Tag Archives: testing

Testing Times

2 May

There was a pretty significant announcement by the Welsh Government today about future changes to the testing regime in Welsh education.  I have to say this is a relatively positive story for the Welsh Government.  Discussing these tests in any format can make for uncomfortable media coverage for them.  Teachers, parents and pupils have been consistently and vocally opposed to them, and what has been proposed is certainly not going to address all the concerns, but it is fair to say they will be met more positively than anything else.  With that in mind I found it a little odd it was announced during the election period and will no doubt therefore get lost in other news agendas.  Maybe I’m thinking too Machiavellian about this but it could lead people to think that for some reason the Welsh Government saw it as a controversial climb down and didn’t want the focus that could be given outside this period?  Given these changes would come into effect for the May 2018 tests there’s no reason I can think of for delaying this news a few weeks.  In fairness, as I say, perhaps I am overthinking it.  It just seemed a missed opportunity to build a positive news story.

So what are the changes?

The main two things to note are that the tests will be moving online, with automatic marking taking place, and that the tests will be adaptive to the capabilities of students.  I’m going to look at these individually and assess why they are important.

Online

Moving the tests to an online system is something unions called for before the testing regime was even introduced.  This style of testing has the potential to significantly reduce the workload burden for teachers, both in the administration of the testing and certainly in terms of the many hours they are currently setting aside to mark the tests.  If the future model ensures that pupils are able to take the tests at a computer with the evaluation of results generated automatically that could make a noticeable difference to the pressure put on teachers, freeing up a lot of time for them to actually spend teaching and planning their lessons.  Of course it remains to be seen if this reduces the huge amount of time currently being set aside in schools to prepare pupils for these tests.

Another potential benefit is that we are moving pupils on to interactive and digital learning in another format.  Given the importance of IT in education and our society that is no bad thing, and reflects the focus this is being given through the digital framework.  Of course the flip side of this is the resources.  Many teachers will certainly be alarmed at the news as they will question the capacity of their school to be able to deliver online testing given the deficiency of IT equipment they have, or do not have, available to them.

Adaptive

Having a testing system which is adaptive is also a big step forward.  Perhaps the most worrying concern that I have heard from teachers in regards to these tests is that pupils have felt utterly demoralised by them.  Having an adaptive tests allows pupils of all capabilities to work through them at an appropriate level.  They will still test children but hopefully in a way that encourages, rather than belittles, their engagement with the learning process.  It could mean that instead of these tests leaving pupils emotionally upset and disengaged from school they are instead able to take some positives from them and progress.

Of course the above changes do not change my own skeptical view that these tests are ot needed.  I remain of the view that the tests do not provide teachers with any new information that they would not already have, or indeed be able to ascertain in a more natural and progressive learning environment.  However, I do believe these changes will improve the current system.  It remains to be seen if that expectation is met.  I have run annual surveys seeking teacher feedback since the tests were first introduced.  I will do so again next year and it will be interesting to find out if the changes have made an impact at a classroom level.

School Swap: Korea Style – 2

30 Nov

Yesterday I blogged on episode one of the BBC documentary about South Korea’s education system.  I was a little bit critical of the fact the piece seemed to gloss over, or at least not give great attention to the significant concerns that exist with the emotional impact of a Korean style system.  This morning I caught up with the second, and final, episode.  You can find it here while it remains active on iPlayer.

I found the focus on the celebrity teacher a touch odd and unnecessary.  Clearly the career path of this individual was pretty unique and not the norm.  I’m not sure if the show was trying to give the impression that all teachers in South Korea can become millionaires but that isn’t the case.  This is just an example of someone who has found a gap in the market.  It is like saying that Professor Brian Cox is somehow representative of the average university professor.  That said I did appreciate the fact the show made a point to emphasis the respect that teaching as a career is afforded in Korea and the standing teachers have in their community.  Undoubtedly this is one issue that plays a significant role in school discipline as well as community support for the actions and endeavors of a school.  This was reflected also in the demand for teaching training roles.  As we discovered 3,000 individuals applied for a teaching course where only 36 were given places.  This replicates a similar demand to join the profession from nations such as Finland, whose philosophy on education is in stark contrast with South Korea yet whose esteem for the teaching profession is equally high.  Contrast that with Wales where we have failed to fill our secondary teachers training courses for the past five years including attracting a third fewer than the target last year.

