One chance with children’s education

Philip Dixon says Schools Challenge Cymru could take us from ‘talking’ to ‘achieving’ when it comes to narrowing the gap between rich and poor children.

Trades unions are blamed for many things. One I gladly take the rap for is Professor Mel Ainscow’s involvement in Wales. Mel gave ATL Cymru’s inaugural Annual Lecture in 2012 entitled ‘Everyone a Winner: Equity and Excellence for All’, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Many lectures barely live beyond the time that they are delivered. Mel’s was different. Leighton Andrews was in the audience that night, along with a number of senior government officials. This was in the days when the Department for Education and Skills was open to outside influences and eager to learn. They realised that Mel’s story about the success of the Manchester and London Challenges was one that we badly needed to be able to tell about Wales. So shortly after he was invited to bring the learnings from those experiments to help our children here.

It’s good to read that the same sorts of transformation are now occurring in Wales that have already happened in some of the big English cities. At the start of the millennium schools in London were amongst some of the worst in the UK. Now they are the best. In some London boroughs schools have become so effective that the impossible has happened: Free School Meals kids do better than their better off counterparts.

The headline about ‘Challenge Cymru’ is, of course, about the improvements in schools’ performance, especially as shown in GCSEs other qualifications. Those are essential. But underneath, as Mel has shown, there is even more of story to tell. Often for the first time in their professional lives, teachers and heads are being trusted to get on with job they want to do. But they are also being resourced properly, not just with money but with expertise. These have acted as a catalyst because, as he said at our lecture, those who will effect reform are already within the system.

These are still early days for Schools Challenge Cymru. This is no magic bullet programme. The turn around in London took over a decade. So we must be patient and not get alarmed when things don’t travel in a straight line. The politicians too must be patient and give the programme time to embed. The devolution journey has had too many policy twists when it comes to education. Schools Challenge introduces in an acceptable way a key component that was missing in the opening decade of devolution – the standards agenda. As Mel perceptively notes we were perhaps too tolerant of mediocrity. But it does it in a way that professionals sign up to and want to put into effect. It is a carrot not a stick approach.

We are now about to embark upon a change to the curriculum which will have profound effects on the next generations. In the wake of the Donaldson review we are going to make a curriculum in Wales. A key part of that will be upskilling the workforce. Mel’s article spoke of new forms of professional learning for practitioners based on the findings of international research. Those will need to become more widely known. The New Deal’ Huw Lewis has promised to the workforce must include them.

On occasions it has seemed that policy makers in Wales have been prepared to learn from anywhere other than England. Schools Challenge Cymru is surely a sign of growing maturity because it is clearly predicated on an English experience. When it comes to ‘narrowing the gap’ between richer and poorer kids we have talked a good game but not necessarily achieved a great deal. The difference that the Challenge is making is now changing that. Children have one chance with their education, making it the best chance possible is a moral, social, and economic imperative.

Dr Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru

7 thoughts on “One chance with children’s education

  1. A good observation Phil “On occasions it has seemed that policy makers in Wales have been prepared to learn from anywhere other than England”, but sadly what you call an occasional event is a regular and a deliberate practice!

    In Welsh education the word ‘Cymru’ has become synonymous with Failing, Underachievement and Orwellian Social Engineering but in the absence of an open and a robust dialogue nothing will change and blatant censorship by the main Welsh media on this subject leaves most people in Wales unaware that their kids especially those from non-Welsh speaking homes including those in poverty are dumped onto the proverbial rubbish heap with no future in Wales whatsoever!

    Can’t see much point in pursuing ‘excellence’ in Welsh secondary education whilst the damage continues to be done in primary years through disproportionate time being devoted to the Welsh language teaching in English medium schools. Equally the teaching quality is stifled by making Welsh language essential for all new teachers in primary schools!

    Surely this can’t be right and no Government should be allowed to use education for the purpose of Social Engineering by compulsion?

    A way forward would be for the UK Government to reduce devolved powers to the Assembly for education by taking English Medium education back into the English system?

    No action is not an option as we now had 15 years of unworkable Social Engineering policy and generations of kids whose future has been taken away from them – Democracy a Joke in Cymry or even the Welsh context!

  2. if we are developing a Welsh curriculum, we should look at John Kay’s article in Social Europe, available on the internet, entitled “A liberal education is now more useful than job-specific skills”. it makes the case for a broader secondary school education in which people are not allowed to drop all scientific or all literary subjects at 15 as at present, leaving many leaders in society functionally innumerate. Time to dust off the IWA’s work on a Welsh baccalaureate – or just adopt the international one in place of A-level?

  3. Literacy and Numeracy are core subjects of the Welsh Bacc. in years 12 and 13 but while that may be a sound idea for pupils doing some less academic subjects (Leisure and Tourism, Sociology, Media studies, Drama, Art etc) there seems little point in making pupils who are taking A level Maths and A level English also take literacy and numeracy.

    The Welsh Bacc is now functionally compulsory at sixth form. (funding is removed for pupils who don’t take it) but there is strong opposition from parents of high achieving pupils who want to take 4 A levels and are struggling for time. Welsh Bacc is never a qualification that forms part of a university “Offer”.

  4. The Welsh bac in its current form is useless. As I recall the IWA proposed a true bac to replace A-level, based on an adapted International Bac. The Welsh government bottled it and went for the pointless compromise add-on we now have. Far from going for differentiation for its own sake, on this occasion the Welsh government was frightened of departing too far from the English model despite its evident flaws.

  5. The Welsh bac is indeed useless. But it is the result of a failure of nerve. The IWA work proposed a true bac based on the International Bac with some adaptations that would replace A-level. The Welsh government would not drop A-level but introduced a pointless add-on.

  6. I would echo J Jones’ comments about Welsh Bac. My younger daughter was among the early cohort who took this. She very much wanted to study 4 subjects to A level and this was made difficult by the Welsh Bac. It felt very much like a “tick box ” exercise with little depth or rigor. None of the four universities she applied to ( UCL, St Georges, Imperial and Queen Mary) accepted WB towards their offers.

  7. Challenge “Cymru” is an awful title disenfranchising the majority of students from achieving. It is exclusive not inclusive. In complete contrast the equitable ambitions of such a plan.

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