A PROGRESS report shows how a £36m Welsh Government grant to reduce infant class sizes is ‘making a real difference’ to schools across Wales.
The report also sounds a warning note on the risk of losing gains made when the grant ends in 2021.
The report reveals progress in reducing infant class sizes in targeted schools since the grant was launched in April 2017.
Reducing infant class sizes was a key part of the Progressive Agreement reached between Kirsty Williams and the First Minister.
In line with international evidence, the policy targets schools that would most benefit from smaller classes, such as those with high levels of deprivation, additional learning needs, and/or where teaching and learning need to improve.
Evidence suggests that reducing class sizes is not necessarily the best use of educational resources either for all schools or all pupils. The OECD, the body which administers the controversial PISA tests given much weight by the UK’s governments, says that reducing class sizes should not detract from making systemic improvements in education’s delivery for pupils. The OECD says that cutting class sizes will not deliver improvements in education’s outcomes on its own.
Some key findings of the report are as follows:
• The grant is funding 110 additional teachers, 42 additional learning assistants and 52 additional classrooms and improved facilities in 115 schools across Wales;
• the percentage of all infant classes and learners in classes over 30 has reduced since the introduction of the grant, with a reduction in class sizes across all targeted schools;
• the number of schools which were in the red or amber category of the school categorisation system has decreased during the grant period.
• Since its introduction 388 infant classes have benefited from the policy, resulting in there being 770 more learners in classes below 20, and 2,592 fewer learners in classes of 29 learners or more.
To coincide with the publication of the report Education Minister Kirsty Williams visited Penyrheol Primary in Swansea – a school that has benefitted from two additional teachers, two new learning assistants and £162,812 of capital funding for additional classrooms through the project.
The school now has an average infant class size of 23.
Education Minister Kirsty Williams said: “I want teachers to have the time to teach and children to have the space to learn and this is why I am committed to delivering smaller class sizes in our schools.
“Reducing class sizes is a key strand of our national mission to raise standards and extend opportunities for all our young people so that every young person has an equal opportunity to reach the highest standards and achieve their full potential.
“Reducing teacher workload is a key priority for the Welsh Government – smaller class sizes lessen the workload while improving both the quality and quantity of time teachers spend with pupils. I am delighted with the progress shown in today’s report.”
Penyrheol Primary School Headteacher Alison Williams added: “The additional funding that has been made available by the Education Minister has made a tremendous difference to the children at Penyrheol Primary School.
“It has supported the deployment of additional staff within lovely refurbished accommodation which has made a real difference.”
The Welsh Government scheme targeted a limited number of schools in each of Wales’ local authorities.
The grant was split into revenue funding, ie paying for extra staff, and capital funding for investment in schools’ physical infrastructure.
The majority of schools that received the revenue element of the grant said they will not be able to maintain an additional teacher beyond the grant.
Schools report that budgets are becoming more challenging each year and maintaining the additional teachers would put them in a deficit budget.
A very small number of schools said that they would consider the possibility of maintaining these classes through raiding their Pupil Development Grant (PDG) or making savings elsewhere in their budgets.
The way in which capital funding was allocated to different councils shows some large variations.
For example, Carmarthenshire gained £1.6m in funding allocated to buildings at four schools, and Ceredigion gained £1m, used at only one school.
Westminster wants to ‘value’ degrees
THE CONSERVATIVE General Election Manifesto was characterised as woefully short on content but long on vague promises of jam today, jam tomorrow, and jam ever after. However, part of its text squirrelled away on page 37, has caused consternation among the UK’s universities.
A reference to the relatively obscure Augar Review into higher education and the Conservatives’ intention to review higher education in light of its content, masks – Universities say – a threat to arts and humanities courses across the UK. The Government’s subsequently announced intention to have Ofsted rank universities by graduate earnings is also under attack.
