Facing the challenges of the classroom

Let’s get to grips with the fundamentals of the Welsh education system, says Kirsty Williams.

“Everyone is in it together”. No, not the hollow tune of Bullingdon Boys Brigade (remember them?), but the recent call to arms from Heather Nicholas, headteacher of Ferndale Comprehensive.

Heather, along with her staff, has transformed Ferndale over the last five years. The effect of a good leader and teachers committed to continuous improvement has raised standards and reduced the attainment gap.

It can sound simple, but is no less crucial or ambitious. At both school and national level we must commit to strong leadership, supporting teachers to be the best they can be, new professional standards, raising ambitions and delivering a new curriculum. Each strengthens the other as we deliver our national mission of education reform.

I have no patience for those who limit our ambitions to just what’s happening across the border. We must aim higher. PISA may divide opinion, but it remains the recognised international benchmark for skills.

As we await the PISA news next week, I think it is important to recognise the steps that have been taken since the last set of results. And I recognise that, frankly, those results weren’t good enough.

The Government at that time rightly took the decision to ask the OECD to shine a spotlight on our system. It revealed Wales’ strengths, but also our weaknesses. That report has been the basis of the reforms being brought forward: providing an excellent professional workforce, developing an engaging curriculum, and introducing qualifications that are nationally and internationally respected. Wales has a clear journey of reform.

However, the report also told us that we should “treat developing system leadership as a prime driver of education reform.” I agree, yet I feel not enough progress has been made in this area. That is why this month I announced plans for a new National Academy of Educational Leadership.
The Academy will develop the current and future leadership talent for Wales and ensure all schools can deliver our new curriculum. Without enthused, valued and skilled teachers we can’t achieve anything.

My vision is to strengthen leadership and make sure that there is greater consistency across our education system. This will involve our schools, local authorities, regional consortia and universities working together.

I’m convinced that teachers should be the best students in the classroom. Learning and developing from best practice, and increasing capacity to manage and lead change. The need for enhanced leadership development opportunities in Wales has been overlooked. I know that effective and enthused school leaders are essential for improvement, and I will continue to prioritise this.
Our national mission is pretty simple – to ensure that all our young people have an equal opportunity to reach the very highest standards. And by driving up opportunities and standards for our poorest pupils, we will raise the ambitions for all.

By getting to grips with the fundamentals of a modern education system – leadership, teaching excellence, equity and wellbeing for learners, and collective responsibility – we will reach the highest standards.

I know that the challenges of the classroom are never simple. Across the country teachers remind me of this. But they also tell me that it’s the most rewarding profession. That is why I want it to be our most respected profession too.

A school cannot be better than its teachers. It’s a simple truth.

Through our reforms, we will support teachers through the new Professional Teaching Standards, promoting ambition, aspiration and ownership. Initial teacher training will be reformed and we will attract more of our best young people to work in teaching. I’m also looking at ways to encourage more mature graduates into the profession.

This is an ambitious agenda, make no mistake. But it is also an opportunity, with each measure linked to our wider reforms of introducing the new curriculum, reducing infant class sizes, extending the pupil deprivation grant and delivering a genuinely self-improving system.

Next week our education system will once again be in the spotlight. Scrutiny is rightly intense. But I have no interest in knee-jerk reactions.

I remain determined to focus on international evidence to drive our agenda. Parents wouldn’t expect us to simply sit back awaiting what’s to come. That is why I recently commissioned the OECD to come back to Wales to provide support and challenge to make sure our reforms are on track.

While I look forward to the full OECD report landing on my desk, the initial feedback from the visit is optimistic about our progress and our long-term vision for Welsh education. They recognise that we’re on a journey and we have to have the courage to see through our reforms for the betterment of our pupils.

The truth is that Wales is in a better place than it has been in a long time, and I want to keep that going – at pace. We must not be blown off course.

