Saturday, 5 December 2015

The education service in Wales is in need of significant improvement

Standards in performance and provision in Welsh Education should and could be much better

The in-phrase these days when forming a judgement about the poor performance of any organisation, public body or even an individual tends to be ‘not fit for purpose’. Well I think that conclusion can be made when looking at the performance of the current Education Minister in Wales – Huw Lewis. Over the last month his performances in the Assembly shows clearly that he is not in control of his brief - that will be the subject for another post.
This one is about how good are standards in our schools. In the short time one gets at a conference to make speeches I endeavoured to explain the current situation in Wales at the Welsh Liberal Democrats one in Swansea a few weeks back. It is also the topic of the video talk below.

It is fair to state that in certain areas there are signs of improvement such as attendance, truancy and the decline in the proportion of young people not in education or training. But in the key area of standards there is considerable scope for improvement, indeed the current Minister and his predecessor agree with me with one pointing ‘complacency’ and the other ‘systemic weaknesses’.

Briefly the key points are in relation to the schools inspected by Estyn in recent times:
The proportion of primary schools with ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ standards has declined to 6 in 10. In other words 4 out of 10 are only ‘adequate’ (in other words OK!). The central problem was weakness in pupils’ numeracy skills and this has been a matter of concern for years. The standards in literacy have only improved ‘slightly’.

Although the standards in secondary schools are improving there remains a long way to go. Only 50% of the schools inspected achieved ‘excellent or good’ standards. So there are an awful lot of them in the ‘adequate’ box.  Clearly that is not good enough.

At secondary level it has been found that there is a general need to improve standards in mathematics and numeracy as well as the provision for more the able and talented pupils.
Two matters of concern and they were present throughout the years I was an inspector – the standards in Welsh second language and schools’ assessment of pupils’ work is not robust or accurate enough. The latter weakness is so crucial not only does it mislead pupils and parents, also call into question the school’s self-evaluation processes and judgements but more importantly school leaders are unable to have a proper and accurate grasp of how the school is performing.

Without going further one can begin to understand why Wales is so low down the international education comparison league table called PISA. Out of 65 countries we are 43rd, Northern Ireland 33rd, England and Scotland more or less the same at 25th.  In fact none of the UK countries are anywhere near the standard set by so many countries across the world. Of course to explain away these facts the Welsh Government and others in the education profession try to say that such comparisons are meaningless – actually they are most certainly not.

When inspecting there was a good 75% of schools always complaining about the lack of professional support and guidance they were getting from their local education authorities. It was a common feature.  But it is not surprising because in recent years 9 local authorities have been, at various times, placed into the in need of ‘special measures’ category and requiring significant external support to ensure improvement.

As I said at the beginning I addressed some of these issues at the Welsh Lib Dems conference and what gave me immense satisfaction was to listen to many of the delegates that spoke understanding the nature of what is defective in the Welsh education system. It was a very good and knowledgeable discussion.

The final policy motion agreed following the passing of several amendments is as follows.
Conference Notes That:
1. Wales has fallen significantly behind the rest of the United Kingdom in reading, maths and science, according to the OECD’s PISA rankings;
2. The Welsh Government does not set minimum standards for schools in Wales;
 3. Headteachers and teachers deliver the best results when they are given flexibility and support, not smothered by centralising red tape;
 4. It is often better to improve accountability and performance through managing risk, not increasing control;
 5. The positive impact of the Welsh Pupil Premium, which according to independent analysis has led to “a significant amount of new activity” aimed at supporting disadvantaged pupils.
 6. That the existence of English-medium and Welsh-medium schools has provided parents in Wales with an element of choice in where to send their children to school, although full choice is still limited to those parents able to afford to move to the catchment areas of good schools.
 Conference Believes That:
 1. We must be the party of opportunity, enabling people across Wales to make progress in their lives.
 2. There is nothing progressive about poor public services, and we must find new and innovative ways to deliver public services that take the side of parents, pupils and patients.
 3. In freeing up individuals from restrictive government and empowering leaders to lead, while ensuring that minimum standards are met and accountability is strong and transparent.
4. Head teachers should be given the autonomy to make the right decisions for their pupils.
 5. Professionals and experts know better than politicians what should be included in the school curriculum and how schools should be run.
 6. Schools should not be run for profit, or operated by private companies.
Conference Calls For:
 1. The introduction of individual pupil monitoring, and for schools which do not adequately support the development of all pupils to be automatically placed into special measures.
 2. Ensuring children get the individual attention they need by introducing a maximum class size of 25 for Early Years and Key Stage 1 (Reception, Year 1, and Year 2).
 3. Expanding the Pupil Premium to our target of £2,500 per pupil per year aged 5 - 15 and to £1000 per pupil, per year under 5.
4. Establishing a single authority to set the curriculum content in Wales independent of government interference, while maintaining Ministerial powers to set the broad overall direction.
 5. Direction to endorse Personal, Social and Health Education – a curriculum for life – being included in the curriculum, including financial literacy, first aid and emergency lifesaving skills, political education, citizenship, and age appropriate sex and relationship education.
 6. Establishing a Welsh Academy of Leadership to promote high quality leadership and help the best leaders to work in the most challenging schools.
 7. Allowing schools which have demonstrated key values of leadership, innovation and improvement to gain new powers and autonomy from local and central government, providing they maintain a demonstrable track record of excellence. This should be done in a way which does not diminish the ability of democratically-elected local authorities to fairly and effectively manage the provision of school places across the areas they serve, or to intervene where necessary to ensure the provision of appropriate educational standards.
 8. Accountability to be strengthened by giving school governors extra powers to caution, discipline or dismiss head teachers who do not meet mutually agreed targets;
 9. Introducing a Talented Head Teachers programme to draw top leaders to the schools where they are most needed.
10. Giving schools greater freedom over term dates, but setting the month of July (from the first Monday in July) as compulsory holiday between school years, enabling Welsh families to book more affordable holidays at home and abroad.
11. Enabling greater control for head teachers over their school’s budget.
12. Regional Consortia to be abolished.

13. Ensuring elected representation of peers from the teaching profession to the Education Workforce Council to ensure it is properly accountable.