Sally Holland - What next for education in Wales?
As the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, it is my job to champion the rights and promote the wellbeing of children and young people in Wales. That is a very broad task and in order to help set my priorities over my 7 year term I have been engaged in a large scale consultation called Beth Nesa||What Next? This has engaged thousands of children, young people, parents and professionals in conversations and via an on-line survey in discussions about the most pressing issues facing children in Wales today. I became the third Children’s Commissioner for Wales in April. The first, Peter Clark, was appointed in 2001 and it is timely to ask questions about what we have achieved in Wales for children since devolution, what needs to change, and what the Commissioner should and could do about it.
It is not surprising that issues related to education have featured prominently – this has included the role of schools in promoting mental health and wellbeing, curriculum content – especially PSHE lessons, testing and exams, learning about politics and citizenship, student participation in schools, additional learning needs and meeting the needs of groups that are sometimes marginalised such as Gypsy Traveller children and looked after children.
This is quite a long list and really exemplifies the challenges of my role. How do I achieve a balance between working on rights that affect all children, such as those relating to citizenship, and working on the rights of those who have more difficulty in accessing their rights, including disabled children and those living in poverty? I also need to balance the needs of different age groups from 0-18 (and care leavers up to 25 still in full time education) and make sure that I attend to needs of children throughout Wales.
The main framework for the Children’s Commissioner’s role is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). These rights are the things which children need to be safe, healthy and happy. The UNCRC is as relevant today as it has ever been and it has been partly incorporated into Welsh law through the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011, which obliges Ministers to have due regard to children’s rights in all that they do as well as requiring them to promote the UNCRC.
The UNCRC gives me some answers to the balance of my role in that its 42 articles contain many rights for all children but also specific rights for children separated from their parents and disabled children. As I analyse the results of Beth Nesa||What Next I’ll be working up my first three year strategic plan that will outline how I will balance these demands and attempt to work on the areas where I feel I will be able to make most impact on the rights of children and young people in Wales.
Rights based education
As a new Commissioner, I have been keen to engage with all professions who work with children and young people. The education profession has a central role in realising the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Wales.
The challenge for us all is developing an understanding of what is meant by a ‘rights based approach’ and examine how practical application of human rights can be asserted across education. Teachers are ideally placed to give effect to children’s rights and in doing so, improve educational attainment and life chances.
I have heard from teachers how rewarding their job is, but also about the significant challenges and pressures put on them from day to day. Some feel that they are unable to fully respond to the broader challenges of the lives of the children and young people they teach and that a narrow approach to academic attainment does not do full justice to the role of education.
The UN has expanded on the aims of education:
UNCRC General Comment No. 1 – Aims of Education
“the key goal of education is the development of the individual child’s personality, talents and abilities, in recognition of the fact that every child has unique characteristics, interests, abilities, and learning needs...ensuring that essential life skills are learnt by every child and that no child leaves school without being equipped to face the challenges that he or she can expect to be confronted with in life.”
(UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2001, p.4)
This can be done in a wide variety of ways but good examples that I have seen in Wales include schools where the school council is an important pivot for participatory dialogue in the school, but that participatory approaches extend beyond that specific group. Some schools engage students in developing materials and leading peer-led classes on issues of importance to them. Many schools attend well to student well-being, with comprehensive strategies in place for individual and group support as well as early intervention programmes for developing resilience and decreasing stress and anxiety. Many schools develop the citizenship, talents and interests of their whole student community and work really hard to make sure that every child or young person feels that they have a stake in their school community.
I know though that these achievements sometimes feel as if they are achieved in spite of not because of certain aspects of our system. The pressure on teachers to achieve the required levels of attainment is compounded by the challenging nature of many of your pupils’ circumstances, not least the child poverty levels which blight our nation.
Future opportunities for rights in education in Wales
I think that we have two important developments that could make a big difference to education in Wales, if we get them right. Firstly, there is new legislation proposed on Additional Learning Needs. The proposals should right some of the frustrations of the current system, but all those who have a view need to contribute to government consultations on this to ensure that we get it right. The law on this area is unlikely to change again for another generation.
Secondly, we have had the Donaldson review, Successful Futures. I very much welcomed Donaldson’s four purposes of education. It was to encourage:
- Ambitions capable learners
- Enterprising creative contributors
- Ethical, informed citizens
- Healthy confident individuals.
This really fits with what children and young people, teachers and parents have been saying to me about the education system they want.
The change will be demanding, and teachers have faced a lot of change already. If teachers are to be able to deliver on this, they will need all the support possible and it will require leadership of the highest order, both politically and within our education structures. This is a step change, and an opportunity. An important tool to deliver on these objectives is the UNCRC. It provides a holistic framework but it will need to feature throughout all we do in the education sphere – from curriculum to assessment. The teaching profession has real ambition for children and young people in Wales and we must all play our part in achieving the common goals to which we aspire.
My intention is not to tell teachers what they should be doing. They are the experts. What we need in Wales is to ensure, like Donaldson did, that we can create a space for dialogue. We need a collaborative forum in which we can exchange new ideas and challenge practice so that we continually strive for improvements in outcomes. I hope that I will be able to contribute to those discussions. What I would also expect, however, is that within that space, room is made for another expert voice. A voice with the best possible insight into whether things are working – the children and young people in receipt of the education we provide.
Children’s Commissioner for Wales
Sally Holland became Wales’ third Children’s Commissioner for Wales in April 2015.
A registered social worker with experience in the statutory and voluntary sectors, Sally was recently a Professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, where she taught social work and childhood studies at undergraduate, Masters and Doctorate level.
During her time at Cardiff University, she founded and became director of CASCADE Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre. Among its wide-ranging programme of research activities, CASCADE enables care-experienced young people to scrutinise and advise the centre’s work and has an international reputation built on enabling children and young people to represent their own views though participative research methods.
Her areas of expertise include children's rights, children’s views about citizenship and identity, family support, looked after children, child protection and adoption.
Originally from Scotland, Sally has lived in Wales since 1992 and is a keen Welsh learner.
Established in 2001, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales is the independent human rights institution for children and young people in Wales. The organisation’s principal aim is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children and young people in Wales