level of consistency for pupils. It doesn’t take an educational expert to make the connection that reducing the pressure and workload placed on teachers, something that could quite easily be done by examining some of the unnecessary aspects of a teachers role, will create a more motivated and fulfilled workforce. This in turn reduces the teaching days lost to health concerns and improves standards for pupils who benefit from that prolonged relationship with their teachers. It is a very easy win-win.

Providing better access to training and development for supply teachers and increasing access to national training programmes that are available to permanently employed teachers

This is a very timely and particularly important argument. One of the biggest problems facing supply teachers is the inability to access any continued professional development. We are often told how it is quality teaching in the classroom that makes the biggest difference to the ability of pupils to improve standards. However, we are allowing a situation whereby supply agencies are gaining a monopoly on cover and are not investing in training or CPD for those individuals. This is particularly damaging when it comes to ensuring teachers on supply contracts are up to date with all the newest initiatives that are introduced by the Welsh Government. The amount of new policies that have been introduced in Wales recently, coupled with the decision to cut the number of INSET days, has left many full-time teachers playing catch up. For those working through agencies with no access to training it is an ever more difficult challenge.

Until the powers of agencies are curbed and a system is developed to support training and fairer conditions for those undertaking supply work this problem will only continue to snowball.

Finally, it is a little alarming to see the reaction to this report centred on a perception that employing supply teachers is causing poor standards and getting ride of them is the answer. The reality is there will always be a need for supply teaching. Teachers, like any profession, will always have a certain amount of days off with sickness; there will always be a need for maternity cover as well as cover for training. If the response to the report is simply to lambast supply teachers then we as a nation will have missed a major opportunity to look at how we can better support the supply system and ensure a fairer deal for both teachers working in that environment and pupils.

What to do about supply teaching?

19 Jul

I was interested to read Simon Thomas AM’s proposal for a national co-operative for supply teachers in yesterday’s Western Mail.

Campaigning for better protection and a fairer deal for supply teachers is something the NUT  has done for some time.  Indeed we have raised the issue with Simon Thomas, as well as the other spokespeople at the Assembly in recent meetings.  I have to say there is an almost universal recognition that the system as it currently exists is not working.

At present we are still waiting for the joint Wales Audit Office/Estyn review into this issue to know what, if any, changes can be made in future. Given the pace of change with the vast majority of changes seen in Welsh education over the past few years, it is a tad frustrating that this particular report has seemingly been gathering dust, especially considering the short notice unions and other stakeholders were given to respond over the Christmas and New Year period earlier this year.

One of the issues that we get the most calls about in the NUT Cymru office is the treatment of teachers who work through supply agencies.  It is an issue that has cropped up around five times today alone.  The main complain is that individuals are subjected to greatly reduced pay and conditions through working as part of an agency, even though they have the same qualifications and expertise as members on permanent contracts.  It is having a real impact on morale in classrooms across Wales and it is time something was done to address it.

For those that argue “it’s their choice to work with an agency,” the reality is that for most teachers who do it is the only way they can access work.  In some areas of Wales local authorities have strict guidance that forces schools to use agencies and in some cases specific supply agencies.  This gives a monopoly to private companies that straightjacket teachers into having to accept poorer terms of work or else have no way of earning a living.  Many people find themselves in a position where they rightfully believe they are not treated fairly but are afraid that if they come forward with those complaints they will be blacklisted and won’t have the opportunity to work in future.

It is even a case that some supply agencies are ignoring their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations 2010.  Agencies are required to pay supply teachers the standard rates if they are in post for 12 weeks or more but often we are seeing teachers reaching that threshold and either being forced into contracts that depress their rights or are simply let go and no longer able to access work.  NUT Cymru put forward a motion, which was universally supported, at the last WTUC conference in Llandudno calling on the Welsh Government to work with partners in local government to address this issue.  The union has also asked the Welsh Government to examine a possible strategy that provides a guaranteed offer of work for 12 months for all newly qualified teachers in a maintained school when individuals achieve qualified teacher status to tackle this problem at an early stage.

Not only are standards hit by the low morale of supply teachers being mistreated by agencies, but they also do not get the same levels of CPD, if any at all, as contracted teachers.  This leads to the abilities and pedagogical knowledge of supply practitioners becoming stagnant, even though they themselves have a firm commitment to professional development.

The current set up is just not sustainable.  Agencies are creating a race to the bottom with standards and morale being the first to see a decline.  What Simon Thomas has proposed may need further discussion but with the way teachers are currently treated, and seeing the impact first hand with calls on an almost hourly basis to the NUT Cymru office, every alternative needs to be explored.