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Education

Student finance ‘discriminates against women and mature students’

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Very friendly and supportive: Neil Hamilton

A WEST Wales mature student has alleged that Student Finance Wales discriminates against mature female students who have changed their name through marriage or divorce.

Tricia (not her real name) contacted The Herald after she experienced protracted delays in receiving student finance to which she was entitled having been made ‘to jump through hoops’ to prove she was who she said she was.

She encountered difficulties after applying for a one year top up from a HND to a BA.

The situation was rendered all the more frustrating as, Student Finance Wales had all of Tricia’s proof of identity from the previous year, when she completed her HND, access to all of the information submitted in connection with that award, and repeatedly told her that there was no information required from her before telling her on a number of occasions, and only when she rang to query the continuing delay, that further information was needed.

Tricia applied for student finance on June 14 and supporting information for her financial status was provided immediately to Student Finance Wales. Tricia had the same customer reference number, same email, same telephone contact number that she had used for her previous application.

Tricia was particularly exasperated as she had been through precisely the same rigmarole in proving her identity in her initial application two years before.

She told us: “Despite the fact that I applied early for student finance, after that earlier bad experience, I kept on being pushed from pillar to post. Even though ALL of my information was already held by Student Finance and they were writing to me at my home address, which I had already provided and proved, it was not until mid-August that Student Finance Wales asked for proof that I actually lived in Wales.

“Having sent that proof, I rang up to check everything was okay and was told that Student Finance Wales had all the information they needed to process my application.”

She continued: “Having waited for a few weeks and with the start of term already near, I rang to find out what was happening. I was then told that before my application could proceed that they wanted information for an application for a childcare grant, which I have never sought and had not asked for. I had to write a letter telling them this – unbelievably six weeks after acknowledging they had received that letter, the information is still shown as required.
“Anyway, I confirmed again that they now had all the material they needed. And was told they did. A few weeks passed and I had heard nothing. I rang again. This time they wanted me to provide both my birth certificate and a form signed by a third party confirming that I was me!

“I raised an immediate complaint and was told I would be sent a copy of that for my own information.”

On October 26, Tricia rang to confirm that all information had been received and make sure that nothing else was needed.

Tricia’s experience then entered the realms of the surreal. A friend verified her identity. The same person had verified her partner’s identity for their application for student finance and been accepted.

The proof of identity was rejected and during the phone call a claim was made that a letter to that effect had been sent out on October 20, which was remarkable in itself as the identity form had only been posted on October 19. Not only was there no sign of that letter’s arrival, there was no sign of it in the record of correspondence.

Tricia then raised the question of her previous complaint, only to be told there was no record of it. She was then told by a manager at Student Finance Wales that she was not entitled to see the content of any complaint raised by the company on her behalf, although that manager told her that she would now raise a complaint for her and notify her it had been raised.

After waiting a few days, and with no sign of a complaint being made, Tricia emailed a full complaint to Student Finance Wales and copied her constituency and regional AMs in along with Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams and the Assembly parties’ education spokespersons.
Response was swift. First to respond was Labour’s Joyce Watson who promised to raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary. That was followed by responses from Paul Davies – who helped resolve Tricia’s previous complaint – Simon Thomas, and UKIP’s Neil Hamilton who provided a very full and sympathetic response to Tricia’s plight; then, the Welsh Government contacted Tricia and asked for her permission to deal with Student Finance Wales on her behalf.

Finally, a day or so later, Tricia was emailed by Student Finance Wales to say that they were now acting on her complaint.

Mysteriously, the letter telling her that her identity proof was unacceptable arrived postmarked October 31, the same day as her complaint.

Within seven days of contacting her local AMs, Tricia was told that her student finance had been approved and that payments would be made shortly. She does not think that is a coincidence.

Tricia is, however, still frustrated by the whole experience.

“The situation had become ridiculous. I was being discriminated against for being an older woman, who had been married before. They not only had all my information already, they told me they could see it on the computer system and yet still said they needed it again. It’s bureaucracy for the sake of it. And as for not allowing customers to see complaints raised on their behalf, I bet their complaints clear up rate is stellar.

