Gareth Evans considers the importance of positive communication in delivering Wales’ ‘national mission’ for education…
Wales’ education system has, it is fair to say, withstood a fair amount of flux in recent years.
It was former Education Minister Leighton Andrews who really triggered the reform agenda, ripping up and overhauling much of what had gone before.
His seminal call to arms in early 2011 – and resulting ‘20 point plan’ – can be considered a re-booting of Wales’ education system post-devolution and the effects of his intervention are still being felt today.
The minister’s bleak analysis and rallying cry to a “complacent” system sparked fervent debate within the education fraternity. But having demanded a new approach to implementation, there were many more questions than answers.
On reflection, it was an essential process; Mr Andrews had shone a light on our shortcomings and we required space for reflection. A thorough assessment of where we were and where we needed to go next was crucial.
It was a time to take stock; to reflect on our recent history, consider our existing practice and plot a new course for our future. Everyone had their say and the conversation, to varying degrees, has been ongoing for the best part of a decade.
But deliberation will only get us so far. At some point, the hard graft of implementation and actually doing education policy must come to the fore. If not, we are in danger of going constantly around in circles.
Assuming we are broadly agreed on the current direction of travel – and the widespread practitioner support for Wales’ curriculum and initial teacher education (ITE) reform would suggest we are – it is time to draw a line in the sand and begin fleshing out the detail.
We know where we are going, but it is how we get there that must be the centre of our attention moving forward.
The roll-out of policy is not, however, the focus of this particular article. Instead, it is the way in which policy – and the wider education agenda – is communicated to those who matter most.
It goes without saying that for new policy to work, there must be extensive buy-in from those on education’s frontlines. Communication with education professionals, the wider workforce and the communities they serve is essential; positive partnerships are key to success.
Building social capital through open and honest dialogue is of mutual benefit and can facilitate the collective action required to bring about system-wide improvement.
As social scientist Robert Putnam (2000) writes: “Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value – and they should not, in my view, be underestimated.
As a former education journalist, it has been striking to me in the last six months how many of the education workforce are at best uninformed and, in some cases, totally disengaged from the Welsh Government’s reform agenda.
My expectation that the vast majority of stakeholders would be au fait with the current programme of reform proved very much mistaken.
I have met headteachers oblivious to Wales’ planned shake-up of ITE and countless others with little or no knowledge of Professor Graham Donaldson’s plans for a new national curriculum.
This lack of understanding of the primary policies set in train could have serious implications and it is unlikely that we will bring about system change with large swathes of the profession sitting on the sidelines.
As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Clearly, you will not persuade everyone that what you are doing is right and there will be those who actively resist attempts to inform and update.
But we can do a far better job of communicating our shared ‘national mission’ for education reform and addressing the disconnect that exists between policymakers and practitioners at all levels.
The wide variability in what people know and understand is counterproductive – and the entire education community has an important role to play in shaping a positive message.
It is incumbent upon all of us to share latest thinking with colleagues, parents and students. That, though, will only get us so far and I would champion a national communication strategy to help us on our way.
We need something overarching that can be used to reach out and engage with all who have a stake in our education system; a targeted plan specifically aimed at strengthening relationships and building momentum.
So what practical steps could the Welsh Government consider?
• Firstly, it needs a clarity of message and a coherent narrative on which to hang its entire improvement agenda. A narrowing down of priorities and a handful of key actions will be far easier to translate to the masses.
• Enlist flagbearers from within and around the profession. Teachers will be more likely to listen to and trust colleagues with first-hand experience of life in the classroom. The Welsh Government has, in recent months, seconded several school leaders into the administration to good effect.
• Involve teachers in the decision-making process. Teachers need to believe in and own the education policies they are responsible for implementing. The Welsh Government is working hard to break down barriers and forge relationships, but it is still early days. Having educators input into and oversight of policy development has helped build trust overseas.
• Target the next generation of teachers. Forward-planning is essential and engaging with prospective teachers during their training would help dispel myths and win early support. Newly-qualified teachers can be used as vessels by which to upskill and re-energise the wider profession.
• See the media as part of the solution, not part of the problem. The well-documented plight of the Welsh media is a challenge for all of us, but nonetheless journalists play an important role. Establish positive relationships and explore the possibility of joint campaigns.
