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Education in Wales: where is it going?

ysgol 1There was no golden age in Welsh education. While Grammar Schools were more generously provided than in many parts of England, they created failure in the second and third deciles. Children passed the 11+ but left with little or nothing to show for it. Secondary Modern pupils were denied even the chance to fail.

After the move to comprehensives, the second and third deciles became the top of the Comprehensive School and their attainment improved immeasurably. The tail however remained poorly done by. In fact the larger number of Grammar Schools in Wales turned from advantage into disadvantage, with ex Grammar School teachers for years afterwards finding it difficult to learn how to teach classes with a more diverse intake.

Things improved in the ‘80’s. University departments and local authorities were big providers of in-service training. There were many advisory teachers. Teachers’ centres existed and the Caerleon Convention was a model of in-service training. Teachers responded by participating in curriculum development groups and there was an explosion of interest in practical approaches to individualised learning. Sadly, these were cut across by the National Curriculum and its approach to testing in the late ‘80’s. This largely killed off experimentation with league tables and stereotyped Ofsted-led teaching by numbers.

On devolution, education is Wales took a turn for the better. While Rhodri Morgan was First Minister and Jane Davidson, the Minister for Education, education in Wales diverged from that in England, in many ways (except finance) to Wales’s advantage. Examples include the abolition of testing at 7 and 11, the Foundation stage, 14-19 education, the absence of academies et al, the Welsh baccalaureate, and the existence of an inclusive, cooperative, and comprehensive ideology. Also the EMA was retained, university tuition fees reduced, breakfast clubs and nutritional standards in schools maintained.

However, after Rhodri stepped down, things took a turn for the worse. There was pressure to conform to the English Education system. The minister, Leighton Andrews, stood out for some things such as the commitment to comprehensive education and the remarking of Gove’s idiotic English GCSEs. But he reacted with kneejerk responses to every criticism in the local press in particular over the PISA results..

The funding gap between Wales and England continued to grow: £58 in 1999/2000; £604 In 2010. It is difficult to be quite clear about finance since Welsh authorities held back more money for services that were often welcomed by teachers. Since 2010 the Welsh statistical office has been unable to produce comparative data.

New assessment criteria were invented. The Child Development Assessment Profile (CDAP) was far too cumbersome to implement. It was a deviation from the philosophy of the Foundation Phase and a reaction to Press criticism. The new literacy and numeracy tests to be sat each year have made things worse.

The 4 regional consortia were a response to the fact that Local Authorities are too small to support and challenge schools effectively. They were not well planned and had to be forced to offer a consistent range of services. Some were a disruption of existing consortium arrangements. There was no provision for democratic accountability.

There was a unkept promise that there would be a limit on new initiatives. The Standards Unit, banding, CDAP, the reading test, the consortia, all mark big changes, unplanned and untested responses to Press criticism. PISA tests are run by the OECD and test attainment in native language, maths and science in 15 year olds. Welsh raw results were lower than England so it was said that 15-year-olds should do work on the PISA tests. This is the worst sort of teaching to the test and will lower achievement overall.

The banding data that has been published amounts to re-imposition of league tables. The local papers certainly think so and have already published full details of every secondary school.  The data is misleading. For example schools in band 5, the lowest, were rated by Estyn (the Welsh Inspectorate) as good and the results have been inconsistent.

The banding figures were created by dividing schools into quartiles for 11 different aspects and then adding the incommensurable data together. One mark is given for being in the top quartile and four marks for the bottom. No account was taken of the tendency to cluster around the mean so there might be no statistically significant difference between a school in the top quartile and another in the 3rd (or even 4th). Progress will obviously be greater if the school is low to start with. Value added will be greater if the feeder school is no good. The system reflects the low quality of the Welsh statistical service. It does not allow for overall improvement since there will always be a bottom quartile, however high average achievement.

The standards unit in the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) is a further layer of bureaucracy. What can it do that cannot be done by Estyn and the Local Authority consortia? It duplicates their work causing unnecessary complication for schools and “reform fatigue for Wales’ overwhelm(ing) teachers” (Western Mail 10/4/14). The latest Schools Challenge Cymru may just add to this problem.

The SEA calls for local government in Wales to be sorted. There are too many too small local authorities (On average 10 secondary schools per authority in Wales and 20.5 in England). There is confusion about how these relate to the four consortia, the DCELLS standards unit, Ofsted and the new Schools Challenge Cymru. The bureaucracy must be reduced and local democratic control re-established. Trust in teachers must be underlined and banding, targets and league tables removed. Teacher training must remain part of higher education and available throughout a teacher’s career. Cooperation between clusters of schools, primary, secondary and special, must be the way forward. The curriculum must be freed up from an over academic straight jacket to allow for local and environmental input. Estyn must be returned to its original trusted position as critical friend and not a second rate Ofsted. All Welsh schools should have a bilingual dimension but segregation by Language (and social selection) is destructive. The goal remains a good local comprehensive school for every child in every neighbourhood.

Mike Newman is a member of SEA Wales

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