To give credit to Sian Griffiths and the production team I was clearly too quick to jump the gun in my criticisms yesterday that they were overlooking the negative impacts on childhood that accompany a South Korean style system.  In this episode there was a blunt reflection of those issues, including first hand accounts of individuals who had been emotionally scared through the process with the suicide rates laid bare to see.  It was particularly interesting to hear the views of the former education Minister, someone who had overseen PISA success yet recognised the potential damage that had caused to creativity and freedom to enjoy childhood.

My lasting thoughts would echo those of the headteacher from Ysgol Dwei Sant.  There’s lessons to look at and learn from South Korea but equally there are key lessons they can also learn from us, particularly around that deeper thinking, creativity, communication, cooperation and emotional development of character.  This is the nature of education policy.  It is looking at the best and recognising how, what and where it can influence Welsh education, but in doing so remaining committed to the core values that are the foundation of our society.

Notes:

*Whoever chose Kung Fu fighting for both shows soundtrack needs a geography lesson.  Kung Fu originates in China.  Carl Douglas who did the song is a recording artist from Jamaica and it was an ode to Chinese culture.  

*Finally good on all the Welsh students for ending with a hug, and particularly Tom who used the typically Welsh ‘see you later’ when leaving for a 10 hour or so flight home. 

School Swap Korea Style

29 Nov

This morning I caught up with the first episode of the School Swap: Korea Style programme on BBC Wales in which three Welsh pupils traveled to South Korea to experience life in their education system.  You can view the show here whilst it remains on iPlayer.

These comparisons are always at the forefront of debate when it comes to the publication of PISA results.  We are forever contrasting performances between nations and asking why one is succeeding above another in the rankings.  Sometimes those comparisons make sense, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes we are comparing the right things, asking the right questions and for the right reasons, sometimes we are not.  Sometimes we are learning valuable things, sometimes we are misrepresenting the lessons.  It is, to an extent, an inevitable reaction during this media intensive period.

I’ve always believed that it is important to look at international systems and try and see what could potentially work for Wales, in the same way that I think some of the brilliant practice we see in Welsh classrooms should be viewed internationally also.  This doesn’t just mean looking at Asia and Finland but other nations across the world and within the UK.  that said, the reality is that education policies do not always travel well, and certain aspects of one countries education system only work there because of the nature of their society, culture and values.  That is not to say we can’t look at results, outcomes and policies and manipulate them to a Welsh context.

Looking at what did come across from South Korea it did, I am sorry to say, confirm some of the real concerns I harbored for their approach.  It is not a system I crave.   Clearly they have incredible results but it is negligent to examine them without asking at what cost are they delivered? We saw pupils spending 10 hours in the same chair being talked at in silence day in day out.  Children were only getting, in an absolute best case scenario, 6 hours sleep, they where undertaking punishingly long days and were falling asleep at the desk.  The system was funded by parents paying huge sums for private tuition and children denied a childhood in the pursuit of rigid structural learning devoid of creativity.

What was most worrying from a viewing perspective is that I simply did not feel the show gave any real credence to these concerns.  These issues were never really treated with any seriousness.  That pupils were lying asleep across their desks was remarked on with a pithy comment as if it was humorous and the 14-16 hour days were noted in envy rather than concern.  Only through the narration of the three Welsh pupils, who I thought were a credit to themselves, did we really get any reflection on the social and emotional impact of this style of education. It very much appeared as if there was a conclusion written to this show with the narrative set to fulfill it.  Something that incidentally also seemed evident to me in the previous show BBC Wales commissioned Sian Griffiths to undertake on Welsh education*.  It is only fair of me to point out however that this is episode one and perhaps the others will delve into this in more detail.  You would very much hope so as it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore them.

Another aspect that concerns me as a viewer, and as someone focused on Welsh education within my profession, is that documentaries such as this lead people to expect schools to achieve Korean results within our society.  If you want Korean outcomes you must have Korean culture, including major parental payments for private tutors and high suicide rates. (Suicide is the biggest cause of death to those in their 10s, 20s and 30s in South Korea).  To say you want Korean style academia means you want to change our whole society and values, not our education system.  While I don’t doubt many will clamor for world leading PISA results I do not believe there is an appetite for a similar style of society.  I may be wrong to make that assumption of course but certainly I am very proud that we are putting well-being at the heart of our educational agenda.

