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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wales' Education legacy

The Welsh education system has had some bad publicity recently centring on the £604 per pupil funding gap with England, and the poor PISA results that showed, that in terms of outcomes for pupils, Wales is lagging behind the rest of the UK.

The current Education Minister has acknowledged that there are problems and has put in place an action plan to deal with them. This though has thrown the spotlight onto the record of his predecessor, Jane Davidson, a record that she has vigorously defended in the media.

In today's Western Mail there is another installment in this PR battle, with education experts hitting back at Ms Davidson's seven year record.

Professor David Reynolds, who is a senior policy adviser to the Welsh Government, has accused Ms Davidson of forgetting teachers, whilst questioning her claim that her tenure formed the “building blocks” for future success.

He believes Wales should have learned from other countries in the wake of devolution:

“Across the world, countries did the demand-side changes with parents and publishing data for them,” he said.

“They did the supply-side by national programmes aimed at helping teachers to get better. We did neither. We did curriculum change in Wales but only some of it rooted properly.

“History will record Ms Davidson was a great curriculum innovator. It will also record that she gave us a decade when the things that implement curriculum – teachers and teaching – were forgotten.”

Meanwhile, Dr Philip Dixon, who is director of teaching union ATL Cymru, has added that the “national humiliation” of Wales’ worsening position in Pisa’s world survey was proof that problems are deep-rooted.

He believes the worrying state of basic skill levels portrayed last month by education watchdog Estyn was not formed overnight:

Responding to Ms Davidson’s wide-ranging interview with the Western Mail, Dr Dixon said: “The leaking roofs, faulty windows and Victorian loos of many Welsh schools are a lasting monument to her seven-year reign as education minister.

“While New Labour were spending millions on the English school system, transforming buildings in the process, the Welsh education system was being starved of cash. The target of making every school fit for purpose by 2010 was quickly and quietly dropped when it became apparent that it would be missed by a mile.”

In 10 years, Welsh teenagers have gone from achieving an above-average percentage of five A* to C grades at GCSE to a percentage significantly below average. Wales attracts fewer top grades at A-level and international comparators rank the nation’s secondary school children at the bottom of the UK.

Dr Dixon said a “toxic legacy” of underfunding in Wales – with the gap in pupil spend rising by £400 in the seven years from 2000 – was having an effect.

He said: “Money might not be the only problem, but it would be remarkable if a funding gap of this magnitude has had no effect on the gap in literacy levels, GCSE and A-level attainment and the dreaded Pisa results. It’s not the vision but the delivery that has been problematic, the ‘how’ should have received as much attention as the ‘what’ – and it didn’t. The hard facts and the disturbing data cannot be dismissed if we are to have a balanced picture.”

Personally, I think that both men have valid points. Indeed, during the time I was shadowing Jane Davidson in Education, the quality of school buildings, the target of having all school buildings fit for purpose by 2010, which she missed,funding and the passporting of money to schools were all live issues. These problems were allowed to fester.

Having said that, we do need to acknowledge the work that Jane Davidson did on the curriculum and in introducing the Foundation Phase and Welsh Baccalaureate, all of which will have a profound impact on the education of Welsh children. As ever, her record is something of a curate's egg.
... when you used the expression "curate's egg" to describe the efforts of Jane Davidson it originally meant "something that is partly good and partly bad, but as a result is entirely spoiled".

Is this how you see it ?
might also be nice to look beyond Englandandwales, when discussing how to improve. Constantly comparing Wales to Ingurland is frankly lazy research and not really a good measure, one language, 40 odd million people, grammar schools and academies....
I grew up on Welsh council housing estates in Cardiff and Caerphilly with a stint living in council houses in London (via a council house exchange with a Welsh family wanting to return to Wales); so I got exposure to Welsh and English education systems; then later did a PhD in Scotland and still later a law degree (and Bar) in a top 100 US law school in Chicago. So I got exposure to 4 different education systems. I have also taught night classes in Virginia (so I guess that makes 5 different education systems since Fairfax education system is obviously different from a Chicago law school (DePaul) filled as it is with eminent professors of law and a decent law library. I was on free school meals in London during periods when my painter and decorator father was out of work; he gave on painting and decorating in Wales as the work was intermittent at best and went to work in 'the Welsh steel works', but was made redundant, hence the brave move to London in search of work.

I hear this talk about school buildings and facilities not up to scratch in Wales.

Frankly, being born into a homeless Welsh family (lived in a room in someone's house where I got exposed to CO) and then going to school on pretty rough estates, along with my siblings two of whom went onto university (one did law and sociology and the other did sociology and became a professional social worker, later giving it up due to illness) I can't say that the state of the estate or the school buildings factored into anything.

What counted was my mother who, inter alia, instilled in her children (three boys and a girl) to read and read and read. I got so much encouragement from my mother and she made sure went to every school parents evening.

My parents cared about our education, especially my dear mother. I have several degrees now including three very advanced science degrees in the biotech/chemical hard sciences. I want to do another masters degree in synthetic organic chemistry in a local famous 'black college', not because I need it, but because it would be fun and it would be a very positive experience to get a graduate degree from one of America's most famous black college - that's how much my mother's steadfast support did for me, she encouraged me to want to keep on learning.

I had a string of good teachers at Cefn Onn Infant and Junior schools on Llanishen council estate, and later at Greenway Junior School near Trowbridge council estate (my siblings were also educated at high schools in Caerphilly that served Lansbury Park estate. My teachers took care to teach me basic math (including fractions and long division) and writing skills and in so doing opened up the world to me, a shy Welsh child from a very modest Welsh family. My Welsh father could barely write - he worked sometimes as a sign-writer, but it was always my mum who checked the spelling - he treated each letter as an image and drew them as a string of images. He was a skilled craftsman having served an apprenticeship (I believe in Australia where he jumped ship and lived there for several years). Later, he could never take up offers to be a foreman as this would expose a critical lack of writing skills, he could not write properly. He spent his lifetime hiding this inability to write. My mother was educated at a Grammar School a few miles from Bedwas, and consequently could write essays and was good at algebra.

I don't understand what the significance of the condition of school buildings, so long as they are safe to be in and largely keep out the rain - what matters is desire to learn and a major factor in that is a strong focus on the 3Rs, teachers that focus on the 3Rs, and good parents who want their kids to learn the 3Rs.
^btw, when my parents moved us kids to Trowbridge estate (in part because I had fallen in with a local gang and was doing stupid stuff) there was an inadequate supply of classrooms at Greenway school near Trowbridge estate - I remember children having to put desks and chairs out in the schools assembly hall, they didn't have a classroom. There was a rush to put up temporary classrooms.

Can you imagine that?

No classrooms for some kids?

Did it impact on the kids, sure - they had to kick into gear after school assembly to drag chairs and desks to literally make their class room in the assembly hall, but we got a very good education at Greenway Junior School - the teachers taught the 3Rs.

I remember the headmaster telling my mum the correct pronunciation of our street on Trowbridge estate.

The only thing that really impacted us kids was school swimming day, we were to be trucked to a swimming pool, but for whatever reason it was cancelled and we kids were so disappointed, but it did not impact on our learning - our teachers at Greenway were brilliant, they went out of their way to teach us the 3Rs.

Their dedication was brilliant.

Excuse typos, I don’t have time to proof read – and it’s 3:38 local time so I am brain dead.
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