Terry Mackie, former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport Council
‘Poor leadership and guidance AGAIN Kirsty for anybody working in the educational sector…… what about Year 11 assessments?’
‘Are you going to change the plans again…..Oh come on Kirsty!’
‘Admit we’re closing until half-term….if only there was such a thing as online learning!’
‘Not just setting work and getting child to self-teach…..online teaching should have been top priority in July.’
These aren’t my words – although similar sentiments may have been racing through my mind – but a representative sample of the online reactions to Education Secretary Kirsty Williams’ announcement via Twitter on 4th January that Welsh schools would close only until 18th January (or “move to online learning” as she gamely euphemised).
Mrs Williams is fast losing the dressing room of public support. Once lauded as ahead of the game and decisive, she is now seen as both rash and dithery simultaneously.
What has gone wrong for her? Firstly, overall confidence of the Welsh Government’s handling of the Coronavirus emergency is leaking away.
Mark Drakeford is no longer perceived as a steady hand in a crisis, and the constant questions over the national organisation of vaccinations reflect a draining away of public confidence.
As trust in the overall Welsh Government strategy has ebbed, so has public perceptions of Kirsty Williams.
But the Education Secretary has made her own mistakes, too. Only three days after committing to reopening schools on 18 January she was forced to U-turn on closing schools until half-term, coming to that conclusion after it was obvious to everyone else that it had to happen.
And this Wednesday she abandoned her own unworkable policy of replacing exams with dozens of WJEC exam board assessments. This embarrassing volte-face was, again, entirely predictable. Don’t take my word for it – I had in fact predicted it here on Nation Cymru on 2nd January, calling her whole approach “a perfect dud”.
How quickly things can change in a crisis. After a summer when they seemed to have the wind in their sails, the whole Welsh Government on the back foot, and Mrs Williams, like other ministers, seems prone to sending mixed messages, back-pedalling and being forced to change her mind as the virus worsens by the day. Remarkably she made England’s Gavin Williamson look authoritative in his announcing definite closures until half-term.
And she still can’t quite make up her mind; another review of closures will take place on 29th January. This “in and out hokey-cokey act”, as one education union leader described it, is losing the trust and patience pf parents, young people and teachers.
But there is one huge bugbear, above and beyond closures and exams, that fills our families with dread and frustration: home-schooling.
On Twitter, one mother memorably said: “don’t get me started about crap online learning”. Parents have been saying so for nine long months: too few live lessons, death by PDF worksheets, plus an inexcusable lack of devices and home data for disadvantaged households.
Over 2020 Wales made unacceptable national progress planning for online learning. Estyn said as much in a recent report, which rightly did not spare the Government. This is now the biggest and ‘loudest’ issue for the minister to focus on making immediate improvements.
I propose the Education Secretary doubles-down on three specific Coronavirus solutions.
She should strain every sinew in achieving maximum IT device and data access to all families. Stop hiding the problems of ordering and distribution behind a blame-game with councils and the four education consortia. If necessary give an immediate cash budget to schools who have on-the-ground information of household deficits. Speed is of the essence. There can be no excuse for any disadvantaged child or family missing out after more than nine months.
Secondly, set up (this can be done in five days) a parental helpline for online learning. This is about national direct advice to struggling mothers, fathers and all caregivers. I would redeploy all Estyn inspectors (what are they actually doing?) to this service. Their training and management should come from our learning experts in the consortia. Recruit former teachers to help out if more numbers are needed. Families must be provided with the support and confidence to air concerns, listen to professional advice and report any technical issues, including lack of hardware and software.
Lastly, Mrs Williams must get her mojo back as soon as possible. She must stand up for her clearly strong family values and if needs be face down her Labour Cabinet colleagues when they lapse into even more policy and logistical vacillation. There has been quite enough rowing back, especially in education. Since the fiasco of the firebreak and the horrendous escalation of Covid-19 in Wales Mrs Williams and her colleagues have been playing a losing game of pandemic catch-up. Home-schooling has been its principal victim.
The Welsh Government had a dodgy start to the Covid crisis, but recovered. Mrs Williams is now floundering but she can, with an immediate change of tack and tone, wrest back control for struggling learners and their families.
She will leave the Senedd in May after 22 years of distinguished service, and no doubt to be remembered as the successful architect of the New Curriculum for Wales, the ‘mission’ to which she has dedicated most of her four-year ministry.
But no one can choose their own legacy. What matters most, and what may well be remembered above all else, is the here and now – that is the provision and quality of learning in this terrible crisis.
Terry Mackie was the former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport Council. His 2019 book ‘The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light’ is available by emailing him at email@example.com.