Clarity is key to unlocking Wales' bright future

18th December 2009 at 00:00

In any person-focused organisation, such as a school, staff morale is a key element in delivering high-quality services. Demoralised staff, through their body language if nothing else, transmit their gloom to the students and lose that essential spark that ignites the motivation to excel.

Uncertainty, in all its forms, corrodes morale and, ultimately, breeds conflict which diverts attention and energy from the tasks in hand. Regrettably, at a time when there is considerable and welcome curriculum development to embed, the future for schools in Wales is uncertain in a number of areas.

There are questions in need of urgent answers from the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG). Members of our association had a chance to put some of them to Jane Hutt, who spoke at our annual conference last week when she was education minister, but we will press for more information.

Before he was succeeded as First Minister last week, Rhodri Morgan said he expected some 20 of the 220 secondary schools in Wales to close. Local authorities are now responding to the demand from the assembly to undertake a fundamental reorganisation. The rationale of the so-called "transformation agenda" is the era of financial austerity that we are entering, combined with the consequences of a declining student population.

Funding forecasts, from those who should have all the facts, are that, from 2011 to 2014, education funding will fall by between 15 and 25 per cent in real terms.

In the context of the well-known underfunding of schools in Wales compared to their English counterparts, and the insistence on no constraint upon local government, the second question is how WAG will fulfil its policy of protecting frontline services.

There are other issues where greater clarity about the future would reassure school leaders in the forward planning that is the hallmark of positive leadership.

The members of ASCL Cymru look for clarity about when and how WAG is to make progress on matters such as moving towards needs-based budget planning; establishing a clear and protected funding stream for professional development of school-based staff; implementing the recommendations of the Enterprise and Learning Committee with regard to the role of the school business manager; and reducing the costs of administration and governance within the education service, which is the result of having 22 local education authorities. It is in the latter area where quality as much as quantity is becoming an issue of increasing concern.

The majority of schools have service-level agreements with their LEA for support services on HR and legal matters. Schools that do not follow the advice of the LEA are responsible for any financial consequences.

It is well known that budget pressures have forced local authorities to seek economies where they can. As the Welsh Local Government Association has recently admitted in evidence to an Assembly committee, this has often resulted in the loss of specialist knowledge of the employment and other regulations applicable to schools, with potentially very serious consequences for the school.

The Learner Travel Measure and the Travel Behaviour Code, which come into force next month might, inadvertently, change the conditions of service of headteachers in Wales in that they will now have a legal duty to act regarding incidents which occur outside school.

It has the potential to expose a headteacher to a claim of negligence if they are deemed to have failed to intervene and, for example, prevent an incident of bullying which occurred on the walk home from school. If such a claim is lodged, a headteacher, as an employee, must be able to rely on the legal support of the LEA.

It is essential that the prevailing uncertainty about the quality of support available to governors and school leaders is resolved as a matter of high priority. ASCL Cymru members will be pressing their case in the discussions within each LEA in coming months.

The final question is: will the leaders of the local authorities heed the collective experience and advice of the leaders of secondary schools of Wales in their deliberations?

In spite of all of these uncertainties, it is an exciting time to be a school leader in Wales. There are positives to be seen in the new inspection arrangements, the Welsh Baccalaureate and the revised School Effectiveness Framework. School leaders, as usual, are at the forefront of the collaboration required to make the Learning Skills Measure a workable reality.

It behoves all of us in the education service to keep the faith and not allow these positive developments to be derailed by short or medium-term difficulties. We must have clarity soon to keep morale high for all staff, which in turn allows our young people to have the best chance of success.

Gareth Jones Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru.

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