Uncertainty hanging over Schools Challenge Cymru

Owen Hathway asks if Schools Challenge Cymru will get the time it needs to prove value for money.

Back in early 2014 the Welsh Government announced their flagship policy for school improvement.  Schools Challenge Cymru was set to be the Welsh version of the lauded London and Manchester Challenge initiatives which had seen some radical and inspiring results.

With an initial pledge of £20m for at least two years there was financial backing for the programme.  This proposal was introduced at the height of the policy fatigue in the Education sector we saw during the last Assembly term.  Thankfully the recruitment of some key personnel from previously successful challenge programmes, including the impressive communicator Professor Mel Ainscow, did help alleviate some fears.  A little over two years on inevitably people will ask the question “has Schools Challenge Cymru worked for us?”

It is essential with any project of this nature that we are continually reviewing its progress to ensure it is providing value for money.  When there is a large financial investment, especially considering education budgets are so tight at present, it is crucial that teachers in schools are seeing a tangible benefit for their pupils.

The evidence from the first independent review suggests that thus far progress is patchy.  Some had already voiced their uncertainty of the impact of SCC.  When data showed the 40 schools in the SCC programme were just 0.3% better than those not included, the then Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, said in October last year:

“The Labour government’s flagship SCC programme was intended to deliver swift, sustainable improvement to schools that face challenges – but it hasn’t delivered the results.”

However, putting those results into context the aforementioned Professor Ainscow, writing for this very website, stated that:

“Overall, the picture for the Pathways to Success schools is beyond my expectations.  Indeed, neither the London nor Manchester Challenges made the same progress after just one year.”

So what does the review tell us? Perhaps most worrying is that “interviewees, in just over a quarter of the visited PtS schools, indicated that they felt that, following inclusion in SCC, they had seen an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.” (Page 87)  By extension therefore there are a significant number of schools who are not seeing that same level of improvement.  Conversely however, “The majority of interviewees in 32 of the 38 PtS schools we visited indicated that they felt that participation in SCC had had a positive impact on their school.” (Page 92)

For me one of the key lines of the report is that:

“In most cases, interviewees welcomed the opportunity afforded to PtS schools by their inclusion in SCC and the availability of additional support to help clusters overcome their barriers to improvement. That said, in most cases, interviewees reflected that work undertaken to date was not dissimilar to that which had been undertaken prior to the launch of SCC.” (Page 5)

This is perhaps the crux of the concern.  Teachers are open to sharing views and building towards the promise land of a self-improving education system.  While I recall initial hesitation from some practitioners at the potential stigma of being included in the 40 SCC schools, they were also open to embracing support and cooperation.  Sadly, as with many past Welsh Government initiatives, implementation hasn’t always matched the ambition.  Where it has worked, it has worked well.  Where it hasn’t there is a need to examine why and to improve on the offer being made to schools.

Clearly there are some teachers and some schools who are seeing the positive effects of the Schools Challenge Cymru program while others are yet to be convinced.  What we do know is that similar initiatives, such as the London challenge, were delivered over a much longer period.  These were many years in the making and by comparison Schools Challenge Cymru is very much in its infancy.  It may be that we cannot fully make a judgement on how impactful this approach will be for a few years.  Education reform does not happen overnight.  The world’s leading education systems have taken decades to develop.  Wales will not be unique in that regards and patience with any new policy is very much a virtue.

I think in some regards teachers are reluctant to embrace a new proposal if they are uncertain of how sustainable the commitment to it is.  While the initial money set aside was promising, the lack of a long-term commitment, for whatever reasons, did perhaps hinder the buy in from the sector.  A profession that has have become jaded by policies announced to great fanfare one day only to be scrapped the next were always going to view a two year guarantee as short-term.  Even today, in light of a new Government and a new Cabinet Secretary, with the Minister who brought this project to life no longer an Assembly Member, the uncertainty continues to hang over the policy.

