Tag Archives: teaching

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.


It’s not exactly rocket science…..

16 Dec


(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.


Educating Cardiff and Teacher Recruitment

11 Sep

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of England’s schools inspectorate Ofstead, has claimed that TV shows such as ‘Educating Cardiff’ were adding to the teacher recruitment crisis.  I’m not entirely sure where his evidence for such a claim is but I can’t help feeling that this is more a case of attempting to avoid taking responsibility for the situation in England.

The fact is that in England there continues to be a teacher recruitment issue.  This has been caused by misguided Government policies restricting the professionalism of teachers; the role becoming less enticing due to cuts to pay and pensions, and the hugely detrimental and punitive accountability measures forcing large numbers of teachers to leave the profession early.  Add to this the acadamization programme stripping the professionalism of teachers away and it is not hard to understand why individuals are more reluctant to enter and stay in the role.

I have to say I think the whole ‘Educating….’ series, including the most recent Cardiff version, are a fantastic vehicle for breaking down the stereotypes of the 9am-3pm teaching job.  These shows have exposed the reality facing teachers in that their roles are increasingly, to the detriment of their personal and professional lives, demanding far more than the expected or even sustainable from teachers.  What is more, these shows have highlighted the very real personal and human relationships that go beyond the crass sort of data driven education system that the likes of Sir Michael Wilshaw champion.

While Sir Michael complains that these shows highlight the ‘Jack the Lad and Sally Show-off’ in schools, he appears to have missed the focus on teachers who are dedicating hours and hours of their time outside school days to ensure their pupils succeed, or the success stories of pupils who apply themselves to gain great qualifications and contribute to the school community.

It may indeed be the case that some people are put off teaching because they see how difficult the job is by watching these documentaries.  However, while Sir Michael says that ‘If people who are thinking about coming into teaching see that and say, ‘I’m not going to experience that… sort of nonsense’ they won’t go into teaching,’ I say that these shows do not hide the fact that teaching is hard.  If anything they prepare those that enter teaching for the challenges that awaits them.  Ofstead and the Westminster Government would be better placed trying to support teachers and schools in making the profession more empowered rather than trying to hide the challenges that see so many teachers step away from the role after just a few years.

It seems to me that Sir Michael should be less concerned about the fact shows like ‘Educating Cardiff’ could put individuals off entering teaching and more concerned with why the environment that makes people reluctant to pursue their ambitions within the profession exist in the first instance.

The Welfare State-School

7 May

A recent survey has estimated that schools in the UK are spending around £43m a year to offset the effects of poverty on their pupils. I am not sure what this figure would look like as a standalone Wales expenditure.  Given the disproportionate way Wales has been hit by austerity and the fact some of Europe’s poorest areas are communities in Wales I dare say it would be a shockingly high percentage of the total sum.

It is suggested that this money is made up from teachers buying clothes, including underwear for pupils; providing lunches; haircuts and even birthday cards and presents for those that would otherwise not receive anything; as well as more conventional things such as stationary, books and P.E kits.

This will come as no surprise to teachers themselves. The truth is that for many years, even in the so-called ‘good times,’ schools in Wales have been so severely underfunded that teachers would think nothing of using their own wages to pay for things needed in their classrooms.  Put simply, unless teachers were paying from their own pockets to provide basic materials they could not deliver lessons and subjects in the way they wanted or needed.

Beyond this of course we are seeing teachers acting like social workers. Teaching is becoming more and more about delivering the welfare state, at the personal financial cost to the teacher. This undoubtedly hinders lesson planning and educational aspirations. Instead of just being a teacher the role has transformed into that of a full-time carer.  It is not just a question of money either. Teachers are increasingly doing things such as washing children’s clothes or teaching children fundamental basics such as how to brush their teeth, use cutlery or even potty training.

I don’t think any teacher would wish to alter the special relationships they build with pupils.  Teaching isn’t simply a profession it is a vocation.  To many it is a calling.  Those teachers care passionately about helping students develop, not just academically, but as well-rounded individuals.  This involves more than just teaching knowledge but in supporting the emotional growth in pupils.  That said, there is a finite amount of time that can go into this without it impacting on the academic, and when we are looking at complex social issues there really needs to be more appropriate avenues for support.

The sad reality is that teachers simply cannot continue, financially or otherwise, to undertake this burden. That it has fallen on teachers in some cases to ensure that a child is clean, clothed and fed is nothing short of a disgrace and a depressing reflection of the dire nature some families have found themselves in.

We often talk about education bridging the attainment gap between children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers. However, all too often we neglect to really appreciate just how far behind they are being left by the inequality we see in everyday society.  In some leading education nations there are welfare officers; psychologists and other individuals committed to the mental and personal issues of a child stationed on site.  Teachers are able to then work alongside these professionals, and crucially, concentrate fully on ensuring the best education possible.  That is but a pipe dream in Wales of course, as indeed it is for most western education systems in fairness; but until we start accepting that teachers can’t do it all, it becomes increasingly more difficult to see how they can do any of it to the levels they themselves aspire to.

Time to give a little praise to the teaching profession

25 Aug

The last few years have been tough on those working in the education sector in Wales.  Polices have been implemented which conflict with the views of the profession, often with little regards for their expertise and input. Changes to the terms and conditions of teachers have left them continuing to work unsustainable hours but for less pay and pensions.  The narrative and language that has been used by Government’s at both end of the M4 has been highly emotive and not always conducive to supporting practitioners.  The perception of teaching has not been great.  The way teachers are reported in the media at times has fuelled this view.  All this has, unsurprisingly, lead to poor morale.  However, there is a sense that the tide is turning and we should start to demand a more hopeful view of our system.

There’s no doubt that the current Education Minister has set about renewing respect for teaching as a profession.  The fact that respect for the role of a teacher was a central theme of Huw Lewis’ first real keynote speech did not go unnoticed.  He has also backed that up with the language and thrust of his arguments about creating a new deal around professional development for teachers.  Now, that isn’t to say that this is all a silver bullet.  Let’s not forget that this ‘new deal’ has not actually been accompanied by any new money.  Talk does not necessarily equate to action.  Still, we should not underestimate the importance of the language that has been used.

We have also seen the introduction of the Schools Challenge Cymru initiative.  Now there is no denying that there has been an element of scepticism around this policy since questions were raised relating to the way in which it is to be funded.  However, it is still something that, for now at least, seems to have buy in from the sector.  A crucial element that has been missing from a number of Welsh Government policies in the past.

Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm has come from the excellent A Level results we saw recently which included the number of individuals receiving the top grades increasing and the gap closing with England. A week later there was more good news with our GCSE results  being pretty spectacular.  Not only has the attainment gap closed with the rest of the UK but Wales saw its best ever A*-C grade results.  This against a backdrop of changing specifications and the fiasco we saw around the January English exams.

The results were also a positive in terms of the next round of PISA testing which will focus on science.  While this cohort will not be going through that process the fact that there were improvements at GCSE Chemistry, Biology and Physics as well as in the percentage of individuals receiving the top grades at A Level in those subjects is something to take forward.

The focus given to the good news stories is not always comparable with the bad.  Sensationalism sells I guess.  While in other years my phone has rung off the hook on results day there were no clamours for me to do any radio phone-ins following these results days to praise teachers.

What we must do internally within the profession and publicly, is to acknowledge the positives we are seeing.  It is important to still identify the challenges and work collaboratively and constructively to address them of course, but there should be nothing stopping us all from saying well done in the meantime.