Renaissance Of Welsh Education

Good Morning,

Slide---1—Angela Burns AM/AC. Shadow Minister for Education

I am delighted to be taking part in today’s conference and was even more delighted when I asked if there was a particular area GL would like me to contribute on and I received carte blanche.

A dangerous thing to give any politician especially in relation to a field such as education and especially at this time with all the turmoil and reorganisation that is going on at present.

For there is no doubt that from the moment the PISA results came out in November 2010 the education system in Wales has come under immense pressure.

Government, Educators, Unions, Academics, and Political Parties, all have views and many are differing or have differing priorities. There has been a terrible and hurtful blame game summed up I think by this, one of the Minister for Education’s more moderate views.

Slide-2-“The results showed what can only be described as a systematic failure; schools in Wales were simply not delivering well enough for students at all levels of ability”. – Leighton Andrews

The Welsh education system should be performing better – and the Welsh Government must take the blame for recent failures. Fewer pupils are obtaining the very top A-Level grades; there is a growing attainment gap between Wales and England, PISA results show Wales lags behind other developed nations educationally and the Minister admits "systemic failure".

I know where I stand. Some schools in Wales, some Teachers in Wales are not delivering well enough for students but where I diverge from the Government is that I don’t believe that teachers and schools are the root of the problem.

A succession of Labour Ministers and an array of bureaucratic technocrats promoting a centralised system of education with top down micro management of confusing and changing curriculums, a lack of focus on outcomes and zero understanding of the notion that accountability and responsibility go hand in hand have led us to a place where education is struggling.

Where reputation is eroded, where the focus had been taken away from learning and teaching, where change is being arbitrarily imposed, where consistency and best practice varies from county to county, school to school, year to year, teacher to teacher.

The Minister called education a National Disgrace, well he’s right.

It is a disgrace,

It’s a disgrace that Labour has over the 10 years of devolution got us into this situation. I am deeply concerned that results had to become so poor before the Welsh Government made a substantive attempt to drive up standards in our education system.

It’s a disgrace that schools are being tarnished in this way

It’s a disgrace that the profession is being derided in such a manner

It’s a disgrace that creativity and innovation dare not speak their names

It’s a disgrace how many pupils are leaving school functionally illiterate

Whilst there is a degree of collective responsibility with regards to our educational system between schools, local authorities and the Welsh Government, accountability lies chiefly with the Minister and his policy choices. The Welsh Government has let down head teachers, teachers, pupils and parents for too long. Even Leighton Andrews admits the education system in Wales is “not delivering” in terms of outcomes.

However whilst the bureaucratic systems are falling apart and there are many voices clamouring; I believe what we need above all else is to hear the voice of the creative & innovative teacher because in all the sound & fury those are the voices that are being drowned out.

Yet when I step away from the tower of Babel in Cardiff Bay and I visit schools and Universities and Further Education colleges I hear those voices. The voices of reason and experience, the voices of knowledge and innovation, the voices able to lead and motivate and inculcate in our children a love of learning that will serve them into the future.

Slide-3--- 'To be a teacher you must be a prophet - because you are trying to prepare people for a world thirty to fifty years into the future.' Gordon Brown MIT

I think this quote sums up my view. There can be no more important job than being a Teacher. Than taking those blank pages and writing upon them with enough intelligence and resilience and humanity that they can find their futures whether that is one year or thirty years hence.

And without good writing, We, Society, the Human race, will not find our scientists and doctors, our philosophers and poets, our humanitarians and liberators, our thinkers and our activists of the future.

If you watch a small child you can see in action the incredibly powerful desire we all have to learn. By touch and smell we learn our world, with our eyes and ears we gain understanding. Every child asks the question Why?

And depending on the answer we either snuff out that desire to learn and to understand or inflame it. Children have a natural inclination to love learning, it may not be framed that way but it’s there, we need to encourage that love of learning so they are able to learn whatever it is they need, to make of their life what they wish.

Sadly that is not always the case and as some grim statistics show many young people leave school with poor self esteem, feeling alienated and consequently remain deprived of the ability they have to make of their lives what they wish.

We are born with a desire to learn & make sense of who we are, what life means, how we relate to each other, how we understand and interpret the emotional lexicon of life. We desire to understand why we are here and if we have purpose.

And we seek to learn and understand through the knowledge we gain and the subjects we study, whether they be science or sport, maths or music, languages or literature they are the prisms through which we see the world and in which the world is reflected to us.

So how can we reverse this situation? The Minister has laid out his stall by seeking to implement his 20 point plan announced early in 2011. His stated objective is to ensure that Wales gains a top 20 ranking in the 2015 Pisa tests.

The Minister announced further reorganisations of the way schools are run by creating regional consortia and there will be statutory guidance for school improvement, setting out best practice, which schools will be expected to implement through the school effectiveness framework.