“Again, it was only when I complained and copied in AMs that there was any movement at all. That is not right and just makes me wonder how many students who have not contacted their own AMs have been forced out of higher education by Student Finance Wales incompetence.”

She concluded: “When I initially raised issues about the process way back in August I was told that I should blame the Welsh Government! To make matters worse, it had been suggested to me that I could get my parents to confirm my name change. I could, I suppose, have got a shovel or Ouija board, but neither of those options was very appealing!”

Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education Llyr Gruffydd said: “Plaid Cymru believes education is a right not a privilege so we want to make sure there is fair play when it comes to Student Finance Wales regardless of age or gender.”

Mid and West AM Simon Thomas added: “A constituent has informed me of a formal complaint they have made regarding the way in which their application for student finance has been handled by Student Finance Wales. Their application for student finance has still not been processed – almost five months after the initial application was made.

“My constituent feels that Student Finance Wales indirectly discriminate on the grounds of age and gender.”

Simon Thomas has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education requesting the following information.

  • An outline of Student Finance Wales’ complaints procedure
  • The number of complaints received by Student Finance Wales each year in the last five years
  • A breakdown of the nature of the complaints received
  • An outline of the evidence of income and identity Student Finance Wales asks for in order to process a student’s application for student finance
  • Tricia’s constituency AM, Paul Davies told The Herald: “The experiences that Tricia has had with Student Finance Wales are deeply disappointing and caused her unnecessary distress, at a time when she should be focusing on her studies. It’s clear that there are failings in the system, which continue to be unaddressed and the Welsh Government should now commit to seriously reviewing Student Finance Wales’ operations.

    “Sadly, this is not the first worrying experience that Tricia has faced throughout her studies and it’s simply unacceptable. Lessons clearly haven’t been learnt from previous occasions and therefore it’s important that the Welsh Government urgently addresses these problems to ensure that other students are not faced with similar problems in the future.”

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Education

Swansea Uni to deliver advanced therapies

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A significant opportunity: University a centre for cell and gene therapies

SWANSEA U​NIVERSITY’S​ Medical School, through its partnership with Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, is to be one of the centres to deliver advanced medical therapies to Wales, which is part of a major investment announced by Welsh Blood Services.

A recently formed health consortium, jointly led by the Welsh Blood Service (on behalf of NHS Wales) and the National Institute for Health Research Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre, has been awarded £7.3M of UK Government funding to ensure more patients benefit from a new generation of breakthrough therapies.

£1.5M will come directly to NHS Wales and £550K to Trakcel, a Welsh software company developing scheduling/tracking software for advanced therapies which is based upon technology developed at Swansea University.

The funding will support the Welsh Government’s commitment to developing an Advanced Therapies Strategy which will enable these therapies to be brought to Welsh patients and Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product (ATMP) companies to reach the clinical market, whilst building expertise, capability and capacity across NHS Wales to benefit patient outcomes.

Speaking of the award, Frank Atherton, Chief Medical Officer for Wales, said: “We welcome the announcement of the successful partnership between Birmingham, Nottingham and Wales NHS centres in bidding for Innovate UK monies. The project is aligned with our ambition to support the development, availability and adoption of new innovative therapies for patients in Wales. Cell- and gene-based advanced therapies offer exciting opportunities, not only for the way we treat people with previously incurable conditions, but also how we work together with industry and NHS Wales in bringing these treatments from bench to bedside.”

The NHS Wales role in the MW-ATTC consortium was led by the Welsh Blood Service, with support from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg and Cardiff & Vale University Health Boards along with the Life Sciences Hub Wales Special Interest Group on Cell and Gene Therapy, which brings together expertise from the Welsh NHS, Universities and industry in the Life Science sector.

As part of the contract award, one of the first advanced therapy treatment sites in Wales will be established within Abertawe Bro Morgannwg at the Joint Clinical Research Facility (JCRF) at Swansea University’s Medical School. The focus of the centre will be to develop the infrastructure, processes and skilled workforce required to enable patients to be cared for, from diagnosis through to post-treatment follow up.

