It’s what happens in the classroom that really matters

Anna Brychan says its time for children aged 8 to 14 to have their day in the policy sunshine

Although you might not guess it from recent headlines, on the whole devolution has been good for education in Wales. Teachers and leaders have made a positive difference to the lives of at least two generations of young people. At the start there was a national plan to create a distinctive Welsh education system by:

  • Extending and improving learner choice.
  • Learning from and implementing international good practice.
  • Tackling the divide between vocational and academic study.
  • Achieving better exam results.

We’ve largely stuck to that plan. Of course, the sticking was made easier by the relative longevity, in career terms, of our Education Ministers. This is in stark contrast to the practice adopted by our nearest neighbour.

In pursuit of our plan, we introduced the Foundation Phase – according to many of our senior politicians, the proudest achievement of devolution. Those who work in our primary schools would agree. The Welsh Bac is increasingly successful. I heard last week of one pupil who has been accepted to study medicine at an English university on the strength of two ‘A’ levels and the Welsh Bac, and another who will read History at Oxford with two Grade As at A Level and the Welsh Bac.

The skills curriculum has been widely welcomed. Exam results have improved. The Learning Pathways, despite some confusion over the dictionary definition of the word ‘choice’ genuinely has opened up new avenues of study for young people who were not engaged in what was on offer previously.

Despite all this there was disquiet. Many teachers and leaders worried about the fact that school leadership is not valued, challenged and developed at anything like the level it should be given its significance in raising standards and creating great school systems. The existence of the National College of School Leadership and the innovative practice within the Academies and Specialist Schools Trust in England are a source of envy for many teachers in Wales. They worried  about the slow progress on making teacher assessment consistent and robust. The state of our school buildings has received scant attention. The National Professional Qualification for Headship, a necessary requirement to take up school headship was not rigorous enough to find, train and mentor the most promising leaders of the future. Our curriculum was not flexible enough to allow genuine innovation in creating individual learning pathways for our young people. The funding gap continued to trouble us.

But still we had a good story to tell and, as usual, we told it very well.

And then came the PISA results, showing Welsh children aged 15 are lagging behind the rest of the UK in the acquisition of key skills, and the rules of engagement changed. However, in all this there is a danger that we lose sight of the main story. Put simply, the best education systems in the world are built around what happens in the classroom.

Education systems around the world might differ wildly in other ways. Finland does not even inspect schools. In New Zealand they don’t yet test primary school children. The Prime Minister of Singapore can probably tell you what lesson is being taught in every school in the country at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. But they all have great school systems because they all concentrate on finding, training and supporting the best teachers and leaders.

The lesson from the PISA results is not that we should be trying to create a system that compares more favourably in 2011 with England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Rather, we should be developing a system that will stand us in good stead for the future – one that properly equips them for the immensely more complicated world that they will inherit. This will be a world with fewer resources of all kinds and, as far as Western European children are concerned anyway, far less materially secure.

Children coming into schools today have vastly different skills to those they had just five years ago. They can manipulate a mouse and make impressive use of their opposable thumbs, but they can rarely handle a book. In one example, a primary head teacher whose school scores reasonably highly on a crude ‘leafiness’ measure reports that five years ago, 20 out of 24 of her new intake had at least a basic level of acquaintance with a book – that is that they knew what it was and how to open it. Last September it was 2 out of 25. With the advent of Kindle and iPad this may not matter very much, as reading materials are now available in all manner of forms. However, these figures do serve to show the changing nature of what schools need to provide.

Children are also subjected to hugely more stimuli than ever before. They are constantly bombarded with information and noise. But little children are clever. They know how to screen things out. School leaders and teachers are reporting ever more sophisticated selective hearing skills in very young children. So schools are having to find ways through all that to engage the children in their learning. The methods that they use to do that this year may not be suitable next.

Which is why the Foundation Phase is so important. Nobody has ever suggested that literacy and numeracy should no longer be taught formally in the Foundation Phase. That would be madness. But the Foundation Phase is a child centred curriculum. It is capable therefore of recognising the realities of the lives of 21st Century children and the different levels of support they can access at home.

The curriculum can be adapted to give individual children the challenges they need at a time when they are most likely to be successful. So the best teachers and leaders assess their children. They track their pre-reading skills in listening and speaking, and identify at which point the introduction of formal reading, for example, is most likely to be successful with an individual child. And that is surely what we want – successful practice not monolithic practice. Which is not to say that we oppose a reading test. We don’t. We want one. But we do want the conversation about its introduction to be mindful of what the Foundation Phase can do and how it does it.

If we do the Foundation Phase well then some of the solution for the Key Stage 3 ‘problem’ – the declining levels of attainment among children between the ages of 11 and 14 – lies there. But we must let it work. It was introduced because our politicians and professionals felt that Wales deserved a curriculum based on the best in the world. That curriculum now needs our support.

So if the Foundation Phase works, where does our of the 21st Century Welsh pupil go next? To Key Stage Two, of course, and the preparation to enter secondary school. And here there are some concerns. Again it’s teaching and leading that matters. What happens in the classroom matters. Training and developing those who do it matters. Bluntly, we haven’t given enough time and energy into preparing our schools and classrooms for our new 21st Century learners. The fabled ‘bit in the middle’,  our 8-14 year olds, have not had their moment in the policy sunshine compared with other age groups.

This is also the time when children move school. They move from an environment where they have one teacher in one classroom, and probably several support staff,  to an environment where they might have fourteen teachers and about the same number of classrooms to find. The sheer scale of the new institution will scare many. It might take a while to settle. Negotiating their way through a labyrinth of subjects might be difficult. These are children who are used to themed work and topics. Individual subjects are new territory for them. Increasingly in Wales, they are children who will have learned to question and make connections in a way and at a level they never have before.

