Report and Comment by Herald Special Correspondent, John Vaughan
There are fears amongst many within the education sector that Wales could be heading into chaos with a radical potential restructuring of term times. This comes as England adopts a policy from 2015 whereby head teachers will have the power to set their own school terms, potentially scaling down the long held traditional six week summer holiday to as little as four weeks.
The plans for England were announced on Monday July 1 of this year. The Department for Education set out the policy to ensure that, in future, term times are decided upon by head teachers and not local Councils. As it stands at present, Wales is not included in these plans and, though currently there is no legal duty on councils or governing bodies in Wales to work together on holiday times, there are plans to give the Assembly Government powers to set the same holiday times for all state schools in Wales. However, this is not policy yet and there is growing concern from some people within education that Wales could well follow in the same direction as England.
The National Union of Teachers have stated it will cause problems for families in different schools. A view shared by South Pembrokeshire And Carmarthen West AM and Shadow Minister for Education, Angela Burns who said, exclusively to the Herald,
“Imagine the chaos, a child at one school, another at one with different term times. It is hard enough with the disparity that England and Wales have. Even schools in the Vale of Glamorgan have different term times to Pembrokeshire. It’s the logistics!”
The Shadow Minister went on to express her concerns over the impact that this could have for potential childcare issues and parents planning for their work schedules. She stated,
“Why not let the County Council do it as they do now? I don’t understand the point of it and what are the benefits?”
Some have cited that one of the potential benefits of such a change could be cheaper package holidays for parents; others are more sceptical of this as an argument, as Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, pointed out when suggesting that holiday companies would just expand the period over which they charge premium rates, with the result that the general public would have fewer weeks of less expensive holidays.
Mrs Burns expressed her concern at the current Welsh Government proposal that the Welsh Minister for Education could have the sole power to set school term dates which could also mean an arbitrary decision could be taken on five or even six terms in a school year. She stated that she had been challenging these proposals. Mrs Burns also cast doubt upon the idea of cheaper holidays, given any change of term structure by saying that,
“The holiday companies would soon cotton on to it and nothing would change (with regard to cheaper holidays). I don’t see how that (argument) holds water”, a sentiment echoing that of Christine Blower.
A further argument put forward for this change is that it would allow for a better means of organising the curriculum. One head teacher in England argued that the changes would allow for ‘more equalised blocks of working which would be much better for curriculum planning and would be better in terms of levels of student and staff exhaustion’. Putting this point forward to Mrs Burns she responded by saying,
“Instinctively I don’t like the idea, but there is statistical evidence that the long summer break does give children too much time to forget what they are learning. The more successful European countries have shorter terms.There might be a discussion worth having about a four term year, it might serve small children, especially during the winter term”
This raised an important issue with regards to the lack of consistency with current term times and, when this was suggested to one local teacher, who asked not to be named, said,
“I can understand the argument that some of our terms are currently very long, with the present structuring, and, certainly, the autumn term leading up to Christmas can really take it out of all involved, pupils and teachers alike, but the summer holiday is almost an institution. It is a very long year and at the end of it we are all exhausted. I would suggest the first week of that summer break be a period for recovery and rest and then the last week is mostly used by teachers to prepare for the autumn term, whereby you simply hit the ground running almost immediately. I can see an argument for a five week summer break, but I would add that extra week on to the Christmas holiday, leaving the term length as it is. I can’t imagine the kind of chaos that would ensue if different schools had different term times – it makes you glad to be teaching in Wales if this is what is about to happen to our colleagues in England”
Seeking a response from the Head of Education in Pembrokeshire, Kate Evan-Hughes stated that,
“If such a policy were to be introduced in Wales, we, as a local education authority, would work with schools to minimise the impact and disruption for parents and students”
It certainly appears that whatever is decided upon in Wales, the policy is likely to cause at least some disruption and disorientation to parents, teachers and pupils when it is introduced into English schools.
