New boss vows to tackle low expectations

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
He's English and he used to work for the QCA, but the new senior education official in Wales has big plans for the nation's education revolution, writes Nicola Porter

For a man who holds the future of Wales's schoolchildren in his hands, David Hawker, the new director of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, appears remarkably relaxed. He has managed to clear his diary for 90 minutes to speak to TES Cymru at the Assembly government buildings in Cathays Park, nestled in the heart of Cardiff's civic centre. Back in his rather austere office, his press officer scribbles as he answers questions.

At one point, Mr Hawker says he was up until 2am clearing an email backlog, but he quickly covers any suggestion that he might be feeling sorry for himself. "This is Wales, a small country," he says. "In England, there are 40 people to do what one person must do here." He later vows to cut bureaucracy in Wales, in sympathy with initiative-laden schools and under-pressure heads.

Mr Hawker, an Englishman, is the successor of Steve Marshall, an Australian who started the job just two years ago, embarking on a programme of swift and unrelenting reform, and then sent shockwaves around the profession when he announced he was leaving last January to take up a "dream job" in Canada.

It is suggested to Mr Hawker that his predecessor is a hard act to follow. "Do you think so?" he replies. Later in the interview, he promises to stay in Wales until he is no longer wanted.

With admirable honesty, he responds to a question on whether schools in Wales have less money than England: "There is undoubtedly less money than England; we just have to use it smarter."

Mr Hawker's background in the English education system is interesting in the light of the post-devolution education revolution in Wales, built as it is on the abolition of Sats and anti-English resistance harking back to the Treason of the Blue Books in 1847. This was when a mostly English commission branded the Welsh "ignorant, lazy and immoral" following an investigation into the state of our schools. The system was found to be extremely inadequate, and this was attributed to the Welsh language and religious non-conformity.

Mr Hawker will soon oversee legislation designed to strengthen Welsh medium education - legislation hailing from the coalition LabourPlaid Cymru government's One Wales document. He says he is attempting to learn the language.

Mr Hawker's previous job, as deputy chief executive of Westminster city council, was a post he held for 10 months before being headhunted for the top Wales post. But in the late 1990s, he was in charge of testing at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Sats may be a dirty word in Welsh education circles, but Mr Hawker does not see his background as an issue.

"I used to come to Wales in the late 1990s, and it was clear then that Wales wanted to go in a different direction to England," he says.

"As the person in charge of tests, I was proud of them as good tests. But, at end of day, when you use tests as the big stick and it has high stakes, then you are putting too much weight on one element. It is then you start teaching to test and you end up with test practice replacing teaching and learning. It is what England found out, what the latest Ofsted report has confirmed, and what Wales learnt early on and took the bold step of ending."

He suspects England could well abolish tests, but he also acknowledges the groundswell of public support for Sats and a desire to compare schools, something Wales has never done. "There is more collaboration in Wales," he says.

Having a 17-year-old son who has left school to find a job, shunning a university education, has also convinced Mr Hawker that England's move to keep young people in school after 16 is wrong. "We have to make education attractive enough to stay on, not insist on it," he says.

He sees aspects to admire in England's education system, including its accountability. But he looks to Finland - a country where tests are also outlawed - for educational inspiration.

"Children actually don't like school in Finland," he says. "They don't start school until age 7, but they can all read because they learn at home."

But he has hopes for the play-led foundation phase for under-7s. Although he also acknowledges that there has to be a huge culture change for parents to have the time, money, and sometimes the ability, to take on such a responsibility.

As for the school effectiveness framework, he has no qualms about comparing it with the controversial National Challenge in England, a scheme targeting secondary schools that fail to get 30 per cent of their pupils to achieve five good GCSEs.

But, there are subtle differences in the two countries' attempts to raise the game of underperforming schools, which could save Wales's school effectiveness framework from the criticism levelled at the National Challenge, and which was compounded by a National Audit Office report last week.

The report said there was "no quantified evidence" that league tables, tests or placing schools in special measures improved performance (TES, September 26).

Mr Hawker is clearly in favour of helping schools before they fall into special measures. He also thinks schools in deprived communities should be treated fairly, using value-added statistics to judge their results.

But it is at this point, a glimmer of frustration with the Welsh system appears: his greatest problem is with the low expectations of some schools. He firmly believes those that are coasting should be held more accountable.

"There should be no secret garden in education. It is a public service and needs to be accountable," he says. "We don't believe in splashing failing schools all over papers here in Wales, but we need to hold our schools to account."

Poverty, he says, should not mean failure, and there are schools in some of the most poverty-stricken areas producing the goods. He has an admiration for Welsh educational history, revelling in the "proud" fact that so many teachers have come out of the South Wales valley. "Wales has a wonderful educational history and heritage, and we must reassert it in the modern age," he says.

He also agrees with critics who say not enough is being done to stretch the most able and talented pupils in Wales. Guidance will be released later this term to help schools stretch their brightest students above the highest level 7.

He is not too troubled by the fact that Wales has fewer A* students at A- level and GCSE than England. "If we look at comparable regions in England, Wales actually does better," he says. "It's not all doom and gloom."

He wants to place greater emphasis on thinking skills and assessment for learning, but also envisages a time when the Welsh baccalaureate will be the framework for all qualifications in Wales.

It is perhaps fitting that Mr Hawker's first lecture in his role as professor with the College of Teachers in London later this year is a comparative look at the English and Welsh education systems.

He also has a desire to get out of official circles, visiting schools and teachers more, and spreading the Welsh education message aboard.

For now, however, he seems to be catching up on admin and clearing the last of those emails that eluded him earlier.


David Hawker launched a six-pronged plan to turn Welsh education around this week. The six areas for improvement are:

EARLY YEARS: Flying Start, foundation phase, integrated children's centres

CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE: Participation and the rights of the child, global citizenship, wellbeing, joined up services

EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS: Pedagogy, curriculum and assessment, 21st-century schools, workforce development leadership

SKILLS THAT WORK FOR WALES: 14-19 learning pathways, building links between FE and employers; employment and skills strategy; transforming the provider network, quality and effectiveness framework

REACHING HIGHER: University access, Welsh medium higher education, student finance, high quality research

CAPACITY: Infrastructure, governance and leadership, financial management, performance management, Iaith Pawb (meaning "everyone's language").

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