The proficiency of South Korean pupils should not be underestimated.  Examining their system is not something that should be dismissed.  I do believe there are aspects of any nations approach that can provide important insights.  However, 6am-12am days simply should not be an ambition for the well-being of our children.  There are lessons to be learnt, but also warnings to be heeded.

 

 

*As an aside I can’t help wondering, giving the numerous talented people working for BBC Wales news and politics departments, including their own current and former education correspondents, why it is they have not trusted anyone in-house to front these shows rather than using a presenter whose personal positions are perhaps less neutral on such matters.

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.

 

Another Test

15 May

Sometimes when discussing education policy it is all too easy to drift away from the human aspect of what we do.  In fact one of the main complaints I hear from teachers is that we are dehumanizing pupils due to the obsession with data modern education systems have been infected with.  There is less and less focus on how John, Jim or Jenny are feeling and developing and more on how many children from gender/socio-economic background X have reached level Y.  That is really quite depressing for those teachers that went into the profession to change the lives of children.

One area where this sometimes happens is in discussing testing.  That sterile approach was challenged last year when NUT Cymru produced the feedback on a survey I conducted of teachers about standardised literacy and numeracy testing.  The uncomfortable human impact of this policy was all to clear to see.

I just thought I would blog briefly to draw attention to this piece by Cathy Owen in the Western Mail.  It is worth a read.  Not only does it offer a personal view from a parent it also reinforces the view that most educationists have long since accepted, which is that a standardised test does not fit all individuals equally and in many cases offers a badly misleading view of the capabilities of a child.  Something we should keep in mind as schools again undertake those annual exams.

“Call time on the exam-factory”

27 Apr

This article by Labour UK Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, makes for interesting reading and is potentially a pretty big departure from recent PISA driven reactions to education policies.  In the piece Hunt essentially argues against the continuing march across the vast majority of Western, or Westernised, education systems towards systems based on exams and testing.

He will not find much opposition to his views from me.  I have written several blog posts criticising the testing regimes here in Wales and the nature of education systems that put passing tests above developing a whole-child approach to education.  (As an aside I have also blogged on Ken Robinson’s TedTalks presentation that is referenced in the piece).

Now I don’t agree with everything that is said in the article.  However, it is refreshing to hear Tristram Hunt state views such as:

“We need to call time on the exam-factory model, ensure a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching rather than fruitlessly reforming school structures.”

Education is of course devolved and so what Tristram Hunt wants to see as the Labour UK spokesperson is not something that Huw Lewis may, or may not, wish to see implemented in Wales.  I think it is fair to say in recent years that the fact we have had the protection of devolution for education has saved a lot of misguided policy upheaval for our students.  Still, this is a view that may need to chime this side of the border.

Hunt’s views come at a time where we continue to have the intrusive and highly divisive standardised testing regime in Welsh primary schools.  We already know how unpopular and educationally disturbing these have been for teachers, pupils and parents alike since they were introduced, especially amongst the very youngest pupils.  We are also putting the Foundation Phase at risk by introducing assessment against age related expectations for those very youngest pupils.

Bizarrely, in some respects, while the above is ongoing in schools we also have the contradictory approach of the new curriculum review in Wales which is clear about the need for a more informative and light-touch assessment regime than we have at present.  Something I feel also came out of the OECD’s evaluation of Welsh education.

It certainly appears at present that the direction of travel we are aiming for in terms of curriculum design, as well as some of the principles of our system in regards to the Foundation Phase and philosophy of qualifications, remains somewhat at odds with the high-tariff, punitive accountability and testing measures currently in place.  We will need to square that circle at some point to ensure that the progressive changes that Huw Lewis is currently implementing are as effective as they can, and should, be.

On a separate issue it is also worth noting recent commitments by Tristram Hunt on class sizes.  This is something that Labour in England have put as a high priority with a specific election pledge on capping numbers.  At the same time we have seen a small, but steady, increase in the percentage of children taught in class sizes of 30+ in recent years in Wales.  With the state of school finances leading to redundancies there is a fear that number will only continue to increase.  It will be worth watching what all political parties say on that issue as we head towards the Welsh election in 2016.  I know from discussions with teachers that it is certainly one of the issues that trouble them most.