Among the recommendations of the Augar Review, one stands out above the others. The review makes the case that while subjects like business, the creative arts and social studies have value, the volume of students studying these subjects is more than the value created, while there is a relative lack of provision of courses in subjects like engineering and the physical sciences. In other words, there are too many ‘low value’ courses – the phrase used in the Conservative manifesto – and not enough courses offering a ‘high value’, either to graduates or the taxpayer for their respective investments.
The problem for opponents of the report’s recommendations in that respect is that its finding is undoubtedly true.
There are too many universities offering courses which offer little or no benefit to their graduates, certainly in terms of future earning potential and, too often, those courses are of no relevance to employers and the needs of UK industry. The question used to be how many angels dance on the head of a pin, now it is how many arts and humanities graduates work as baristas on little over minimum wage.
However, the issue of relying upon a solely monetary outcome to measure a course’s overall ‘value’ is problematic.
In a major speech on the topic of value in higher education, UUK President Professor Julia Buckingham called on the government to broaden its definition of ‘value’ beyond a student’s expected future salary alone and to recognise the less celebrated, yet vital benefits of studying for a degree. She also issued a rallying call to the sector to do more to address concerns around value and respond more effectively where there are legitimate concerns.
To support the government in adopting a new approach, UUK is outlining proposed new measures against which it believes universities can demonstrate the success and contribution of their courses. These include the proportion of graduates working in essential public services, the number taking positions in sectors and regions with skills shortages, or the likelihood of a graduate starting their own business.
Universities UK claims, in adopting a new approach, universities could assess and illustrate the wider benefits to students of university life; such as their life satisfaction, personal health, and opportunities to get involved in volunteer work.
Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “While universities need to work collectively and respond more effectively to legitimate challenges around the value of some university degrees, the government also needs to broaden its current narrow definition of success based on salaries alone. This is a blunt tool which does a disservice to students and recent graduates while failing to consider the wider student experience.
“A much broader approach which takes account the other benefits of a university degree would better reflect what is important to students, parents, employers and society.
“We need to look beyond an individual’s P60 and think about the total package of what they have learned and achieved through their time at university.”
That is all well and good. However, Universities UK’s MadeatUni campaign – intended to show the value universities deliver back to society – contains barely a handful of examples, in over 100 offered, which directly reference value-added to communities by either creative arts or humanities graduates. Its focus is relentlessly upon science, medical, and other public service degree graduates.
Somewhere, it could have mentioned research published by the Centre for Economics and Business Research barely a month after the Augar Review. It reported the arts and culture sector contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy. The Treasury gains £2.8bn from the arts and culture sector through taxation. It generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs.
And, even during the depths of austerity, productivity in the arts and culture industry remains greater than that of the economy as a whole.
The impact on some Welsh Universities, should the UK Government proceed with its plan, could be grim. Not only do Welsh graduates generally earn less because wages in Wales are lower than in England, but also arts and humanities graduates from Welsh universities generally earn little more than had they not bothered to incur debt by going in the first place. Wales – particularly rural Wales – is already subject to a ‘brain drain’. If students see they can earn more by studying, for example, at a middle-ranking English University than a Welsh one, the ‘brain drain’ could accelerate.
Some long-standing courses and the viability of Welsh institutions would also be threatened. Even the most desperate of English-based students trying to find a University through clearing might baulk at paying tens of thousands of pounds to attend an arts or humanities course in Wales which would add little or no value to their prospects
On the other hand, Welsh Universities could exploit a significant difference between them and their English counterparts. Welsh Universities score well in a particular index which appeals to modern students: wellbeing.
According to a poll commissioned last year by Universities UK, only one-third of students and recent graduates decided to attend university to get a higher salary than they otherwise would have.
Modern students, it appears, are more interested in wellbeing and a good experience of being at University than netting a big paycheck once they’ve completed their courses.
Extra funding for further education colleges
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has revealed details of the additional £23m it will provide to Further Education colleges, including sixth forms and Adult Community Learning, for the next financial year.
