The Welsh education system is going through a serious crisis.....and I'm not talking about dropping down international league tables or declining results at GCSE and A Levels.
Focusing on schools , the damaging and aimless system is a direct result of Labour misrule from Cardiff.
Yet what have the opposition offered? Plaid Cymru have responded with a paucity of policies ranging from laptops for every teacher (we only ever got the cases for them!) and cutting summer holidays ; very unpopular with teaching unions and not necessarily beneficial to anyone. Tories are predictably reactionary , while even the Lib Dems did advocate smaller class sizes.
Former Education Minister Jane Davidson's prize policy of the Foundation Phase , which deploys many teaching assistants and involves a great deal of learning through play, is having disastrous consequences on early years literacy and numeracy.
I can foresee its impending demise, because many teachers feel it has swung too far the other way and neglected the basics, meaning that many more pupils are struggling with reading, writing and maths.
Pupils must now make the rapid and traumatic change from this to a tortuous testing regime.
In the last month pupils from Years 1-9 have undergone tests imposed by the Welsh Assembly Government and therefore one of the main policies of Huw Lewis, absentee AM for Merthyr and present Education Minister.
These have been carried out to report back to parents, to check on schools and , above all, to prepare pupils for the international PISA tests. Wales has been slipping down the league, so these are very much 'testing for tests'.
Ironically, this is at the very time when these tests have been criticised by numerous leading academics. Even in Shangai, which boasts the best results, they are questioning their validity.
For once a Head is talking sense and Robin Hughes (Sec. of their union , ASCL Cymru) has questioned whether they are genuine reflections of intelligence, because they 'squeeze out innovation, creativity and resilience.'
The experience of teachers in Wales reinforces this.
The recent WAG tests (modeled on PISA ones) showed no attempt at differentiation in terms of ability, yet any teacher practicing this in class would be castigated .
6 and 7 year olds are forced to do timed tests and are branded as failures from an early age. Even bright pupils have struggled with the reading matter and alien problem-solving (literally, in one case, with numerical problems involving aliens!).
The language test for this age group contained material about sea shanties! Even the dreaded SATs were more child-friendly.
Inevitably teachers are pressurised more and more into teaching towards these tests, thus wasting school time.
No opposition parties have raised concerns about a system which is becoming frighteningly Govian.
In the past I have put forward many proposals , often revolutionary. However, I believe the ten points of this manifesto are achievable and even a reformist party could adopt the majority of them.
1. Reduce all class sizes to 20. This is an absolute necessity and would lead to a dramatic improvement. Any teacher will tell you that more pupils can be given individual attention and behavioural problems are much easier to deal with.
2. All schools to be run as democracies, rather than dictatorships by Heads. Pupils and teachers to have the greater say in their running. Boards of Governors to consist of parents, teachers, pupils and locally elected representatives.
3 Introduction of choice in school clothing. Give pupils the right not to wear uniform if they want. For the sake of comfort, needless disciplinary time-wasting and expense, the abandonment of militaristic uniform makes sense, in line with most of Europe.
4. No Pass and Fail in exams, only degrees of achievement (originally the GCSE was intended to do this). Gradual return to the ascendency of coursework, with all of it done in school to avoid plagiarism (research done at home). This would give all pupils an incentive: at present far too many are failed at GCSE.
5. A Welsh national curriculum, but with the rest balanced between the global and local. To use literature as an example, the focus would be on Welsh writers in both languages, but there would be opportunities to study the likes of Brecht or Angelou and to research local writers.
6. Teachers rewarded for remaining in the classroom ; the opposite of the present situation , whereby progress is seen as leaving the classroom and becoming a 'manager'. With schools becoming democracies rather than being modeled on businesses, there would be less time in the classroom and more opportunities for staff to contribute to executive decision-making.
But the actual teaching would be paramount.
7. All inspections to be done internally or - in cases of concern - carried out by advisers. These advisers would be experienced teachers given sabbaticals to help any teachers through their problems, probation etc, produce resources, run useful courses and give exemplar lessons. Finance saved by the abolition of inspections could go towards the reduction of class sizes.
8 The Foundation Phase replaced by a combination of learning through play and determined focus on literacy and numeracy. Those who continue who need the latter should receive help in both until they can access the rest of the curriculum. In other words, there's no point in a broad curriculum without being able to read, write and cope with the maths.
9. Creation of a fully comprehensive system by abolishing private schools. Education is a right not privilege and nobody should be able to buy their way into the upper echelons of society. This could be done by withdrawing charitable status from these institutions and stopping the Armed Forces from subsidising them ( when members are abroad they can send their children to them).
10. Investment in new technology a priority. The finance could come from a more balanced pay structure, with Heads etc virtually superfluous. Tablets for all pupils should be the aim and some schools do already deploy this system. Education does seem to lag behind the changes in society and this would make schools more appealing to young people.
Giving 16 year olds the right to vote might well alter the priorities of our political parties, but I also think that politics should be studied in school , perhaps as part of PSE. Young people need to be aware of the various political philosophies on offer and make their own choices.
Comparisons with Gove's iniquitous regime in England mustn't lull us into complacency. By stealth, we are in danger of heading the same way.
TESTING FOR TESTS
We're being tested again
so we can all do better
at the other, bigger tests.
These are the Welsh ones,
but they want us to do well
in something called PIZZA.
I can't wait for that :
mine's a pepperoni and sweetcorn
with thick crust and double cheese on top.
We're learning all the right tricks,
past papers and I'm only ten :
I'll pass them with garlic bread!
My Bamps says he did the 11 plus
and they were like performing seals ;
I imagine him flapping for sums.
My mam says - ' Don't take no notice!
It's on'y coz ee failed!'
But I think he talks sense.
Maybe they're offering us pizzas
because they want us to perform,
to leap through the hoops.
Sitting and sweating in the classroom,
letters and numbers like fleeing fish :
wish I could honk, wish I could swim.