Thursday, 15 January 2015

Can ministers solve the education problems?

This report on Tuesday drew attention to the failure – to date at least – of the Welsh Government’s Literary and Numeracy Framework.  Whilst the spokeswoman for the Government tried her best to skirt around the problems by referring to the report as a “timely reminder that there is still much to do”, it seems to me that the fact of failure so far is unarguable.  The question is about the causes of the failure and what, if anything, can be done to redeem it.
Plaid’s education spokesman, Simon Thomas made a very telling point when he said that “As is so often the case, the principles behind Welsh Government strategies are sound but ministers find it difficult to ensure delivery of their policies on the ground”.  I’m not so sure, however, about the unstated implication that different ministers, or ministers of another party, might be able to do better.  It’s at least conceivable that his statement may be true in the more generic way in which it reads.
I remember a lecturer on a course I attended some years ago talking about leading change in organisations as being like throwing pebbles into a pond.  Initiating one change (throwing in a single pebble) leads to a nice set of concentric rings as the ‘wave’ of change spreads evenly out across the whole pond.  Initiating two changes gives two nice concentric rings, but the interference pattern which they cause means that sometimes the change waves reinforce each other, but at others they actually cancel each other out.  Initiating a large number of changes (throwing in a whole handful of pebbles) simply results in complete chaos.
And that perhaps underlines the response of Elaine Edwards of UCAC, as quoted in the report, who said that “Our members have faced a barrage of new initiatives in recent years…”  Another point well made.
Part of the underlying problem facing our education system is certainly the short-term view taken by politicians in general, who will always, and inevitably, have an eye to the next election.  Those in power need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ to address the problems; those in opposition need to be seen to be saying that they would do better – and if they do get their hands on power, existing initiatives are reversed and new ones kicked off.
But perhaps a more serious issue, to return to the point which Simon Thomas made, is whether any minister of any party actually can solve the problems by means of central directives and initiatives.  It’s a very managerialist stance to take, and I’m sceptical at best about managerialism.  But in education, we also have a system where authority is spread across a number of different organisations, and ministers don’t sit at the top of a neat hierarchy in any event.  What if the expectation that government ministers can put things right is unrealistic in the first place?
Ultimately, success or failure in education is something which surely depends heavily on the ability and motivation of teachers to teach and the desire of the learners to learn.  If either, or both, of those are a problem, then producing ever lengthier and more detailed tomes of guidance, and a host of new initiatives with fancy names, are likely to do more harm than good.  Might it be that concentrating more on the motivation of both educators and learners might do more to improve things than trying to micro-manage the detail from afar?  

It might not be good politics through…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe the intention of Welsh Minister's is to make everyone believe that the welsh education system is incapable of improvement and whatever you so the outcome is the same - failure.

And maybe that feeds in to the point about politicians always looking to the next election, yet for Welsh Labour the worst case senario after every election is a coalition with Labour as the largest party (as they can't lose power in the Assembly). So they could if they wanted set out a long terms plan for education because they'll still be in power in 20 - 25 years when a successful education system might eventually comes to fruition.