What the profession think of standardised tests in Wales – Part II

7 Nov

“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.” – Michelle Obama

In the first part of my blog looking at the survey of teachers I’ve conducted in Wales regarding the standardised literacy and numeracy tests I looked at the numbers.  The basic figures for the boxes that were ticked in response to the list of questions that were put together.

This was very important to examine in order to have the black and white statistics showing, without emotion, the views of the profession.  The blunt results were quite conclusive.

In this blog I wanted to look at the more personal comments that were outlined in the detailed feedback.

Poor reflection of ability

I think many teachers would potentially be willing to undertake the additional working pressures, and even perhaps be willing to accept the negative impacts on children, if these tests were clearly providing new and useful information that could not be secured in other ways.  However, as the below comments from teachers responding to the survey suggest, practitioners have not been convinced that this policy is being either informative nor offers the prospect of better attainment levels in future.  In many cases teachers felt that the tests were a poor reflection of the day-to-day abilities of the pupils they have come to know.

“The results of some pupils bear no resemblance to their true ability and when they receive the results, their confidence in their own abilities will take a huge knock just as they embark on their time in secondary education. A total disgrace.”

“A very negative experience for the pupils. A waste of time and effort and does not give a true assessment of pupils ability.”

“The tests reflect nothing about pupil ability but are rather made to make the government feel as though they are doing something to ‘better’ the situation.”

“They do not give a true reflection of a child’s ability, just their ability to sit a test!”

“I do not understand how Welsh Government think a generic test can assess all pupils’ ability. There is no understanding of the differentiated nature of teaching pupils at Key Stage 3 and the fact that these tests seem to be a “one size fits all” approach.”

“Testing does not improve standards; good teaching does.”

Foundation Phase

I wrote a recent article on the perception that the Welsh Government is faltering on its commitment to the Foundation Phase and it was noticeable that this was the key educational fear that came through time and time again when reading the comments.  There is a clear view within the profession that the ethos of the early years approach we have so proudly promoted in the past approach is not compatible with standardised testing.  Some samples of the responses include:

“The format of the tests goes against the ethos and teaching methods of the Foundation phase and early ks2.”

“These tests are inappropriate for children in Year 2. They are at odds with the Foundation Phase philosophy and they put young children in a very stressful situation.”

“I work with small targeted groups of low attainment pupils in Foundation Phase. Having made considerable inroads this year with their reading, writing and numeracy skills the tests completely undermined their confidence.”

“As the philosophy of the foundation Phase is learning through exploring and working collaboratively alongside other pupils, the test situation is really alien to their whole foundation experience as they are being required to work alone with no support and to put answers on paper that they have had no previous training for. Consistency of approach is needed between those who set the requirements for staff to deliver daily education and those who set the test papers/make the decision to set tests.”

“Ridiculous to expect yr2 pupils who are used to foundation phase teaching and learning, to take part in tests.”

“The test for the foundation phase is out of sync with the teaching strategies that are linked with foundation phase teaching. I felt that a years effort of working hard to develop children educationally but also emotionally had gone down the pan. Depressing years ahead.”

“We have had an opportunity to do something new in Wales and yet we are undermining radical initiatives such as the Foundation Phase with policies that risk turning the whole country into a large exam factory.”

“These tests totally contradict foundation phase style if learning – please make up your mind government!”

“As more and more pupils arrive in school without basic skills and knowledge all the hard work educators have carried out during their first years in school following the foundation phase ethos has been un-done during the 5 days allocated for the tests – leaving pupils and educators feeling useless and deflated if not successful.”

Well-being

The most disturbing comments relate to the concerns that teachers have raised about the impact on pupil well-being as a result of the testing regime.  Stress and anxiety from pupils were a key problem as well as the damage it has done to self-esteem and confidence.  Comments like the below exemplified this:”

“I believe the tests demoralise and dishearten pupils, particularly those of lower ability. We spend all year building pupils confidence only for it to be knocked by making them sit tests that are not differentiated in any way for the less able pupils.”

“Having made considerable inroads this year with their reading, writing and numeracy skills the tests completely undermined their confidence. It is time politicians realised that one paper does NOT fit all.”

“This has destroyed the confidence of children that we have spent a lot of time building up and encouraging.”