Cath O’Brien, Director of the Welsh Blood Service and MW-ATTC Co-Director, said: “A significant opportunity exists to position Wales as a leader in clinical trial and routine delivery of cell and gene therapies to maximise Welsh patient benefit and opportunities for the national economy. The Welsh Government is committed to exploring these revolutionary developments in healthcare and we are excited to have worked alongside our consortium partners to secure funding through what was a highly competitive tendering process.”

One of the first products that will pass through the Welsh centres is that being developed by one of the consortium partners, Rexgenero and is intended to prevent the need for diabetes-related lower limb amputations for some no option patients. The incidence of diabetes is continuing to increase in Wales and already accounts for ~10% of the NHS Wales budget (£500M) with 200, 000 sufferers today rising to an estimated 500,000 by 2025. Currently around 2000 patients in Wales have non-healing lower limb ulcers that result in approximately 330 amputations per year.

The Midlands & Wales Advanced Therapy Treatment Centre (MW-ATTC) will identify barriers, challenges and solutions to facilitate future deployment and adoption of these transformative therapies within the UK healthcare system.

Advanced treatments, such as cell and gene therapies, show great promise for patients with chronic and terminal conditions that currently cannot be cured. Unlike conventional medicines, these new approaches often aim to selectively remove, repair, replace, regenerate and re-engineer a patient’s own genes, cells and tissues to restore normal function. The project will include potential treatments for arthritis, liver disease, several types of cancer, and diabetic ulcers.

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Education

£1.3m spent to cut class sizes

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Class sizes are a concern: Kirsty Williams

SCHOOLS across Wales are to benefit from 80 new teachers as a result of a £36 million fund to reduce infant class sizes, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has announced.

£1.3m of the fund, which was announced in January 2017, has been used to recruit the teachers.

When the Welsh Government announced the £36m fund last year, it said that the fund would make “a real difference” to class sizes.

The new teachers will be appointed to schools which have large infant class sizes and also have high levels of deprivation, special education needs and/or where teaching and learning need to improve.

The new teachers will help to create smaller infant classes, so a school which currently has two infant classes of 29 or more pupils could instead have three smaller more manageable infant classes.

The Welsh Government hopes that the scheme will improve both the quantity and quality of the time that teachers spend with their pupils, while also helping to reduce teachers’ workload.

The £36m fund comprises of £16m of revenue which allows local authorities to recruit the extra teachers, and £20m of capital which allows local authorities to build the additional classrooms and learning space needed to further reduce class sizes.

All local authorities in Wales will benefit from extra teachers after submitting bids for the revenue element of the grant, which amounts to £1.3m in 2017/18. Bids for capital element of the grant will be approved shortly.

The Education Secretary yesterday visited pupils in the nursery class at Awel y Môr Primary School in Port Talbot who will, as of this September, benefit from an extra teacher when they move into Reception.

Awel y Môr is a prime candidate for the funding, having above national average levels of both free school meals and SEN.

Kirsty Williams said: “Time and again, teachers and parents tell me that class sizes are a concern. That’s why one of my first actions as Cabinet Secretary was to announce this £36m fund.

“International research and evidence tells us there is a positive connection between smaller class sizes and attainment, particularly for our youngest pupils from poorer backgrounds.

“Additional teachers at schools like Awel y Môr will be able to devote more time and individual attention to each of their pupils.

“That’s good news not only for the pupil and the teacher but the school’s ability to improve as a whole; smaller class sizes are crucial for both improved attainment in those early years of education and helping teachers to manage their workload.

“When seen in the context of broader reforms we’re making such as reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and strengthened initial teacher training and professional development, this will also make a real difference in giving teachers the time to teach and learners the space to learn.

“This is central to our mission to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system which is a source of national pride and confidence.

Sam Greasley, Headteacher of Awel y Môr Primary School said: “This new fund will have a genuine impact on Pupil Standards. Securing smaller class sizes enables us as teachers to work more closely with individual children.

“We set high expectations for all pupils but acknowledge that pupils need differentiated levels of support, which is more achievable in smaller classes.”

Shadow Education Secretary, Darren Millar, said: “When so many schools are laying off staff and struggling to balance the books, you have to question whether this is the right approach.

