Sian Gwenllian MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister
If there’s one thing the current Coronavirus crisis has taught us, it’s that our education system can’t be taken for granted.
With the pandemic turning our schools into support hubs, parents have had to juggle their own work and personal commitments, with child care and home schooling. It has also exposed how entrenched poverty and the so-called “digital divide” is in our society as some children who lack access to adequate broadband and kit will inevitably lose out.
Teachers and classroom assistants are endeavoring to be as flexible as possible, but such apparent inequalities mean that it’s difficult to reach one consistent model of teaching that is suitable to all. Inevitably some will fall behind.
The schools that have remained open are providing fantastic care and provision to vulnerable children and the children of key workers and staff must be commended for their flexibility and their tireless work in keeping these children safe.
The crisis has shown the role that schools play in protecting and supporting thousands of children – from providing free school meals to ensuring vital mental health and well-being support.
This pandemic has also uncovered the fragility of the childcare sector and without a package of support from the Welsh Government, many settings are threatened with permanent closure.
Meanwhile, supply teachers find themselves falling through the cracks of support offered by both UK and Welsh Governments. Teachers are key workers, yet the recruitment and retention of teachers within the teaching profession in Wales is currently in crisis.
The pandemic has shown us how vital our education system is and has forced us to reflect on what now must change.
A strong education system must consider all aspects of support, from early years education and child care through to the support we offer our young people later on in their lives.
Our teachers are key workers. Their contribution to society is essential and should no longer be undervalued.
Even before the crisis hit, the recruitment and retention of teachers within the teaching profession in Wales was in crisis.
As we discover a newfound appreciation for our teachers and the incredible work they do, we should also realise that the profession needs a substantial boost making it an attractive and satisfying career once again.
There is no better time than now, as we recognise them as key workers, to raise the status of teachers in a society that will lead to recruiting more excellent teachers and helping to retain staff.
Teachers must be allowed to dedicate their time to teaching and inspiring their pupils, making the needs of the child central to all they do.
In order to attract, recruit and retain teachers in the classroom Plaid Cymru would offer suitable incentives and better support to new teachers as they train and qualify. In the early years of their careers, we would offer specific career pathways that are not necessarily associated to leadership, rewarding effective teachers and encouraging them to stay in the classroom,. We would offer alternative routes into the profession and support schools in adopting flexible working agreements.
But it’s not just full-time teachers. It’s supply teachers, too.
Many across the teaching profession will have noticed the way in which supply teachers have been left behind as packages of support for various professions have been revealed from both UK and Welsh Governments. Supply teachers are employed through agencies, through local authorities, are self-employed, are on short or long term contracts, are on zero-hours contracts and many have fallen in between the cracks of support, ineligible for anything.
We need to establish an effective national supply system with fair working conditions.
And what of early years care and childcare?
As with the entire care sector, a new appreciation has developed for the child care sector during this pandemic. Without access to childcare providers, parents have had to juggle work and care under one roof.
This pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the childcare sector and without a package of support from the Welsh Government, many settings are threatened with permanent closure.
There is a substantial body of international evidence that argues that increased investment and widening access to education and care during a child’s early years leads to better learning outcomes, tackles inequality and leads to and better employment opportunities for parents who wish to return to work while they have young children. The OECD has deemed Early Childhood Education and Care “the greatest of equalizers”.
With levels of child poverty in Wales reaching one in three, a figure that is sadly expected to worsen in the short-term, PISA ratings that are well below the OECD average and a growing attainment gap between our poorest and richest children and young people, we must present a comprehensive suite of policy proposals that represent the most far-ranging set of anti-poverty measures in Wales since devolution. A comprehensive, inclusive, high-quality early years education and care service should form a key part of this offer.
The extraordinary experience which we have all shared these past weeks must become a shining light illuminating a new set of values and priorities for the way we want to live in the future.
We cannot simply return to what some are already calling a new normal.
We cannot return to undervaluing, under-resourcing and under-funding our education system and its teachers.
Every child in every community and home in Wales should have the same opportunities no matter where they’re from or in what circumstances they are growing up.
Out of the Coronavirus crisis, we must build back better and with Plaid Cymru’s vision and determination, we will do so – building a world-class education system for our children and all future generations to come.