BlogPlane in the Sun

Connor Williams is one of hundreds of students training to become a teacher in Wales. Here, in this insightful blog, he presents his own unique perspective on the opportunities presented by Successful Futures…

The Welsh Government have set their sights on a new curriculum in Wales, meaning they have understood the challenges and frustrations faced by stakeholders to date.

However, if the transformation is to be successful, then it is vital to understand that acknowledging the challenges and directly addressing those challenges is not sufficient.

You cannot simply treat a number of infected wounds by placing a plaster on each of them.

At this moment in time, we have Welsh learners and their educators in the midst of a curriculum that is no longer fit for purpose – and a reformed curriculum presents great potential, albeit alongside a measure of ambiguity.

In the interest of our learners, my hope is that those facilitating this change and those invested in this change will discover why it is necessary and will draw upon the teacher, in the interests of our nation, as an agent to achieve the why.

In January, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, personally addressed the teachers of the future during a tour of ITE institutions and I was fortunate to be a member of the audience.

Sharing her vison with those at the grassroots of teaching, the Cabinet Secretary described what we are going to do as a nation with respect to our new curriculum and explained how we will approach implementing it.

I was enthused initially to be a part of this revolution and am still excited about the possibility of a transformed curriculum. However, it later dawned on me that absent from the Cabinet Secretary and her colleagues was the reason why.

There is a trend in education whereby teachers become burdened by expectations of what and how they must do things, but what remains a mystery is the reason why! A culture of bureaucracy and accountability in Welsh education has influenced this mindset.

In my view, this mindset originates from those outside the classroom that believe safe and effective practice is dependent on more information and data. It could be argued that these are the key driving forces that influence significant decisions in our education system.

But in reality, this produces an education system that attempts to ensure that all decisions will yield the best results in a heavily controlled and monitored environment. At a school-level, this means we teach a dictated curriculum, monitor the learning of that curriculum, administer tests and then attempt to determine a child’s future success from how well they conform and replicate the knowledge of others.

The overarching reason for this approach is so that we can determine what children should do or how they should act in order to conform to what I believe is an outdated curriculum – what an injustice to our children.

‘The overall objective of our ‘National Mission’ is simple, clear and crucially, it is ambitious. Together, we will raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and public confidence.’

This was how the Cabinet Secretary opened her address at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Although, as mentioned, these expectations are what we will do as a nation and how we will do it. The issue I see is that there have been situations previously when we have had the right information and good guidance to influence change, yet things still don’t go quite right.

Or, the impact was short-lived because something came up that was not expected; a ‘curveball’ shall we say.

Make no mistake, I agree, the expectations stated by the Cabinet Secretary have a significant place in determining what we will do in the future. However, for me, the address reiterated goals that are not new to Welsh education.

For example, in 1999 the then Welsh Government set a target to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Nevertheless, according to Save the Children, almost one in three children in Wales still live in poverty.

An ambitious target, yes; an achievable target, absolutely! However, at this time we’re still miles away from achieving that target.

At this moment, our education system aligns with the why of the past; once successful, but no longer fit for purpose. A resounding why for the future is absent.

Therefore, to hear the Cabinet Secretary share the example of Great Ormond Street Hospital’s motto during her address – ‘the child first and always’ – made me sit up in my seat.

Great Ormond Street makes their why explicit and it has been the foundation on which they have worked for the past 160 years.

The founder, Doctor Charles West, recognised that children needed different care to adults; that was WHY he founded the hospital.

Being founded on a solid why, the how and what followed and today, the hospital is an international centre of excellence in paediatric care.

In the hospital, professionals and the brightest minds come together, confronted by the most complex of illnesses and pioneer medical breakthroughs. Think about it, if Doctor West did not found and build the hospital on the why and instead, focused on the what and how, in what way would Great Ormond Street be different to that of an ordinary hospital?

The thought that our education system now has the scope to orientate itself to a belief identical to that of Great Ormond Street Hospital, where the vision of the child first and always is the reason why, and where what we do will be designed around the child and for the child, excites me. It is well overdue.

At this moment in time, our education system has become so disjointed from its purpose to holistically serve and add value to the child that it has become a sorting system, surrounded by bureaucracy and an unsure purpose.

Since 1988, our ruling Governments have become experts at placing new parts into an old machine. That is, a machine that could produce children for a predictable future, for careers in industry or predictable jobs.

One that could accommodate an easy means of measuring success with a pass or fail mentality that promoted conformity over innovation and perfection over effort. In essence, the system and its people knew what to do and how to do it, but missing was the reason why.

Yet, one thing appears certain ­– the shared vision of the country is now to decommission that machine. As a nation, we have begun to identify the why.

That is, why do we need reform? Why do we need a system that is built around the child?

Nevertheless, it appears that the approach we will use to implement the new vision is focusing on the what and not the why.

In light of this, there is excellent innovation taking place; one approach that deserves credit is the formation of ‘pioneer schools’ and areas of learning and experience steering groups – all of which are faced with no simple task.

They are challenged to disassemble a machine that is still in use, which they are still inspected and held accountable against because of its ‘user-friendliness’ to measure what was once considered successful learning; a machine that could easily ignite fear and hold one accountable.