However, a local Pembrokeshire school governor, who wished to be unnamed, did stress there may be some positives,
“From speaking to teachers I know it can take months for children to be re-focused after the summer holidays. I can see a four week holiday might be of benefit to help with this problem and pupils would re-focus much more quickly. Also, schools often struggle to keep children in school, holidays are cheaper (outside of current holiday times), but of course holiday companies would cotton on, but it could well cut down on unauthorised absences which is a real problem.”
It is an emotive issue and there are opinions for and against the change in England. No matter whether Wales adopts this policy or not, it seems from speaking with the various academic parties that, in Wales, there is at least a growing movement to question as to whether there should be a change to the structure of the school year and the amount of and length of terms. However, what are the impacts likely to be and who will it benefit? As Angela Burns states,
“This is a big decision that needs to be taken with all the consultation of teachers, unions, parents, governors, support services and businesses as it is a really radical move. If only one school did this it would be highly disruptive. It is a decision that needs proper analysis, research, evidence and consultation with everyone that it will affect. It is a huge change that needs investigating properly. It could be very unsuccessful”
Perhaps we, in Wales, should wait and see how successful it is in England before deciding upon a policy for Wales. After all, where education is concerned, risks simply cannot be taken with children’s academic futures. It is far too important for that and, surely, a measured and patient approach should be taken before any change is made, where quantifiable evidence has been studied and reflected upon before any final decision?
Redhill’s Pembrokeshire Primary Chess Tournament hailed a success
THIS WEEK the first Redhill Pembrokeshire Primary Chess Tournament took place at Redhill Prep School in Haverfordwest.
We have this report from the school: “Well what an incredible day!
“The points were so close that we had to play an extra round to determine the winner! We are very proud to announce that our very own Redhill pupil, Henry Burton, won the tournament, closely followed three second place awards which went to Genula Wickramaarachchi from Prendergast CP school, Huw Holliday (Redhill) and Harry Hayden (Redhill) The ‘David Pinch Award’ for excellent sportsmanship went to Ellie Dean from Saundersfoot CP school!
“Congratulations to all the schools that attended.
“We very much look forward to inviting you all back on Saturday 23rd March!
The school added: “Lastly a huge thank you to all the parents who helped out, Ian Eustis (Junior Director of the Welsh Chess Union), Fide Master Alexis Harakis, Scott Hammett and Gwyn.”
Wales’s education performance falls to lowest-ever level
THE ORGANISATION of Economically Developed Countries (OECD) published its latest report on educational attainment (PISA) on Tuesday, December 5.
It shows students in Wales have slipped even further behind the other UK nations in a worst-ever set of results.
In Mathematics, the fall in attainment is the equivalent of a whole year’s education in the subject. Test marks also fell sharply in science and English.
Jeremy Miles, Wales’s Education Minister, said the results showed how the hangover from the pandemic affected students’ education.
His observation had clear merit, as PISA results fell worldwide, with attainment falling in all but ten of eighty-one OECD members.
Wales’s results put its education at the same level as Norway and the USA, and the nation’s results fell the same number of points in England and Scotland.
WHAT IS PISA?
PISA is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ academic performance in mathematics, science, and reading in PISA.
The PISA assessment is regarded, with some misgivings among educational experts, as a guide to the performance of education policies across 79 participating countries.
When the OECD last published the PISA report in 2020, Wales had caught up with the international average in all subjects.
In the new report, all home nations’ attainment fell, but Wales’s fell further than others.
MINISTER BLAMES PANDEMIC
Education Minister Jeremy Miles said: “Before the pandemic, we saw a strong improvement in literacy and numeracy standards in Wales. Sadly, it is clear that the pandemic has derailed some of this improvement.
“We have already started on a path of driving up standards in reading and maths, and we won’t let these results knock us off track.
“At the end of November (see this week’s Education section), we launched literacy and numeracy plans to help support learning and raise standards in these key areas.
“I have also published the first national report on our children’s reading and numeracy performance. I will do this annually to track recovery.
“We supported our schools and learners through the pandemic. We will stand together and support them now.”
Since 2022, schools in Wales have started implementing major long-term reforms, with the new Curriculum for Wales being taught and rolled out sequentially to reach all learners in all schools from 2026/27.