• Be brave enough to communicate bad news as effectively as good news. Turning a blind eye to shortcomings and sweeping failure under the carpet will breed skepticism. Only honesty can build trust.
• Provide context and explain what policy means in practice. Do not assume that people know what you are talking about. An update on the reform process – covering all key strands of work – would be useful.
• Speak in a common language, free of jargon. Know your audience and write in a style that will get you the most traction.
• Use the Cabinet Secretary for Education as a figurehead. Rightly or wrongly, politicians do not have the best reputation. A reaching out from Kirsty Williams could help combat negative stereotypes. The Welsh Government should consider a personalised letter or email to every teacher in Wales, outlining her priorities and re-enforcing the profession’s vital role in school improvement.
• Kirsty Connects? In a similar vein, the Cabinet Secretary could consider a national roadshow of engagement events at which she engages directly with the public. Two hours of an evening; an open invitation and opportunity for teachers, parents, governors and pupils to put their views directly to Ms Williams. A series of question and answer sessions, not unlike those run by First Minister Carwyn Jones, would help build bridges.
• Embrace social media. The internet is an extremely powerful tool and is firmly established as a primary source of information – so it is incumbent upon us to find new and innovative ways of using it. Ms Williams’ recent ‘Ask Kirsty’ Twitter event was a welcome development – but there is much more scope for interaction. Social media can help the Welsh Government engage with harder to reach age groups, particularly younger parents and pupils. The Department for Education’s new Facebook provides a useful platform.
• Pursue celebrity endorsement. Never underestimate the power of shining lights from Welsh popular culture – having celebrities educated in Wales reflect positively on their formative years at school will in itself give the system greater clout. Pupils will be much more likely to respond to those they have an affinity towards – and enlisting star names as role models is a quick and easy way of demonstrating the positive impact a good education can have.
• Consult with pupils. If an education system is to be truly student-centred, then gathering the views of the consumer is essential. Work backwards and ask pupils what they want, expect and enjoy as part of their day-to-day schooling.
• Develop a user-friendly website. The Welsh Government’s existing website is, somewhat understandably, rather formal. There is potential for an associated sub-website that is geared more towards parents and pupils – and the matters that are of most interest to them. It can be used to house resources and garner feedback on live issues.
• Celebrate best practice. There is certainly some truth in the OECD’s conviction that Wales is not good enough at celebrating what it does well. The introduction of new national teaching awards is a good start, but there is opportunity for better promotion of the sector-leading work going on in Welsh schools. Local champions can be used to disseminate key messages. A repository of short, sharp video clips showcasing best practice could be grown over time.
• Develop a network. Establish links and build alliances with those who can support you in your endeavours. Among potential allies of the ‘national mission’ in the community are non-governmental organisations, people’s organisations, self-help groups and local government executives. These networks can allow communities to maximise limited resources to a level where their inputs have a much greater impact. Partnerships within and across government are equally important.
• Launch a national marketing campaign. Billboards, radio slots, flyers, TV adverts; a pan-Wales PR offensive would not come cheap, but it may just pique an interest and help build momentum.
• Build a brand identity. For a campaign to work, you will need a standardised logo and catchy slogan. A short sentence needs to encapsulate what it is we want for our children – and the type of education system to which we all aspire.
• Remember your internal audience. Ensure everyone within the Department for Education, and further afield where necessary, is abreast of latest developments. Staff forums or newsletters would be a good place to start.
To its credit, the Welsh Government has in recent months taken positive steps to improve its output of information and is already acting upon a number of the above actions.
But breaking down long-established barriers between policymakers and the people they serve will take a lot of time and energy.
Winning hearts and minds is no easy task and is as much about changing culture as it is structures. Positive engagement in this critical period for education in Wales will require a new way of working.
Nevertheless, I am confident that in Ms Williams we have a Cabinet Secretary who is willing to go against the grain. Her commitment to collaboration and eagerness to break down age-old silos is plain for all to see.
But she cannot do it alone and we all have a role in shaping a coherent mindset.
Whatever happens, we’re all in this together.
• Gareth Evans is Executive Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.