New powers raise 'football manager' fear among unions
For the past year the education debate in Wales has been dominated by one key issue - how to raise school standards. "Disastrous" international test results coupled with a damning report from Estyn's chief inspector have focused the system on this single goal.
Now, with its new law-making powers granted after the March referendum, the Welsh Government has launched its first education white paper, and dedicated it to eradicating under- achievement. It contains numerous measures that ministers hope will improve performance and avoid another drubbing in the next Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests.
But concerns are growing among teaching unions over proposals outlined last week that would make it easier for local authorities to intervene if schools are causing concern.
The Government believes current legislation is too complicated and stops councils issuing warning notices to governing bodies when problems first arise, which it says often causes the situation to deteriorate to the point where there is a "real risk to school performance".
Unions, however, have fears over how the interventions will work in practice. Rex Phillips, Wales organiser of the NASUWT, has raised concerns about "hit squads" being sent into schools in response to data-driven judgments. He has also warned that teachers will strongly resent "excessive" monitoring.
"On what grounds would intervention take place?" he said. "We would have very serious concerns about this unless it was fairly and consistently applied in local authorities across Wales."
It is not only classroom unions that have raised concerns. Gareth Jones, secretary of ASCL Cymru, has warned that heads must not be forced to take all the blame if their schools are not performing well. "We don't want to get the football manager's syndrome, whereby if the team is underperforming the response is to sack the manager," he said.
"That seems to be the culture in England, and it's not always to the benefit of the education system because you have a constant turnover of heads while always trying to find the 'magic manager'."
Back in 2009, Welsh inspectorate Estyn found too much variation between local authorities. Although most had policies for monitoring and challenging schools, they failed to prevent schools spiralling down to a point where inspectors identified them as causing concern.
In addition, many local authorities were not using the full range of powers available to them to help underperforming schools improve quickly. "A few schools remain very difficult to improve and the standards pupils achieve remain too low for too long," Estyn said at the time. Yet despite the warning, the number of schools causing concern has continued to rise. In July, Estyn said that 42 per cent of the primaries and secondaries inspected since the launch of its new inspection framework last September needed some form of follow-up visit.
The Government now intends to issue new guidance to local authorities making it clear they will be expected to take action if there is evidence of underperformance from comparative data, including the new school banding system, and the school's own self-evaluation. "It is anticipated this will lead to an increase in interventions in schools causing concern," it said.
The consultation on the white paper will end on 5 January and the Government intends to put the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Bill before the National Assembly next spring.
WHITE PAPER IN BRIEF
Other proposals in the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Bill include:
making school reorganisations more efficient and effective;
expanding the free school breakfast scheme;
ensuring secondary school pupils have access to a trained counsellor;
giving schools and local authorities more flexibility over school meal pricing;
removing the governing body's duty to hold an annual parents' meeting unless parental demand exists.