It confirmed college staff will receive a 2.75% pay rise after the Welsh Government provided funding of £6m to ensure college teachers receive the same pay as school teachers.
The Welsh Government will also provide an additional £2m to develop mental health and well-being support in colleges across Wales. Up to £80,000 will be made available to individual colleges to support both students and staff. Up to £800,000 will also be available to support collaborative projects between colleges.
The Welsh Government will continue its £10m Skills Development Fund, designed for colleges to address gaps in job-specific skills in their areas, as identified by local employers. £5m will again be available for colleges to invest in staff professional development, including developing digital and Welsh-language skills.
Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, said: “Our further education colleges play a vital role in post-16 education in towns and cities all over Wales, as well as the wide range of services and employment opportunities they provide to local communities.
“Ensuring students of all ages can access mental health support is one of my priorities and I’m pleased we’re providing additional funding for colleges to develop their front-line support services.
“It’s also been an important principle for me that Further Education staff receive parity of pay with school teachers, so I’m delighted that this year’s pay increase has been agreed.”
Dafydd Evans, Chair of the Colleges Wales Principals’ Forum, said: “We are pleased to offer all FE staff a 2.75% pay rise and an additional rise to those entering the teaching profession.
“Our ongoing partnership with the Welsh Government will enable learners and employers to gain the skills they need while ensuring that FE colleges provide dynamic and rewarding careers for staff.”
NEU Cymru welcomed the extra funding for FE.
David Evans, Wales Secretary of the National Education Union Cymru said: “The pay rise for those working in FE in Wales is welcome. As well as extra support for much needed mental health provision. We hope that the support for mental health services will extend to those education professionals employed in FE. We know they work hard and need support.
“Pay parity with teachers was always the Commitment to the Welsh Government, as recognition of the parity of the roles. Education professionals in the FE sector are under a lot of pressure, but we hope this will go some way towards helping support FE into the new Century.
“We look forward to seeing the details and hope the funding will enable FE to continue as a much-valued service, supporting young people in Wales.”
PhD conference hears from Welsh researchers
WELSH agricultural researchers, Non Williams and Eiry Williams, showcased their work to academics and industry representatives at the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) 2020 Livestock PhD Conference in Nottingham last week.
Both researchers have been part of a scheme which brings the industry and universities together to undertake work which benefits key sectors of the economy. The two PhD’s are funded through the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS 2) scheme supported by European Social Funds through the Welsh Government and in these cases, Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) is working in partnership with Bangor University and Aberystwyth University on projects which will directly benefit livestock farming.
In the final year of her research at Bangor University, Non presented her work during the first day of the conference. Titled ‘Optimised management of upland pasture for economic and environmental benefits’, Non has been looking at how upland cattle systems can increase production efficiencies, the farms financial return and helping to identify opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will help meet the agricultural sector’s emission reduction target.
“Field trials were set up at Bangor University’s farm which is a typical upland system with the aim to determine the effect of improved and unimproved upland grazed pasture on cattle performance, improved grazed pasture on cattle urine and dung composition and consequently, greenhouse gas emissions from soil following excretion” explained Non.
On the second day of the conference, Eiry Williams presented her poster on sustainable control of gastrointestinal nematodes in sheep. Eiry’s PhD is titled ‘Design and development of a targeted selective treatment (TST) strategy for nematodes during the periparturient period in ewes’.
Eiry explains that “the aim of the project is to help better advise farmers on the most suitable worm control management of adult ewes and their lambs. This work is an important factor in preventing further development of anthelmintic resistance.” Eiry is currently in her second year at Aberystwyth University.
The aim of Eiry’s PhD is to design molecular and computational modelling techniques to develop a novel targeted selective treatment strategy for controlling nematode infections in ewes during the peri-parturient period.
Non has also been presenting results of her experiments on home turf at Coleg Meirion-Dywfor, Glynllifon and Coleg Sir Gar, Gelli Aur at two events organised by HCC as part of the Red Meat Development Programme which is supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
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