A national reading test will be introduced, and local authorities will be expected to make sure KS2 teacher assessments are more robust, especially in literacy.

All teachers and heads will have to have appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy as part of their professional accreditation, and all newly qualified teachers will have to pass literacy and numeracy skills tests.

Why? Because Estyn has found that 40% of children start secondary school with a reading age below their chronological age. That is an unbelievable 40%.

As a result we lag at the bottom of the UK nation’s league table for literacy, numeracy and science, according to OECD figures.

It also means that we may have cause for worrying about whether the Government intends to throw the baby out with the bath water because our new Foundation Phase pedagogy is under the fiercest of scrutiny and may yet become the scapegoat.

Like many people here today the Welsh Conservatives strongly believe it is important to give children the best start in life during their early years to the start of their formal education and we will support policies which aim to do this.

One such policy is the Foundation Phase.

The Foundation Phase is an entirely new pedagogy that has proven incredibly successful in various iterations in a number of European, predominately Scandinavian, countries.

Countries that have tended to have a stable society with mature cultural norms. Research has shown that children do not benefit from extensive formal education until they are 6 or 7 years of age and that the way schools had changed, where children were being taught to read at 5 was often detrimental to their long term engagement with education.

Since last September the Foundation Phase programme has been fully in place for children from 3 to 7, and whilst is it far too early to see the full impact of the initiative; given the first complete cohort will not emerge from Foundation Phase until September 2012, now it is fully operational, it is important, through a process of evaluation, that the Government allow the year 2s of 2012 to complete their primary schooling before judgements are made on their development. 

However I do share the concerns of Estyn and a number of other educationalists over the delivery of Foundation Phase. And I am concerned that the holistic nature of the Foundation Phase may become skewed towards a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy.

Yes; we need our children to be able to read, write, comprehend and add up. And it is vital that they should enter secondary school with exactly those abilities however that requirement does not preclude the imaginative and controlled deployment of Foundation Phase learning.

The mechanics of reading and writing appear to have become more important than nurturing a love of reading and writing with the benefit that brings to learning and comprehension. Short term expediency over long term benefit?

We have accepted this pedagogy as iterated so well in Scandinavia but are we in danger of tinkering with a system that has not yet had the opportunity to show what it can or ought to deliver? At 6, 7, or 8, reading, writing and numeracy are only part of the story.

There are many examples that reinforce the holistic benefits of the Foundation Phase learning programme. Examples that show the Foundation Phase is having a very positive impact in terms of attendance, of behaviour, of developing self confidence. These objectives have to be as important at this stage in a child’s life as getting them to be able to read a page. We can all see that a person who has confidence, who has a good sense of self esteem will have the best chance of becoming socially engaged, skilled and independent.

So what’s the problem with the Foundation Phase? A recent Estyn report on the Foundation Phase found many children are not learning as much as they could be under the initiative, and that children do not realise their full potential because they are not being challenged enough by activities planned. This is mainly down to poor teacher training and teachers who do not fully grasp the principles of the foundation phase.

When it was first launched Teachers were offered 5 days of training. A mere 5 days in which to absorb a new pedagogy that has taken the Scandinavians years to perfect. Of course we can learn it and of course it shouldn’t take years. However 5 days of training has led to the inconsistent application of the Foundation Phase. Some of the training has not been of good quality and many of the people who should attend the course such as Head Teachers have not. They are then unable to reflect or support as best they could, their early years teacher.

Which is why in some schools the Foundation Phase has become synonymous with a play agenda but this is not what the holistic principles of the programme are about. Estyn have stated in their report that children do not practise basic reading and writing skills enough however Teachers need to be taught to understand when best and how best to introduce each child too a particular activity such as an active boy to reading, at the appropriate point in that child’s development.

I am also concerned that if the Welsh Government thinks the only way to answers Estyn’s concerns over the variable teaching of literacy and numeracy skills in some schools during the Foundation Phase is to test each child every year. then they will simply create tensions between teachers and the ethos of the Foundation Phase, schools and the Local Education Authorities. Local Education Authorities and the Government.

Which is where teacher enacted, pupil responsive assessments come into play.

Numerous Estyn reports have highlighted a variation in teaching standards which exist across Wales.

Ann Keane, Wales’ Chief Inspector for Schools, believes variation in standards of teaching and learning are a major area of weakness in Wales’ schools system.

During the Foundation Phase, Estyn has found that in a significant minority of schools there is not enough direct teaching of reading.

According to Estyn’s annual report, there are very few schools in which “teaching is consistently excellent”.

Without doubt we need to see how, without examining every child to within an inch of their life we can assess each child on an on-going basis and use those results in a consistent & fair manner to ensure that the teaching is on course and that the school is measuring outcomes in a fair & consistent manner.