Jeremy Miles continued: “Our long-term education reforms have started after years of planning and, as the OECD says, improvement to education takes time.
“We have taken a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise the quality of education in Wales and I’m confident we will deliver huge benefits for our young people.”
CONSERVATIVES CRITICISE “WIDENING GAP”
Following the usual hackneyed jibe at the Welsh Government’s plans to increase the number of Senedd members, the Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Minister Laura Anne Jones MS said: “The results are not a shock when we have a Labour Government which has so little regard for our children’s future that they cut the education budget this year. All governments should give pupils and teachers the tools to do their best and thrive.
“After 25 years of Labour running Welsh schools, we have a widening attainment gap. Sadly, again, Wales languishes at the bottom of international league tables.
“The Labour Education Minister needs to get a grip of his department and give our young people the start in life they deserve. He can start by getting 5,000 more teachers back into our classrooms after years of declining numbers and the desperately needed money to support growing ALN numbers in mainstream education.”
PLAID HIGHLIGHTS CHILD POVERTY
Plaid Cymru has criticised the handling of child poverty rates in Wales, which it says has contributed to the results, leading to high absenteeism in Welsh schools.
Plaid Cymru’s education spokesperson, Heledd Fychan MS, said: “The PISA results published should be a wakeup call for the Welsh Government.
“Too many young people in Wales are living in poverty, pupil absences are unacceptably high, and many schools are facing a significant deficit in their budgets. Despite the hard work and dedication of an overstretched workforce, the pupil attainment gap is widening, and we cannot ignore the link between poverty and today’s disappointing results.
“Every child, no matter their background, should have an equal chance of success.
“We need more than platitudes and excuses from the Minister for Education in response to these results.
“Wales had a pre-Covid recruitment crisis in the education sector, the magnitude of which Ministers failed to grasp.
“Continuing and entrenching cuts to education will do nothing to put Wales on a path towards a turnaround in our PISA results.”
EDUCATION UNION UNSURPRISED
Emma Forrest, NEU’s Assistant General Secretary Regions, Wales, and Legal Strategy, said: “NEU Cymru members won’t be shocked by the OECD’s PISA results. They don’t tell us anything the education workforce doesn’t know – that across most OECD countries, schools need support in a post-pandemic situation.
“Comparison is difficult. We are particularly concerned that these results do not represent many countries’ full cohort of learners. Whilst this is understandable, it makes comparisons less meaningful in the context of the pandemic.
“Here in Wales, we have the new Curriculum for Wales, which none of the cohort tested in PISA have been taking.
“Suppose the Welsh Government wants to take anything from these results. In that case, it is an opportunity to ensure that they have a qualifications system which does not focus on tests and time-limited exams but gives young people a real chance to show what they can do.
“We will continue to work with the Welsh Government on the critical aspects of workload and professional development for the workforce, and how we can best support the wellbeing and expertise of staff, to ensure they are able to focus on children and their learning.”
New Director joins the Open University in Wales
ON NOVEMBER 27, The Open University in Wales welcomed Ben Lewis as its new Director.
Ben joins the OU in Wales from Cardiff University where he was Director of Student Life. He succeeds Louise Casella who retired in June.
David Price had been the OU in Wales’ Interim Director until Ben’s arrival.
Ben Lewis said: “The Open University is synonymous with the idea of lifelong learning. At its heart is the belief that education should be available to people wherever they are, and whatever their circumstances. It’s an exciting time to be joining the OU in Wales – our student numbers have never been higher, with government and decision makers recognising the value of part-time flexible higher education.
“I thank David Price for his stewardship during the interim period, and for the welcome I’ve received from colleagues, students and stakeholders. It’s a privilege to be joining this team, and I look forward to playing my part in the next steps of the university’s future.”
President of The Open University Student’s Association (OUSA), Swansea-based Margaret Greenaway added:
“We want students to have a say in how their university is run, regardless of their background or where they live. We’re proud of the positive relationship OUSA has with the OU in Wales, and we’re sure this will continue during Ben’s time as Director. A big welcome to him to the OU family!”
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