There's a welcome in the valleys

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Wales has much to offer an NQT - as long as you are prepared to adapt to the language and culture. James King looks at what's occurrin'

In the current economic climate, the state of the teaching profession in Wales mirrors much of what is happening elsewhere in Britain. Many schools have to cope with modest budgets and, as in most areas of working life, financial constraints are having considerable repercussions across all aspects of education.

Schools in Wales are not exempt from redundancies, increased class sizes, and limited teaching resources and equipment. In years gone by, a great deal of money has been spent on supply teachers to cover for absent colleagues. This is no longer affordable on such a large scale and restrictions are placed on teachers wishing to attend meetings and courses. Inevitably, this has implications for professional development and career aspirations.

Despite the bleak picture painted above, it is not all doom and gloom in Wales. Many graduates continue to apply to Welsh universities for their PGCE or teacher training experience, and a significant number of them stay in Wales and secure permanent teaching posts at Welsh schools.

For NQTs coming over the border to teach in Wales there can be something of a culture shock, particularly if their own education and teaching practice has been completed in England or elsewhere. It is important to be open minded and to avoid stereotypical assumptions. References to Sir Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey and Gavin Stacey (pictured) are fine, but these characters don't encapsulate the nature of the whole country. Wales is a proud and complex nation, with many Welsh people feeling a renewed sense of independence since devolution.

However, the Assembly government remains controversial, and there is still a feeling in Wales that Welsh schools are some years behind English schools in terms of quality of provision and standards.

Despite mixed feelings about the National Assembly, it could be argued that the education system in Wales has some benefits over the system in English schools. For example, with its emphasis on bilingualism, many pupils in Wales become competent Welsh speakers. Those pupils who become competent Welsh speakers are far more desirable to a range of employers in Wales, particularly in areas like business, journalism and the media. Many students in Wales have gained employment through their ability to use and speak Welsh, and this has often led to further career opportunities. Huw Edwards at the BBC is a prime example.

It could also be argued that certain areas of the Welsh curriculum give pupils a greater understanding of citizenship and what it means to be Welsh, English or British. For example, in history lessons, pupils focus on certain aspects of Welsh history, as well as studying British history and the relationship between Wales and England. English schools tend to focus on English and British history as one and the same. Therefore, it could be argued that the approach taken by Welsh schools gives pupils a more complex insight into the development of the UK.

For a non-Welsh NQT, starting a teach post in Wales can be challenging as the country has its own culture and language. For example, most schools celebrate the Eisteddfod on March 1, and many of them are involved in the annual National Eisteddfod. The Welsh language permeates most aspects of education in Wales, and is not limited to Welsh-medium schools only. English-speaking Welsh schools have their own emphasis on bilingualism: classroom doors may have subject names in Welsh and English, documents are often printed bilingually, and even Estyn inspectors expect all teachers to use the Welsh language in some limited way. Coping in such a challenging profession is hard enough. To do so in an unfamiliar environment is perhaps even more so.

Despite the challenges of teaching in Wales, many in the profession remain buoyant and optimistic. Many schools are now offering new courses at key stage 4 and post-16 level, as part of the 14-19 Learning Pathways curriculum. But despite the workload brought on by such changes, many teachers continue to enjoy a camaraderie which seems to be sadly lacking in some other professions. The opportunity to work with talented young people must be seen as a privilege. However, it places significant demands on teachers, and many NQTs become exhausted within a matter of months or even weeks.

Conscientious teachers invariably find themselves working long hours in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays. Classroom teaching is only one aspect of the job, although of course it remains the most important. Pob lwc!

James King is head of history in a secondary school in Swansea.

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