Schools have introduced a variety of measures to deal with these challenges. Year 6 teachers in primary schools swap with the Year 7s in secondary schools so that they can get to know the next year’s intake. A few secondary schools experiment with trying to keep the one-teacher-one-class model for the first year. An increasing number use fewer teachers and a more thematic approach to part of the week. Others devote an afternoon a week to teaching the coming intake from primaries on the secondary school site – although one school that was doing that has recently been forced to move from a weekly pattern to a fortnightly one because they can’t afford to fund the weekly model.  It’s expensive. Many, many schools adopt a themed approach across subject areas and find this helps.

Increasingly, schools are also adopting a thematic approach in years 8 and 9, the second and third years in secondary school. Many teachers like it because it allows far greater scope for creativity. They report a favourable impact at Key Stages 4 and 5  (14 to 16 and 16 to 19)as well, as this approach begins to dismantle ‘silo’ thinking. It means that it is easier to share good practice.

The PISA tests are about measuring the application of knowledge, not simply its acquisition. Arguably, GCSEs have traditionally been more about acquisition. In England, which also scored relatively badly on PISA, that acquisition is about to gather pace. The misleadingly-named ‘English Bac’ is acquisition writ large.

In Wales we’ve tried to strike a balance. Skills and subject knowledge have both been valued. It is important that both continue but we should keep half an eye on developments over the border because what happens there can have consequences for future education choices for young people in Wales. Examination Boards are now profit-making companies and they will react to curriculum change in England by withdrawing courses that are no longer in demand there and so lessen choice for schools and young people in Wales.

So at GCSE subject knowledge is still very important. That is what will be tested in the examination. And maybe this is somewhere  we have failed to be bold enough in Wales. If loosening the subject structure works, if the skills taught across subjects as well as within them works,  and pupils respond well to it, why not go a little further? Why not make it easier for some pupils to take some examinations early? Why not encourage greater take up of the Welsh Bac lower down the school? The funding system is currently predicated on introducing the Welsh Bac in Key Stage 4, at 14,  but couldn’t we look at changing that?

Why can’t we make it easier to replicate at Key Stage 3, between 11 and 14, what we’ve identified works lower down the age range? Why don’t we allow the curriculum to be adapted more easily to give individual children the challenges they need at a time when they are most likely to be successful.

We have very good schools in Wales that have identified individual pupil needs, tracked their progress and given them the support and challenge they need when they need it. Basically they’ve used their teachers and leaders to create a model that gets the best out of everyone. This is what is described in the IWA’s report Making a Difference at Key Stage 3, published this week.

It  sounds simple but it isn’t. The report’s author Stevie Upton talks about good practice being a ‘bad traveller’. I think one of the reasons for that can be traced to one of the things we’ve not done so well since devolution. We have not honed a national message about what our education is designed to do, and supported that with streamlined, professional support structures at a local level which holds schools to account without wringing the creative life out of them.

Teachers have no fears about increased accountability. However, what they don’t want is an accountability that places too much emphasis on a narrow range of outcomes. That would be unfair to schools, their students and their teachers. But a broader accountability that meets the changing needs of our young people whilst allowing us to build on the real strengths of the first ten years of devolution would be something well worth aiming for. It will maintain our distinct approach and it offers more chance of raising standards that are relevant to the world in which our young people will be working in ten years time rather than those that marked the learning of the past.

If we can fix that, and continue to remember that it really is what happens in the classroom that matters, that responsibility for Key Stage 3 lies with primary schools as much as secondary schools, that school leaders must be trusted to take the local decisions that matter whilst politicians and officials concentrate on strategy and frameworks, then we really would be getting somewhere.

Anna Brychan is Director of NAHT Cymru, the association for school leaders. This essay is based on the presentation she gave to the IWA’s national education conference School Leadership, Transition and Leadership at Key Stage 3 earlier this week.

2 thoughts on “It’s what happens in the classroom that really matters

  1. The title of this article sums up the great flaw in UK education. The greatest driver in educational attainment is not what happens in the class room. It is what happens at home.

    The state is obsessed with education because it is the one time in the life of an individual where the state has unequaled authority. There is no other group in society that is subject to such control. The state does not only seek to determine the education of children but also their health, diet, morals, attitude to sex, drugs, violence and political engagement.

    However that control is not total. The influence of home and economic factors outweigh the impact of the class room and the actions of the state. The state is over confident in its ability to counter social and economic forces in education.

    Anecdotal evidence (the state does not seek to find it out) suggests that the secondary schools that achieve the best examination results have a middle class catchment that can afford outside tutoring. Agencies that provide tutoring are rarely based in working class areas or in catchment areas where schools are deemed to be failing. Rather, you will find these businesses concentrated around schools that are labelled as performing well.

    The tutoring is not responsible for the fantastic grades. It is the attitude at home.

    The micro-management of education will only lead to disappointment. This is why there is constant change in education. The latest examination example being the farcical ‘controlled assessments’ at GCSE.

    The state is set on dictating to schools, that which every child must learn. Compulsory subjects on the Key Stage 4 timetable can now include Maths, English Lit, English Lang, two sciences, Welsh, PSE, Religious Education, Physical Education and the Welsh Bac leaving only 3 other GCSE’s to choose from. The desire of the state to exercise its authority is resulting in the opposite of its aims.

    The state’s focus on the class room will only lead to further dismay. What happens outside those four walls may well have a greater impact.

  2. I would dearly like to accept Anne Brychan’s good news about our schools at face value. It does sound, though, a bit like ‘the operation was a big success, shame the patient died’. There are those PISA results plus the fact of large numbers of NEETs in Wales while many, many service sector jobs are filled by young East Europeans with superior work skills. Could it just be a lag and recent reforms will cure things in a decade’s time? I would like to believe it…

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