Gareth Evans responds to the Chief Inspector’s criticism of Wales’ schools system…
It is often said that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
And it is little wonder, given the significant and lasting impact teachers have on the pupils in their care.
Teachers are the agents of change and, without them, there is little chance of Wales reaching the heights to which we all aspire.
For the most part, teachers are passionate, resilient and reflective and it is these qualities that will enable them to take forward purposefully the new and exciting education system we are in the process of co-constructing.
But teachers are not immune from criticism and in his annual report, published earlier this week, Estyn Chief Inspector Meilyr Rowlands highlighted the variability that exists within Welsh schools.
He said “teaching is one of the weakest aspects of provision in most sectors” and was “good” or “better” in only a minority (defined by Estyn as being below 40%) of secondary schools inspected last year.
Mr Rowlands paints an alarming picture, but I find it hard to believe that the quality of teaching in Wales has diminished in the space of 12 months.
What has changed significantly, however, are the demands on our schools as we gear up for a radical new curriculum and departure from the Welsh norm.
There are currently close to half a million pupils attending more than 1,500 state-run schools in Wales.
No matter how much we strive for consistency, there will always be variation – dictated largely by individual schools’ context and geography.
But that is not to say we can’t develop a more structured and sustainable approach to sharing best practice.
A newfound culture of collaboration aims to build capacity within the Welsh education workforce and is based on the ethos of a self-improving system.
This approach is, according to Mr Rowlands, “school-led and balanced by support from local authorities, regional consortia and the Welsh Government”.
But universities also have a significant role to play and it is imperative that future and existing teachers have the requisite skills and knowledge to deliver Wales’ new national curriculum.
Improving the quality of training available, at all stages of career development, will be crucial and maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.
We live in a very different world; technological advancements have shifted the goalposts and the higher-level skills demanded by employers have changed.
What and how children learn has evolved – but teachers remain best-placed to lead us through that transformation.
Mr Rowlands wrote that leadership was the most significant factor affecting improvement and, in the most successful schools, leaders established a learning culture and the professional development of staff at all levels was a high priority.
Worrying though, was that leadership and management was considered “good” or “better” in only around half of schools inspected last year.
The welcome and somewhat belated development of a National Academy of Educational Leadership and new professional standards are recognition of perceived gaps in the system.
When Ms Williams was appointed Education Secretary last May, there were a number of very substantial yet delicate plates already spinning.
A major overhaul of the national curriculum, the promised ‘new deal’ for the education workforce and a fresh approach to teacher training had all been trumpeted as priorities for the Welsh Government moving forward.
But while strong on the bigger picture, all three were to some extent light on detail.
Moving forward, it will be incumbent on Ms Williams to facilitate a joining of the dots.
But she can only do so with the collective will and support of the wider education community.
We must empower schools to break from tradition and set a new course for Welsh education.
Teachers, lecturers and all other education providers must put aside their inhibitions and work in partnership to unlock the huge potential that exists in Wales.
There is no escaping the facts and Mr Rowlands’ report makes for sobering reading. But together, we have a wonderful opportunity to put things right.
- Gareth Evans is Executive Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David