Education in Wales – can the system cope?  

Martin Price considers the raft of reforms facing the education system in Wales

My grandfather was a headteacher of a secondary school in the Potteries.  He had strong views on education right until his death in his hundredth year.  He reckoned that politicians had been mucking about with schools ever since he started his working life as a reporter covering the 1906 Liberal landslide election before becoming a teacher.


What would he have made of the current state of Welsh Education?  Because he spent all his long retirement in West Wales, and he made a point of reading the Western Mail and watching the Welsh television news, he would have been well aware of the current changes in Welsh Education.   He would have had strong opinions, but I suspect even he would have struggled to keep abreast of all that is changing.


Given the parlous stage of the Welsh media, I fear most of the Welsh public outside the Welsh Education bubble have little understanding of the scale of what is going on.  The UK press debates endlessly the iniquities of the English Education System with its Multi Academy Trusts, Free schools, newly renumbered GCSEs and so on. Where is the debate about Welsh Education?  Are the changes a good thing? Are they too wide-ranging or not ambitious enough? Outside the bubble who knows, or perhaps cares? Is it all a good thing?


The most obvious reform is the new Curriculum proposed by Professor Graham Donaldson.  “Successful Futures” now “Curriculum for Wales” is a radical new way of looking at how learning takes place and what is learned.  It has been a shock for teachers in the Pioneer schools, who for the past twenty years were trained to follow strict guidelines, to be asked to design curricula around broader areas and to think in a very different way about how people teach and learn and what skills and facts young people in the twenty-first century need now and will need over their working lives.  Fortunately, Wales has learned from Scotland’s experience of trying to rush things and timescales have been stretched. My own observations are that this is going well at primary level, but less so at secondary.


For most countries, making a fundamental change to the curriculum would be more than enough to be going on with, but not in Wales.


One of the most important factors for a pupil to get a good educational experience is the quality of the teacher in front of them in the classroom.   New professional standards for teachers are being introduced, to keep up the skills of the existing workforce with ongoing training. At the same time there has been a root and branch review of teacher training in Wales, which will be completely different from September 2019, with radical changes in teaching methods and which Universities are providing the courses.  And then control of Teachers Pay and Conditions is also being devolved, with the opportunity of rewarding good performance.


Exams are changing too, not the GCSE numbering system as in England, but a greater emphasis on timed exams at the expense of coursework, as well as content changes in many subjects and making Numeracy a separate exam from Mathematics.  You might think, naively, that the purpose of exams is to provide qualifications for individual pupils, as a basis for their future careers, but, as every politician knows, their real purpose is to provide a check on the performance of schools and shame schools into improving.  


Welsh Schools are put in four categories: green, yellow, amber and red, supposedly so that resources can be targeted. For most people in the street, they form a crude view of how well their local school is doing. Categorisation is based on performance measures and therefore targets for each school.  At the secondary level the indicators used are a moving target, with significant changes arriving from Welsh Government year on year and even at a late stage within the year being measured.


What about our most vulnerable pupils?  The Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act received Royal Assent in January 2018 and is now being implemented.  Its aim is to deliver a fully inclusive education system for the learners of Wales and will replace the Special Educational Needs system, with something more flexible and responsive.  This is indubitably a good thing. It is what a civilised society should aspire to do. The challenge is how to make it happen within existing resources and meet the raised expectations of parents for their vulnerable children.


The Welsh Government’s ambition is to see the number of people able to enjoy speaking and using Welsh reach a million by 2050. Schools are fundamental to “Cymraeg 2050.”   “The Welsh language is one of the treasures of Wales. It is part of what defines us as people and as a nation.”  The vision is that all primary school pupils will leave at eleven being able to hold a conversation in Welsh. Not enough English-medium schools in Wales can say that happens now.


Welsh Government has also been looking at the governance of schools over the past couple of years, consulting widely on whether and how to move to a more skills-based Governing Board, while still retaining something of the current representational model with elected parent, teacher, staff governors, as well as community and local authority appointments.  The proposals also suggested reducing the size of Governing Bodies, to increase their effectiveness. Estyn, the inspection body, has been very critical of poor leadership by Governing Bodies when schools have been placed in Special Measures.


Of course, Estyn itself will have to change what it does because of all this activity, and the Cabinet Secretary commissioned Professor Donaldson to do a review.  His recommendations are more far-reaching, suggesting a move to a “Learning Inspectorate” with a dramatically expanded role in school improvement.


So to sum up, at the same time as a wide-ranging change to the curriculum and the way it is taught, Wales is also making fundamental changes the way teachers are taught, develop and are paid, the exam system, the way schools are governed, how some of the most vulnerable pupils access the system, how schools are measured, and how the schools are inspected.


Can our Civil Servants, Education professionals and most importantly Wales’s children cope with it all?  Is there enough “headspace” and “joined up thinking” to make sure it all work?


For what it’s worth, I think that all these changes are by and large a very good thing.  I just wish they were not all happening at once, and that there had been a little more public debate outside the Education bubble as to the advisability of changing everything at once.


As to my Grandfather, I suspect he would have been more cynical.  He reckoned educational reforms are like buses. If you don’t like this one, there will be another one along in a minute.   He would probably extend the simile to note that in Wales, you wait for ages at the stop and then lots of buses of various shapes and sizes all turn up at the same time.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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Dr Martin Price is a Governor of two secondary schools, Chair of the Vale of Glamorgan School Governors Association, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Central South Consortium Joint Education Service.  He writes in a personal capacity.

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