If it is to be a success then it will be important to communicate where there have been successes and replicate that action across schools and local authorities.  Perhaps the biggest question we can ask of Schools Challenge Cymru is if it will be afforded the time and investment to truly prove itself the game changing initiative it was announced to be.

Owen Hathway is Policy Officer for NUT Cymru.

5 thoughts on “Uncertainty hanging over Schools Challenge Cymru

  1. Education reform does not happen overnight. The world’s leading education systems have taken decades to develop.

    Sadly education in Wales has always been behind England. Labour abolished all grammar and Secondary Moderns in Wales, leaving us with the substandard and not fit for purpose comprehensive system. No one can deny the Tripartie System of education had a lot of flaws but they worked reasonably well for most children who went through that system. So we replaced a system that needed reforming with a comprehensive system that was ill thought out, seemingly planned on the back of a fag packet and incorporated Labours socialist ideas of everyone is equal and must be given an equal chance no matter their educational ability with disastrous consequences in Wales. In the late 70s in Newport we were told English universities didn’t accept Welsh qualifications has equal and if you wanted to go to university go to one in Wales.

    With Schools Challenge Cymru we risk repeating the disaster of the 1970s by aping England and introducing and introducing educational reform that hasn’t been thought through and which may not be suitable for Wales. Instead of tinkering with our education system every few years in the false belief that constant application of band aids will solve our underlying problems, can we do what we should have done in the 1970s, have a comprehensive review of the education system and develop a well thought out plan free of political doctrination

  2. Would just caution that London as a place has changed quite rapidly over a very short period of time. Maps published by the Guardian newspaper comparing eFSM figures from 2010 to 2015 covering the Tory & LibDem coalition period indicated very significant falls on numbers receiving Free School Meals in nearly every London borough. Another statistic that probably impacts on education results is the sharp increase over recent years is the percentage of the London population that now has graduate level qualifications.

  3. I would have hoped that given the test bed of the hard earned success of the London & Manchester projects there were a whole load of implementation mistakes that didn’t need to be rerun here in Wales. That should mean that our project was delivering tangible results in a shorter timescale than was seen with these English pathfinder projects.

  4. I’m sorry I’m a bit late to replying to these comments, the moment may very well have passed, but here goes anyway.

    To Philip Hughes:

    I agree that we should not simply be taking an English idea and implementing it in Wales. We have to see how and why it would work, or work differently here. That said I don’t think we should also dismiss the notion of learning from successes in other parts of the UK, or internationally for that matter.

    As for a comprehensive review, in many ways we have done that. We have had a comprehensive review of our qualifications system and now our curriculum. I guess you can make the argument that we have been undergoing reviews in sections as opposed to on overall approach but ultimately, to all intents and purposes, we can arrived at the same end point. If you agree with that point or not is of course another matter.

    I do of course agree with your final point about ensuring education is free of political interference. The best systems have had consistent support from Government despite often the inconsistent party political make up of those governments. At the same time I think it is inevitable to have a political slant on education when you have government running to election cycles feeling the need to demonstrate impact to voters.

    To Geraint:

    Absolutely. Education policies do not always travel well and it is more than fair to say that the challenges an area like London will see and the nature of their pupils will vary significantly to that of Wales, especially in rural areas. We shouldn’t have ever expected to simply transport the policy here and see the same results. That said I still think we can use the skeleton of the London challenges as a guide and give it a Welsh approach to secure positive impacts. It is about learning the lessons of success in that project and seeing where they can be applied in Wales. Ultimately of course my argument here is that we haven’t yet reached the point in time where it is realistically appropriate to declare if it is working or not in a long-term view.

    To Brian:

    That is a very valid point. The fact that we did also have experts from those projects involved with the Welsh setup should also mean we could have expected progress sooner. That said I still contend that we are in early stages. Even if we expect a shorter period before we see tangible improvements there still has to be a certain cushion of time allocated. Where we are at now is nowhere near the halfway stage of the London Challenge for example. We may also have different issues arise in Wales that they hadn’t seen in England. However expecting that prior experience to improve the timescales of delivery is a fair argument.

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