Dear minister, here's why our schools need you

17th June 2011 at 01:00

Dear Leighton Andrews.

So, you have four more years in Government. Thank you for stepping back into the breach at the Department for Education and Skills. It would have been easy for you to move over and probably up.

We know Welsh business leaders wanted you. But Wales's learners need you most. Before the expectations placed on you start seeming messianic, let me offer you four areas to focus on for future success.

1. Literacy and numeracy improvements are urgently required and you have identified our systemic weaknesses in these areas. Our dreadful Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results reflect the way we fooled ourselves that everything in the key stage 1 and 2 gardens was rosy and that the problem was a secondary school one. The focus has to shift to what happens (and, sadly, often does not happen) between the ages of three and 11. Standards in teaching functional and basic skills are inadequate; target-setting in many primary schools has been complacent or full of excuses about exaggerated social disadvantage. There is no reason why 97 per cent of all learners in any Welsh school cannot achieve level 2 at KS1 and level 4 at KS2. You must stop the "supervised neglect" of many primary schools. Governors are currently too institutionally feeble to do so.

2. Bilingualism is the elephant (or, indeed, eliffant) in most Welsh classrooms. But two things have already changed: you have got the Plaid monkey off your Labour back and responsibility for the Welsh language has been shuffled from culture to education. Keep up the drive for more Welsh-medium places and institutions, and keep listening to the people you serve. Welsh-medium schools are the new faith schools, whose dogma is language and culture instead of religion. Let these popular schools grow.

But grafting bilingualism on to policies won't work - English is the world's lingua franca. Estyn makes a false god of bilingualism and too many inspection teams are Welsh-speaking. Llanrumney school in Cardiff, an exceptionally effective school with 45 per cent free school meals, was recently marked down because the inspectors "did not hear Welsh being spoken in the playground". Duw! Beware the linguistic extremists.

3. Revitalised leadership is essential. I am delighted you have set about with speed sorting out your department. You have also brought home David Reynolds as an adviser. My former Newport City Council colleague Brett Pugh is a good pick for the Standards Unit. He is passionate about higher standards, though he needs all his moral purposiveness to deal with underperformance in primaries.

I believe Wales's greatest leadership deficit exists in the primary sector. Almost a third of learners are failing there. Collectively, primary leaders spend a lot of time acting defensively, displacing their own boredom and anxiety into ritualised moaning, mostly about local and central government.

4. That great batsman-aristocrat David Gower was fond of saying: "Form is temporary, class is permanent." In Wales it is beginning to feel as if social class and its stepson, educational underachievement, are permanent. We have failed to address social mobility in the last decade. The long-term solutions lie in raising expectations for all children and reforming models of inclusion and special educational needs (SEN). The only educational psychologists worth listening to will tell you that the most prevalent learning disability among children is "dyspedagogia" (inadequate teaching).

Halve the resources going into mainstream SEN, and redirect these into a fund for primary schools based on two simple proxy indicators for social class, and it is my belief that we could achieve universal functional skills in our schools within three years.

But - and there's no escaping this - you also need to sort out the money. Come clean about this: the resources gap between Wales and the rest of the UK is indefensible. Countering this reality by comparing us with Slovakia was fine for the aftermath of Pisa, but it just won't wash in the long run.

If Plaid Cymru could get the treasury to underwrite a "#163;500 million Build for Wales Fund", as proclaimed in the election, you can get #163;1 billion for school buildings. You can improve schools and construction employment along the way.

Carry on with the same level of moral and political purpose you have shown since you first took office, combined with your dogged determination to judge only by learner results, and you may just end up the best education minister the UK has seen, never mind Wales, for the past 30 years.

Best wishes ...

Terry Mackie is director of educational consultancy Empathi Cymru and former head of school improvement for Newport City Council.

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