Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Around the UK: Wales

Phil Whitcombe looks at the achievements in Welsh education - less testing, broader curriculum and more intelligent inspection system - but worries that it could all be undone by funding cuts.

After 10 years as a secondary headteacher in Wales, I feel the need for a period of reflection. When I consider the numerous changes that have taken place in Wales over that time I am pleased to report that I can view many of them positively.

In fact ASCL Cymru has enjoyed a close working relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government and supports many of the developments, most of which have had tangible benefits for both staff and pupils.

Amongst the many positive aspects, we have seen the removal of SATs testing at Key Stage 3 and 4 and, likewise, published league tables. However SATs at Key Stage 3 have been replaced with a cumbersome and time demanding paper-based validation process, designed to ensure consistency between schools. Sadly there is no such external standardisation at Key Stage 2. Even more worrying is that the results of KS2 are used as the baseline for target setting and value-added calculations in the secondary sector.

The school curriculum is becoming markedly less content based, especially in KS3, with a far greater focus on transferable skills. I regard this is highly desirable but many staff in Wales have had limited preparation for this due to dramatic cuts in funding for training.

The Welsh Baccaulareate is further developing a Welsh identity as well as pupils' independence and study skills. When this is combined with more flexible curriculum opportunities, including off-site provision, we are finally able to provide a truly personalised curriculum for our students. Sadly, like so many of our initiatives, the funding has proven inadequate.

We benefit from good access to our education minister who actively consults with ASCL and genuinely listens to advice. This has resulted in significant changes to our revised inspection framework which closely align with the intelligent accountability paper produced by ASCL and uses contextual value added to allow school performance to be compared within a family of schools.

What are the negatives over the last 10 years? Sadly there are many aspects where we look in envy at the situation in England. Wales has no e-credit scheme, no additional ICT funding and no clear ICT strategy. Funding levels are significantly lower than in England and many buildings are not fit for purpose. When we compare to the massive improvements generated by the English BSF programme, we feel like the poor relations.

DCELLS (the Welsh equivalent to DCSF) is of a similar size to the equivalent English body but is actually only managing a population around the size of Birmingham. We also have 22 local authorities and a range of regional bodies that have resulted in a considerable cost to the education sector budget. Too little of the very limited resources is getting through to the schools and there are also numerous attempts to micromanage.

While I have considerable concerns about the issues above, I am still delighted with the progress we have made in Wales. However, I am also intensely frustrated and as I look to the future I feel we are on the brink of an abyss.

There is clear goodwill in the secondary sector in Wales to support our Minister and the Welsh agenda. We are committed to further raising standards and improving opportunities for our pupils, but we have a problem of historically low funding, significantly that below in England.

We do not have the resources we so desperately need and the secondary sector is already in significant financial difficulties. We now are in a recession and have to combine poor historical funding, potential cuts in real terms, falling rolls in some areas, and increased and enforced collaboration with FE and other providers, much of which has been rushed, ill conceived and under funded.

As a long serving head, my vision for a vibrant curriculum, delivered in a well maintained school, with exciting learning opportunities and a distinct Welsh identity is in real danger. I only hope that the Welsh Assembly Government will agree and step back from the abyss before it is too late.

Phil Whitcombe is immediate past president of ASCL Cymru and head of Bryn Hafren School in the Vale of Glamorgan.

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