“The children are stressed and have had their confidence knocked. One of my year four boys is working at a year 2 level. After sitting the literacy test for y4/5 he has refused to even try to read. All our hard work undone in one stupid test.”

“We have worked hard all year to increase confidence and self-esteem and the tests have set those children back a long way.”

“Children should not be crying going to school just because of tests.”

“I had children in class crying during the tests because they were not at the right level for them. While the government is insisting (rightly) that all lessons are differentiated appropriately for each individual to access the learning, why were they all sitting the same test?”

“Very concerned that some of my and 7-year-old pupils were so worried about the tests that they cried, did not want to come to school and one even stopped eating!!”

“Several of the children were distressed and some were reluctant to come to school.”

It is not hard to see from this small sample of the extensive feedback that was provided that these tests cause strong feelings within the sector.  We can but hope that the views are taken on board in advance of next years testing.

 

 

What the profession think of standardised tests in Wales – Part I

4 Nov

Last week I blogged on how there isn’t parental support for the Welsh Government’s standardised testing regime.  In that post I noted a survey of teachers that had been conducted and that I would be covering the responses in more detail.

The first thing to note is some of the headline figures that show exactly how unpopular this policy is.

  • 96.35% do not think the tests have been a positive experience for pupils. (+3.11%)
  • 70.81% do not believe the tests are consistent with the curriculum. (+7.06%)
  • 82.82% say workload is up as a result of the tests. (+4.29%)
  • 87.36% say tests have impacted negatively on pupil stress levels. (+5.29%)

As you can see these are staggeringly depressing figures that really demonstrate how disillusioned the sector is with the policy.  Looking at these figures it is very hard to see how the initiative can be a success given the strength of feeling in opposition to it.  The Welsh Government never sold teachers on the need for this style of testing; the implementation has been very poor and the concerns that have been raise, for the most part, have not been given adequate attention.  The figures in brackets denote a change in views since the same survey was conducted in 2013.  Across all these crucial indicators it is clear to see that not only has the scepticism of teachers not been won over it has increased.

It is also interesting to look at the issue of parental support in light of the responses on that to the survey.  Asked about feedback from parents teachers stated that:

  • It was wholly or mostly negative 29.46% (+12.51%)
  • It was wholly or mostly positive 0.85% (-0.84%)
  • Mixed 20.96% (+5.99%),
  • There was no feedback 48.73% (-17.65%)

Again the figures in brackets show the change from the 2013 survey.  It is very odd then that the Welsh Government have claimed they are seeing positive support from parents in relation to these tests when at the same time teachers are reporting that more and more parents are responding negatively.  In fact there was less than 1% positive feedback.  Of course it could very well be that parents, instead of telling the teachers they know and have relationships with, they are opting to tell the Welsh Government directly.  That seems a little bit of a stretch, especially when we know they have not done so through any emails or letters.

Ultimately the Welsh Government will stand by these tests as they claim that they will support standards.  But is that a view shared by the experts that work in classrooms day in day out?

  • 87.57% do not believe that the tests will lead to improved pupil attainment (-1.98%)
  • 90.14% do not believe the tests have provided new information about pupils (-1.99%)

As you can see there is little belief that these test either offer any new information about pupils or will lead to better standards.  Admittedly, there is a slight drop in the pessimism here from last year.  However with both indicators above the 87% mark it is hardly a cause for celebration.  Clearly not only have the tests proved incredibly unpopular they have little chance, if present views are to be believed, of convincing the profession of success in future.

The final point of interest from the data concerns the funding for the tests.  One of the issues that teachers have raised is that they have found the tests, the preparation and the delivery, are costing money for schools.  In a new question asked this year we surveyed if the profession believed the Welsh Government had attached the right levels of funding to this policy.  87% did not believe this was the case.

I accept one of the criticisms of the survey in that it is a small sample.  360 teachers took part.  I would argue that a standard opinion poll size would be around 1,000 individuals to give a reflection of the views of millions of voters.  In that regards 360 reflecting a few ten thousand teachers is somewhat comparable.  Still, it is a valid point.  What I would also argue is that this is not the first poll on this issue.  This is a repeat of the survey conducted last year which had a similar number of responses.  It is also true that other groups have conducted surveys which have similar responses.  There is then a bank of evidence being collated.  Also the percentage of responses is noticeable.  When you are talking about 80-90% views the strength of feeling is clear.  This may be a relatively small sample but it is none the less an important snapshot of where we are at with this policy.

