A 'weak' and 'woolly' policy faces a rewrite in Wales
For what is supposed to be one of the Welsh government's flagship education policies, so-called professional learning communities have had a rather inauspicious start.
The policy aims to improve the quality of teaching and learning by bringing teachers together to learn from each other and to share ideas and best practice. Already about 1,900 schools and all 22 of Wales's local authorities have been given training in a bid to maximise its impact.
But last year a survey by teaching union ATL Cymru found that a quarter of its members had never heard of the initiative and even those who were involved said that they were not reaping many benefits.
Now the government has been forced to rewrite the guidance it sent to teachers after it was branded "ludicrous". The 15-page document, originally published in December, has been denounced as "weak, "woolly" and "low-key".
Teaching unions criticised the idea that the policy could not fail to have a positive effect, regardless of how it is implemented. The guidance states that "through the process (of setting up a professional learning community) some learning will have occurred even if it is not around the intended outcomes".
Unions said that this gives teachers a convenient get-out clause and suggests that the initiative is not going to be externally monitored or evaluated. "It is ludicrous. If they cannot fail, then one has to wonder how we are to judge their success," said Dr Philip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru. "Such woolly thought does no one any favours.
"This is probably one of the most feeble documents to emerge from the Welsh government in several years. It is wan and weak and sadly lacking in content. This initiative is a key element in the government's strategy to raise standards and this document is a missed opportunity."
Anna Brychan, director of heads' union NAHT Cymru, said that the Welsh government was failing to properly promote what is supposed to be a significant policy to improve standards. "We are doubtful that learning communities are widely understood in the school system at the moment," she said. "This document is not likely to kindle the kind of spark that was hoped for at the start."
A spokesman for the Welsh government said it is wrong to suggest that professional learning community outcomes are not being measured because Estyn will monitor their activity during school inspections. The government is also developing an online resource for schools, set to launch in March, which will record the impact of the initiative on pupils.
"We want new ideas to be trialled and refined because sharing best practice is not an exact science," the spokesman said. "However, this will take place in a measured way and alongside a robust system ensuring that learning communities deliver improved outcomes for children in Wales.
"That said, the minister is happy to consider any genuine concerns from the teaching profession regarding the current guidance and the impact on learning. He has therefore instructed officials to look again at the guidance, with a view to providing any additional information that may be required."
What is a professional learning community?
The Welsh government defines a professional learning community as a group of teachers working together to analyse data and come up with ways of tackling the needs of pupils. Ideally, there should be six to eight members, with the project lasting no more than one academic year.