The introduction of bandings for primary schools will make this a high stakes game in which teachers will return to the traditional teaching methods of the past and the positive leap forward that is the Foundation Phase will be undermined.

And what a neat segue into one of the most controversial points of the Minister’s 20 point plan.

Banding of Secondary and Primary Schools.

It’s not league tables we are assured but rather an annual grading system with per pupil targets to validate outcomes.

So not league tables then.

Slide---4—If it looks like a league table, adds up like a league table, is judged like a league table. It is a league table

Problem is they look like and read like league tables and I know many secondary school head teachers who are incensed with the grading they have received. Often based on external factors such as free school meals or attendance rates which can be influenced by so many variables outwith a Head Teacher’s control.

I am concerned about the lack of clarity of the system. Many Head teachers have raised justifiable concerns that schools would be banded with others when in fact they had little or no similarity. 

Labelling the schools in this way creates a stigma; it creates a situation where schools are unfairly judged by parents, by the media and by the Government. Rather than driving up standards it has created barriers and caused anguish & confusion.

And I am not clear, as are many as to how those who are in the lower bands will be able to benefit from additional support, There is no money and so what financial and resource commitment will there be to enable those schools who are struggling to lift themselves. 

The National Union for Teachers are calling for this system to be scrapped before ‘schools with the lower bands are dispatched into a cycle of decline from which there is no escape’. 

The concerns over the system stem from its potential to mislead.  Why create a banding system in which the schools have little control over their band given they are judged on factors outside their control? To parents, Governors, teachers and to children this will be a factor in deciding which school they attend, in which they teach or in which they serve on the Governing body.

There are 12 categories on which banding are calculated. Of these twelve, two are brand new indicators for the schools, which they have not had to set targets for previously.  They are by no means irrelevant, but they are new, therefore the schools have to now consider what they change to meet the new targets.

The statistical data which is collected on schools is good, gives a clear picture and is easily accessible. 

But, the problem comes when this statistical information is put into the bizarre Government banding calculation which produces results where two very similar schools could be put into two very different bands, creating the image that one school is better than the other.

Let’s consider this more with an example of two almost identically performing schools:

X is an average school that just scrapes results above the average in each of its categories, giving a total score of 11 x quarter 2 +22.

Y is an average school that just misses the average in each, giving 11 x quartile 3 = 33.

These scores put the schools – and remember there’s very little between them in performance – respectively in Band 2 and Band 4, giving the perception that X is a ‘Good School’ and Y is a ‘Bad School’.

We all also know schools which have exceptional teachers with individual skills which make that school very special.  It may be renowned for its sciences, for sport, music, drama or its ability to provide the skills and confidence within its social skills education. 

These strengths are wiped out in the Government’s calculations for banding.

Naturally every parent wants the best education for their child but given the false image that banding could present, what is stopping parents ‘voting with their feet’ by using the different bands as a tool of comparing schools as to their suitability deciding where to send their children.

This HAS turned into naming and shaming, however you may like to sugar coat it, we have already seen in the press numerous incidents of identifying individual schools by their band.

Good schools are unfairly being given a bad name.

What essentially is in play here is, as one Union has suggested, the equivalent of giving a student one overall grading for their GCSE results!

And of course this disaster is heading to a primary school near you. Interestingly enough the Minister has delayed implementation. But the Government are emphatic; it’s a delay not a cancelation.

There are many other initiatives in the 20 point plan that relate to primary & secondary schools.

In the 20 point plan there will also be closer monitoring of performance management, and continuing professional development will be focused on system-wide needs, including the need to improve literacy and numeracy.

I believe it is essential that efforts are made to ensure that people of highest quality are attracted to the teaching profession.  Across the world, in the best performing countries, teachers and the teaching profession are held in high self-esteem.

Evidence from the UK Government’s White Paper highlights that in the best performing countries; teachers and the teaching profession are held in high self-esteem.

South Korea, for examples, recruits teachers from their top 5 per cent of graduates and Finland from their top 10 per cent of graduates.

The Welsh Conservatives want to introduce ‘Teach Wales’, a two year programme encouraging highly talented people into STEM subject teaching.


Welsh Conservatives know the importance of quality teaching and leadership with regards to school performance and the delivering of educational excellence. Our teachers must be equipped with appropriate support, guidance and challenges to ensure standards are driven up.

Ultimately the difference between a foreword looking and engaged pupil and an alienated and struggling child is the result of what happens in classrooms, the relationship between pupil and teacher and what happens at home, the relationship between child and parent.

Your task is immense and upon your shoulders falls the burden of combating systems designed to trip, curriculum changes that are numerous and short term, mountains of paperwork, inconsistent expectations and the pressure of improving outcomes with poor or uncertain tools.

Slide—5—Welsh Renaissance

But there will come a renaissance. Welsh education will be the powerful social, financial and cultural expression for our children and you have my support and respect for the job you do and the task ahead

Thank you.