Leading the Way on Education
Just about my favourite writer on matters educational is Richard Elmore, Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University. He brings a depth of intelligence and an elegance of expression to his writing and commentaries on education in the USA the like of which we can learn much from in Wales.
Recently Elmore has edited a collection of essays by twenty of the USA’s leading educational thinkers and activists. In their contributions they reflect retrospectively on the experiences and intellectual journeys that have shaped their beliefs today. The book has the title ‘I Used to Think …And Now I Think’ which is an exercise used in professional development sessions in the States to encourage teachers to think about what they have learned that has changed their thinking.
I’ve found reading this book over the summer period a fascinating and thought provoking exercise that has encouraged me to think about my own journey over the last 12/13 years within a devolved education system in Wales.
I used to think that devolution of itself would transform our education system in Wales, freeing us from a dominant ‘English’ way of doing things that often was in conflict with our very different cultural and philosophical core beliefs.
In particular I hoped that devolution would provide an opportunity to vastly improve the quality of the teaching profession in Wales. This in turn might transform our educational performance with its well known ‘long-tail’ of achievement, whereby young people from our most disadvantaged homes and communities rarely achieved their potential and the qualifications that might enable them to escape from a life of poverty.
What do I think now? Well I am as firm a believer in devolution and greater powers for Wales within the UK as I ever have been. The way in which the current Coalition in England is effectively removing education from the public sector and returning it to elitist values that pre-date the reforms of ‘Old’ let alone ‘New’ Labour, convinces me more than ever that educational devolution is a godsend for parents, students and communities in Wales.
Yet in all honesty things have not turned out as well as I thought they might. Despite many instances of progress, excellent practice and innovative policies, there is a general acceptance that we should be achieving far more from our education system. In particular we have made very little, if any, progress in breaking the link between poverty and low educational achievement that continues to be our main problem.
So what do I now think we need to do that we have not done? All of the things in Leighton Andrews’ action plan for education in Wales, but most of all we have to build capacity and in particular vastly improve the quality of leadership in the education system.
As we begin a new educational year, one of the main ways in which capacity should be addressed is through the work of the four new Education Consortia bringing together the capacity to challenge and support schools that was previously dispersed across twenty-two local authorities. We should never have allowed that to happen in a country as small as Wales as the starting point of the devolution journey. There will now be huge expectations upon the Consortia to succeed, otherwise fairly rapidly the Welsh Government must think about a more radical reform of our educational structure.
I’m much less sanguine about leadership. We haven’t invested nearly enough in developing leaders at every level within our educational system to provide the cadre required to lead a successful devolved education system. We should have followed England (as Scotland have now decided to do) in setting up a National Leadership College as the central feature of wider leadership developments.
In Wales we have talked a lot about the importance of leadership but frankly we haven’t done much about it. As a new educational year begins in Wales we now, therefore, need to act. If we are to fulfil the potential of devolution we need a major initiative to produce the educational leaders that can take us forward.
That’s what I now think!
David Egan is Professor of Education at the Cardiff School of Education
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