“Smaller class sizes require extra classrooms, which in turn demands more teachers – and yet Welsh education is in the midst of a deepening teacher recruitment crisis.

“Despite the Cabinet Secretary’s soaring rhetoric, it’s becoming clear that this fund isn’t going to make any meaningful impression on class sizes.

“It would be better to distribute the money to local education authorities to enable them to ease the funding pressures in our schools, help close the pupil funding gap between England and Wales, and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy.”

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Education

Welsh Bacc review recommends improvements

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Findings 'a sound foundation' for evolving qualification: Philip Blaker, Qualifications Wales

THE QUALIFICATION at the heart of the Welsh Baccalaureate offers a valuable learning experience and gives students the skills they need for their future, according to a research report published ​this week​.

The report was produced for Qualifications Wales by Wavehill Social and Economic Research in partnership with University College London’s Institute of Education. The research looked at the design of the Skills Challenge Certificate and gathered views from teachers, lecturers and students to see how it’s working on the ground.

“This report found that the Skills Challenge Certificate is a valuable qualification that helps learners to develop crucial skills. The skills that employers consistently say young people need to succeed in the workplace,” said Philip Blaker, Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales.

“It is positive that many teachers say the Skills Challenge Certificate is rewarding to teach and that students say they enjoy gaining new skills and the chance to focus on what they’re interested in.”

While noting the importance and value of the Skills Challenge Certificate for young people in Wales, the report finds that:

  • Some aspects of its design and assessment are more complex than they need to be;
  • There is some duplicated content and assessment across its components;
  • There are inconsistent levels of understanding amongst teachers and students about it and how it links to the Welsh Bacc.
  • Teachers and students find it difficult to describe the Skills Challenge Certificate and the Welsh Bacc to others.

“Any critical review of this kind will always find areas for improvement, especially when looking at a qualification as innovative and as new as the Skills Challenge Certificate,” said Mr Blaker.

The report makes eight recommendations for addressing the issues it identifies. Some of the recommendations focus on the current delivery of the Skills Challenge Certificate, for instance by doing more to explain what it is, how it fits in the Welsh Bacc, and its benefits. Other recommendations suggest how, in the future, the design and assessment of the Skills Challenge Certificate could be simplified.

In considering any future changes, the report cautions against making any rapid changes and advocates involving others to consider whether and when any proposed changes should be introduced.

Responding to the recommendations, Mr Blaker said: “Qualifications Wales supports the findings from the research. We are setting up a working group to look in detail at how to put the recommendations into practice. We will also convene a panel of teachers, learners, employers and universities to test and refine any proposals for change. We’ll report on our progress by the end of the year.“

“The Skills Challenge Certificate is a new and exciting way of developing and assessing important life skills. We always expected that further refinements would be needed after a period of bedding-in. The findings from this review give us a sound foundation for gradually evolving the qualification so that it continues to go from strength to strength.” said, Mr Blaker.

Responding, Shadow Education Secretary, Darren Millar, said: “The Welsh Baccalaureate is certainly a valuable qualification, but we need to see action to reduce the pressure on teachers and students engaged in it.

“Clearly there needs to be some kind of streamlining, because the qualification is almost universally seen as too complex.

“We believe that the Welsh Baccalaureate should continue to be offered to all students in Wales but it should not be a compulsory subject.”

Rebecca Williams, UCAC’s Policy Officer said: “UCAC welcomes Qualifications Wales’s report, which acknowledges the conflict between the value of the Skills Challenge Certificate on the one hand, and the confusion and misunderstandings surrounding it on the other.

“The report’s recommendations resonate with what UCAC members have been reporting for some time, which is that elements of the design and assessment are unwieldy and unmanageable – both for learners and teachers. The emphasis on clearer communication and on better training opportunities for teachers – including in initial teacher training courses – is very much to be welcomed.

“UCAC urges all relevant partners to take action on the report’s recommendations in order to ensure that the Skills Challenge Certificate element of the Welsh Baccalaureate is made as appealing and beneficial to as many learners across Wales as possible.”

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