These are all the findings of the quantitative data from the survey.  In stark black and white it is fair to say the picture is bleak.  I will be posting later in the week details of the qualitative feedback which, I’m afraid to say, makes for even more depressing, and at times upsetting, reading.

Western Mail Article – Are we really still committed to the Foundation Phase?

3 Nov

It is fair to say the public have some pretty strong views on Welsh education.  With the exception of the health debate in recent months it is arguably education that has filled the pages of Welsh newspapers without rival over the past few years.  At different times, at different levels and from different sources, there has been a great deal of criticism for teachers, schools, local authorities and the Welsh Government to deal with.  One area that has not been criticised however is the principle of the Foundation Phase.  Almost unanimously this area of Welsh education has been recognised as a great success.  Introducing it was a bold step but one that has paid off.  It has seen particular success in engaging young boys, a section of the student population that has been stubbornly hard to reach in the past.

With universal support for the Foundation Phase across Welsh education is it odd to think then that the commitment to the policy is under question, but that is exactly what appears to be happening in Wales at the moment.  Recently Huw Lewis AM issued a statement on the revised areas of learning for Wales. In this announcment the Education Minister said of the Foundation Phase.

“For the Foundation Phase, Areas of Learning are now presented in the revised layout of year-by-year expectations. I want to be absolutely clear that this does not mark any departure from the current approach for the Foundation Phase – my commitment to the Foundation Phase and its philosophy to teaching and learning has not changed. The emphasis is still firmly focused on teaching our youngest children at a pace and level that is appropriate to them, and through experiential learning.”

While it was pleasing to read the Minister put it clearly that he retains support for the principles of the Foundation Phase it is hard to accept those words are complimented by the policy actions that have been taken. It is very difficult to believe that anyone could possibly expect children to learnat a pace and level that is appropriate to them’ while also setting year-by-year expectations.’ Those year-by-year expectations are, by definition, setting a level for children which may, or may not, be appropriate. Teachers will undoubtable be pressured to move children along at a pace that matches the expectations rather than at a pace that matches the capabilities of those children. In the long-term that will lead to children being marginalised, disinterested and disengaged from education. It also risks children moving onto the next stage of development without having fully grasped earlier expectations. The basic premise of “learning through play” will be lost.

The perception of the Welsh Government rowing back on their focus on the Foundation Phase is not a new one.  In March 2014 early years expert, Professor Iram Siraj, said this in her Foundation Phase stocktake report.

“whilst gathering evidence the Stocktake found that many staff were concerned about the future of the Foundation Phase and whether it was to continue. This appeared to be related to concerns that it was not yet being implemented effectively across the country in all maintained schools and funded non-maintained settings, that the initial baseline measure had been withdrawn and, most notably, the recent introduction and formality of the literacy and numeracy tests in Year two which appeared to some to signal a governmental move away from the Foundation Phase philosophy.”

This statement touched on a significant viewpoint within the education sector.  While the Welsh Government have given assurances that they remain supportive of the Foundation Phase the policies that they are putting in place have chipped away at the credibility of those claims.

Only this week Professor David Reynolds, an advisor to the Welsh Government, said on Radio Wales in response to concerns about the pressures put on young children as a result of the standardised testing regime they encounter after leaving the Foundation Phase;

“it may well be the case that moving out of the Foundation Phase into a stand and deliver test situation would be stressful. The answer there is not to stop the testing, because data helps us, but to ensure that children in the Foundation Phase actually have some formal situations, like the testing.”

If testing children straight out of the Foundation Phase has undermined the philosophy in the eyes of those practitioners delivering it, testing them formally while they are in that stage of their education will compleatly contradict it.  It is little wonder that the education sector are second guessing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the Foundation Phase when official Welsh Government advisors are taking to our national broadcasters to suggest fundermental changes to the principles on which it has been founded.

There can be no half measures with this policy.  Either we are fully commited to the Foundation Phase, with a strategy that runs through a child’s education to match that, or we are not.  At present the system is becoming increasingly fragmented on this point and it is the children that progress through it who will lose out.

The Welsh Government must clarify its position through both words and action or else it will fail to stand by the foundations on which the Foundation Phase is built.

You can read the origional article from the Western Mail here.

 

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.

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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.