4 thoughts on “Facing the challenges of the classroom

  1. I wondered how Kirsty Williams would handle her poisoned chalice. The problem with being an education minister is that whatever vision that you have for educational change you have to have acted on 10 years previously. If you choose to drive performance improvement through improved recruitment and training of teachers then you have to have acted 26 years ago.
    Ruining a good school system is easier of course, as the Welsh government has shown…all you need to do is to inherit an enviable record on educational achievement, consult the teachers unions on what their members want most (an easy time) and give it to them.
    Kirsty does have a unique opportunity though; she could do nothing. England has shown its determination to unsettle the established order to the East and the result will be a lot of pupils and teachers struggling in the short term to adapt to far more rigorous demands being made upon them. It’s unlikely that they will have a good PISA this time round.
    For Wales the hard yards have been gained by Leighton Andrews making schools and teachers once more accountable and Huw Lewis introducing the literacy and numeracy framework and testing. The foundation stage generation has not yet flowered and so whether it is a success or not is not yet known. The danger is that this, and the Welsh Bacc., are seen as so much a unique product of Wales’ own thinking that national pride prevents our academics from making a truly objective judgement on their success or failure. I look at the personnel doing the evaluations and when you see an academic who was sponsored by the Welsh Language Board to do her Phd thesis you have to wonder whether she is an academic or Culture and Language Nationalist first and foremost.
    This is a real problem in Wales…academia seems incapable of making an objective analysis in some areas. As long as we fail to face up to our failures we will never reach our true potential.

  2. I can completely understand the push for better teachers and better leadership in schools and clearly there is a weight of evidence to show that these are factors that make a profound difference in schools. The one question I would like to pose though is the lack of mention of the role and influence of parents or guardians. I find it very hard to imagine that this is not a fundamental factor that has to be incorporated into the mix in order to improve outcomes.

    After a brief request to parents to be more positive about maths by Huw Lewis, I have rarely seen much mention of the role of parents. Ambitious confident parents, who enjoyed their school years and were well educated; parents with deep pockets and good connections must surely contrast with parents who perhaps have less empathy for the eductaion system and perhaps have less and expect less. This must surely be a massive factor on a child’s education, outside of the control and influence of the school and education system.

    How effectively do schools link and liaise with parents who may themselves have disliked the education system and maybe find it difficult to engage with teachers and education professionals. How much research has been done on effective means of collaboration and co-operation with parents – creating links that work for parents or guardians to be able to engage. This isn’t about pushing parents to do more, but perhaps giving some parents the links and the tools to be able to do more. What are the mechanisms of support for parents who really want to do more, but maybe are unable to offer what they would like to. Is there something for children from families where parents expectations or confidence may be lower than they perhaps could be.

    How much time, resource and effort do schools and educational departments put aside for this sort of thing. Should there be people in the community or in LEAs who bridge and act as act as conduits to improve engagement with the education system. Are schools flexible enough to adapt to the demands of their communities, pupils and carers or do they impose their ideas and rules on pupils and parents and simply expect them to hand their kids over to them every morning and let them decide what is best.

    Something tells me that there isn’t enough time and resources for schools to fully consider the views, attitudes, skills and the potential role that parents play. Not only the parents who have the confidence and drive to find themselves roles or make themselves heard, but those parents who don’t shout loudly or maybe don’t have the confidence or knowledge or experience to effectively engage and convey their opinions and views – something that would aid with engagement.

  3. Here’s the oddest thing about Welsh parents Aled; the less well their pupils are doing at school the more satisfied parents are.

    You don’t believe me do you? It’s counter intuitive I know but the all Wales survey asks for levels of satisfaction with education amongst parents. Well educated parents from the middle classes are less satisfied with schooling in Wales than parents who have low educational attainment and low socio-economic status. The pupils of dissatisfied parents actually perform relatively well, the pupils of more satisfied parents do relatively badly.

    This is the problem with expecting parents to somehow be the driver of improvement; the educated middle class know very well that their children are not being stretched, and PISA has just shown this (our “cream” is just 5% as against 11% in England). The “underclass” has no way of judging how well their kids are being educated.
    We must turn our backs on this “I blame the parents” vicious circle and embrace the Finnish model where teachers take FULL responsibility for the education of ALL pupils.
    First find your teachers!

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