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Gareth Evans: Afraid to be brilliant?

Gareth EvansA promotional flyer caught my eye walking the corridors of my university recently.

Being advertised was a student-led play entitled: ‘Afraid to be brilliant’.

Now I don’t know what it was about (apologies to the producers) – but it got my attention. Why?

Because it chimed with a growing perception in Welsh education that teachers are too modest and unaccepting of the incredible work they do for our children.

In my opinion, the main reasons for this are twofold...

First, there is something inherently ‘Welsh’ about playing down one’s achievements.

It is not in our psyche to wax lyrical or even promote publicly the things at which we do well.

Shouting from the rooftops is frowned upon and gloating is a cardinal sin.

I’m reliably informed that entries for Wales’ national teaching awards, introduced by the Welsh Government last year to showcase outstanding practice, were not nearly as broad as they could – and should – have been.

And I’ve even known headteachers pass off the opportunity to publicise excellence in Estyn inspections for fear of ruffling colleagues’ feathers.

But if schools themselves do not celebrate high performance, who will?

One of the biggest criticisms of journalists is that they only print ‘bad news’ – but in the absence of sector-leaders banging down their doors with counter-stories of positivity and hope, what else are they to do?

That said, we cannot rely on the media to speak up on behalf of the profession and educators must fight their own corner.

We in Wales are quick to beat and hammer, and far slower to congratulate and praise.

But without celebrating good practice or sharing in someone’s success, there is only ever going to be one side of a story.

It has been suggested that we in Wales suffer from ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – born out of our tendency to cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent.

Doing so is counterproductive and we must be willing to learn from colleagues right across the system.

The second reason I believe stems from a lack of confidence and a view that teaching in Wales is not of a strong enough quality.

Take for a moment the monumental change underway in Welsh education and the very real challenge facing those whose job it is to implement new policy.

The teaching profession is seldom left to its own devices and given the time and space to reflect upon and perfect each and every facet of the job.
Instead teachers are in a constant state of flux; dancing to many different tunes and answerable to all manner of different people.

The demands are racking up and with Wales’ flagship national curriculum comes new professional standards, bespoke qualifications and an expectation that teachers are ‘research-engaged’ and committed to continuous learning.

The notion that some teachers are not yet suitably geared to deliver on the vision outlined in Successful Futures was exacerbated by the OECD in its rapid policy assessment of 2017.

It said that “in the future, Wales will need a different type of teaching professional; one who has significantly more responsibility, and one who understands the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of teaching as well as the ‘what’.”

The general consensus is that teaching has become something of a passive profession, responding to the wants and needs of central and local government, with scant opportunity to plough its own furrow.

Professor Graham Donaldson makes a similar observation in the overview to Successful Futures, stating that: “For many teachers and schools the key task has become to implement external expectations faithfully, with a consequent diminution of local creativity and responsiveness to the needs of children and young people.”

But here’s the kicker – this passivity is by no means the fault of the profession.It is the product of 30 years’ prescription and having to conform to a rigid curriculum that leaves little or no room for interpretation.

High stakes accountability and a tick-box culture fueled by national testing have led teachers down a path many would prefer avoid.

The system has created the conditions for this to happen and there are educators right across Wales waiting to be freed from the shackles of a curriculum cobbled together before the World Wide Web.

It should not come as a surprise that the teaching profession has grown out of the environment in which it practices.

As Successful Futures develops, bitesize chunks of rote learning, blanket uniformity and narrow subject areas with specific outcomes will become a thing of the past.

But a shift in mindset, from compliance and conformity to one requiring ownership and innovation, will not come easy.

It will take many out of their comfort zone and old habits will take time to break down.

I am reminded by a colleague in Scotland, who lived through the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, that “overcoming inertia is quite difficult”.

This inertia is not helped by the threat of inspection and a fear that breaking from established norms will be punished.

Professor Donaldson’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s inspectorate – which is as much about re-thinking the purpose of inspection as it is its high-level recommendations – will go some way to alleviating teachers’ concerns.

A mutual trust and understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities is essential if Wales’ education system is to move forward and deliver effectively our shared goals.

There is certainly some truth in the OECD’s assertion that Wales is not a strong enough cheerleader for what it does well.

I look at high-flying countries like Canada – and its legion of experts that sell a very positive message across the globe – and wonder if we are doing enough to promote our system on the world stage.

Until recently, our message has been one of woe; tumbling international rankings, a widening standards gap, and a browbeaten profession suffering the effects of what the OECD diagnosed ‘reform fatigue’.

But the mood music is changing.

Teachers are at the heart of curriculum development and a brokering of relationships has had a galvanizing effect.

A new collaborative ethos underpins the Welsh Government’s ambitious action plan, Education in Wales: Our National Mission, and teachers have been given a voice.

Policy is being developed in partnership, not a back office in Cathays Park and this new way of working is beginning to make waves overseas.

Wales’ positive intent has been showcased at international conferences hosted by the OECD and championed abroad by Professor Donaldson and others at the vanguard of curriculum development.

Speaking at last month’s Professional Teaching Awards ceremony, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said Wales was attracting interest from across the world – and we must better recognise the major strides we are making.

I firmly believe that Wales has a lot to be proud of and, as a nation, we must be more open to celebrating the good practice that takes place day in, day out in our schools.

Events like Yr Athrofa’s annual Aiming for Excellence Conference – offering a platform for more than 600 student-teachers past and present to share their achievements – provide an insight into the truly inspirational work going on in Welsh classrooms.

It is time we properly recognised this stellar activity – but those at the chalkface have to do so first.
Teachers in Wales must not be afraid to be brilliant.

Gareth Evans is director of education policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David