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

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