In its past life, it was designed to instill desired characteristics into children that suited a ‘brief’ over nurturing the individual child. Now, the challenge for these schools and steering groups is to design an expedition rather than a machine.

An expedition with multiple stops and vast opportunities to explore, inspire and invite every child to experience it. What an exciting, beautiful thought.

To think that those who know best, the teachers, are empowered to lead and develop the change; and plan an educational journey because they know why our children need this.

How exciting it is to know that it is happening; pioneer schools and areas of learning and experience groups are making significant headway in curriculum innovation and reform.

However, what impedes their progress is the expectation to produce a standard how and what for all. It is the default paradigm unfortunately and, as I have discussed, when the how and the what becomes the focus of any change, the outcome is a strategy that promotes teacher participation and conformity over creativity and inspiration.

Implementing a shared standard for the nation to conform to has placed us in this predicament; as you know, no school in Wales is the same and each requires a bespoke approach and not a standard one.

I want to share with you an example of the power of this approach, that is, teachers at the heart of the profession pioneering the path we need to undertake.

In 1971, Southwest Airlines became famous for creating the 10 minute turnaround; the process of deplaning, prepping and boarding a plane with passengers and luggage in 10 minutes. What an achievement.

Yet, what you may not realise is that this turnaround was developed during a time of struggle. The airline was running low on funds and needed to sell one of their four aircraft to remain a profitable airline.

The airline now relied on three planes to fly a schedule that ordinarily required four and they had two choices: Southwest could have cut their number of flights or attempt to turn their planes around in 10 minutes.

You may ask – who was responsible for this innovation? – and the answer to that question was the employees; the pilots, flight attendants, gate keepers, loaders were all to thank.

Today, Southwest turn their planes around in 25 minutes. However, if they were to allow an extra five minutes to that time on the same flight schedule, they would need 18 more planes at a cost of nearly a billion dollars.

My point is that Southwest Airlines turned to their employees to solve the problem because they knew best; they trusted their employees and they did not disappoint.

You may also ask why the employees did what they did and how they did it. It may not surprise you to discover that they did it because they wanted to.

As a company, Southwest take care and respect the view of their employees and know that in doing this, their customers will be taken care of to the highest standard.

You may already see the link that I am leading to from this example. We already have a reason to adapt and our why is slowly taking shape and rest assured, if trusted, those at the heart of the profession will discover what we need to do and how we will do it.

I want to bring everything to a close with this final example. Have you ever flown Southwest Airlines?

In 2015, I boarded a flight from Denver, Colorado to Sacramento, California with three friends. As I settled into my seat at the back of the aircraft, I reached for the flight safety card and began reading it.

This is what we do in teaching and it is what we are encouraged to do – read policy and prepare ourselves to follow instructions.

As I started reading the information card for the Boeing 737 a shocked voice said from behind: “What are you reading that for? No-one takes notice of those, put it down! You’ve made me nervous for this flight, man!”

A smile came upon my face as I turned to look at who had made the comment and, to my surprise, it was the flight attendant.

If you have flown before then you would know that a standard airline would take a dim view of their staff if they made comments of this nature.

Yet, Southwest are no standard airline. In fact, in their headquarters in Dallas, Texas, they have a display board sharing and celebrating the best paradoxical comments that flight attendants have made to passengers over the years.

Also, what may surprise you is that Southwest officials promote this behaviour because they trust their staff and have confidence that they will take care of their passengers. What do you know, it works!

As a passenger, I knew that the flight attendant was highly trained and would leap into action if anything was to happen on that flight, but the fact he could act in that manner had me hooked.

The guy enjoyed what he did and it showed, and because of that flight I’ve always tried to fly Southwest when I am in the States and my American friends show the same loyalty to the airline.

My point is that strict policy does serve a purpose in an organisation, however the human element is perhaps more important – it adds more value and has the biggest impact.

In education, we have an ecology of teachers that are motivated, experienced and understanding of the why; with the blessing of curriculum reform in Wales, let’s not make the same mistake of allowing policy to rule.

On this occasion, do not enforce a pressure to conform to a standard model, as I believe we are fortunate to have been given through Successful Futures the opportunity to challenge the status quo, be free in our teaching, be individuals – not clones – and be trusted.

It takes no saying that if we continue to do the same thing, then why should we expect the outcome to change or surprise us?

But that is what happens when you follow policy and strict instructions. How many times have you flown the same airline, been greeted by a false smile, told where to sit and then listened to the same safety brief before experiencing the same, mundane flight?

To me, we need to strive for an education system in Wales that shares values and regards its staff in ways similar to that of Southwest, rather than a standard airline.

In my opinion, flying a more traditional airline is a similar experience to that of being a stakeholder in Welsh education – uniformity is essential, the staff do as they must because that is the expectation and the children are expected to follow a strict routine in order to reach their destination ‘safely’.

On the other hand, it does not have to be like this; if the focus across Wales is the vision for why and not what or how, then rest assured, the teachers will deliver the fun, impactful, long-lasting what and how in meaningful ways.

The combination will have the potential to be magical and long-lasting, allowing all in education to embrace and enjoy it, not simply survive it.

  • Connor Williams is a third year student on the BA Primary Education with QTS programme at Yr Athrofa