Wednesday 16 June 2021

Questions for a DGS candidate from members in Wales

As part of the ongoing nominations stage of the campaign to elect the NEU's first elected Deputy General Secretary, two all-Wales hustings have been organised for NEU Cymru members.

As I explained at the first of those hustings, hosted by Caerphilly NEU on 10 June, the devolution of powers to the Welsh Government presents a somewhat different context for educators in Wales - but also some different opportunities for collective organisation.

Up to now, Wales has managed to avoid the break-up of education into academy chains that has inflicted so much damage in England, and won curriculum changes that at least move closer to putting the needs of children and educational expertise first, rather than the narrowing of the curriculum enforced by SATs in England.

Of course, contradictions remain, and NEU Cymru members will know that for change to be implemented properly, it requires time for training and curriculum development and funding for sufficient staffing and resources.

Therefore, the issue of education funding remains a key one. The Westminster Government announcement of recovery expenditure of just £50 per pupil is clear evidence that they have no intention of investing in children’s futures. In Wales, as the block grant  has fallen, so has education spending fallen - by 6% in real-terms - and there is good reason to fear that Westminster will seek to cut further still.

Therefore, NEU Cymru, alongside the whole of the NEU, is going to need to organise to expose the cuts and the unmet needs of our learners and build a united community campaign to demand the funding that’s needed.

But the fact that education decisions are devolved gives the Union organising avenues that aren’t open in the same way in England. For example, the work done by the Union and its supply activists showed how pressure led to gains on an all-Wales basis with the New Framework Agreement for supply teachers. But, of course, those gains have been limited while agencies continue to ignore those pay rates – and the battle continues to win the direct employment of supply teachers paid according to the STPCD and as part of the TPS.

But, as well as that continued campaign for supply colleagues, I would want to discuss with NEU Cymru members whether a campaign could be fought to win a National Contract for Wales for all education staff. I have long argued that the NEU should bring together they key concerns around pay, working hours and education into one unified campaign for such a new National Contract for all. But, as was achieved in some Local Authorities through winning ‘workload charters’, while building such a campaign on a union-wide basis, we should also look to make gains through individual employers and, through putting pressure on the Welsh Government, across Wales.

Here is a shortened version of my contribution, posted to YouTube:

Here is my A4 leaflet setting out my "Manifesto for Wales" - please download a copy from here.

Since the hustings, I have been asked to respond to a couple of supplementary questions which there was not time to answer at the hustings. Here are my replies:

1) "What commitment will you be making to listening to Welsh educators and can you give practical examples of how you will do this? 

I want to restate the commitment that I made at the hustings last week that, "in electing me, you will have a DGS who listens and takes account of different points of view" and "who recognises the need to go out to engage many members not involved in the Union". 

This commitment, of course, applies to educators across the Union but certainly to educators in Wales who are working in a devolved system which differs in some important ways from England. In listening to the experiences of educators in Wales, the Union also needs to ensure that it exchanges those experiences with colleagues from the rest of the Union, and, indeed, vice versa. In that way, lessons that may be learned on, say, curriculum changes in Wales, or, for example, on SEN/ALN issues in England, can be shared to best effect. 

Fundamentally, of course, educators across the whole Union face the same pressures of funding cuts and excessive workload and these over-arching campaigns must be fought union-wide, bringing together educators from every nation. As DGS, I will strive to ensure that Union policy is written in a way that is applicable to educators across the Union to facilitate such united campaigning. I would also want to remind the various policy and campaigns teams at Head Office that the particular context of Wales is also always remembered in their work and proposals.

Practically, as a DGS committed to listening to the voices of members, it goes without saying that I will make myself available to speak to members in Wales both in person and through online conferencing. For example, I would be very happy to speak to, and discuss with, members at the Wales Council and NEU Cymru Conference. I would also hold regular "meet with Martin" calls where members could raise issues with me directly as DGS.

However, I believe that the key to making sure the voices of Welsh educators are heard, and, indeed, to ensure that the whole Union is  genuinely “a lay-led Union” in practice, is to have thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, my commitment would be, firstly, to provide leadership that emphasised the importance of building those structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, and, secondly, to make sure the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon by the Union.

District meetings need to be well advertised, regularly held, and built for, with discussion topics that will attract members. The agendas should make sure workplace reps are given a voice and, at the same time, a direction to address the issues they are facing. For example, I would be keen to discuss further whether the possibility of a campaign around a "National Contract for Wales", seeking negotiations with the Welsh Government on key demands around pay, workload and staffing, might be one that would build interest and support.

I know that supply members have already done important work in Wales. This provides an example of how networks can be built bringing together educators facing particular issues for the Union, for example, as well as supply educators, support staff, women and young educators. 

As DGS, I would commit to helping NEU Cymru in building in this way, and to discuss with Executive members and NEU Cymru what resources and staffing might be needed. Through such an approach, I hope NEU Cymru would grow and be strengthened and the voice of Welsh educators more clearly heard, not just by me as DGS, but within Local Districts, within the Union as a whole and, of course, by both the Welsh and Westminster governments!

2) "How would candidates ensure fairness in performance management procedures for ALN Teachers, as the current one size fits all approach by using mainstream standards is not always fair?

This is certainly a concern that is not restricted to Wales but is raised by SEN and ALN teachers across the Union, as well as by staff more generally. I have provided advice as a caseworker on the issue, as I explain below. However, fundamentally, performance management procedures will remain inherently unfair whilst linked to performance pay and a model of pupil progress which places too much emphasis on narrow learning outcomes. Therefore, while giving advice to support ALN teachers right now, we must also raise the wider need to win a new National Contract that, as I have called for in a motion tabled at the NEU Annual Conference 2021 agenda, includes the demand for guaranteed pay progression and an end to performance-related pay. It was a pity that this specific demand was removed in a "delete all and replace" amendment when debated at the NEU National Executive in May. I certainly hope that, with further discussion, this demand will be included in our campaign for a new 'National Contract for Education'.

The emphasis on 'pupil progress' is based on a false linear model that assumes all children progress at a prescribed rate. It has led in too many schools to a damaging emphasis on "RAG" rating of pupil progress, placing unhealthy pressure on both staff and students. This is, of course, even more the case with children with Additional Learning Needs. Education must be based on a more holistic viewpoint that emphasises progress in social and emotional terms too. Perhaps the 'four purposes' in the new curriculum in Wales - and specifically the aim to develop "healthy, confident individuals" - can be used as an argument to support ALN staff in resisting a narrow application of performance management targets. Instead, performance management targets should be based on this wider aim.

Specifically, in terms of casework advice, then I attach some guidance that I produce as Lewisham NUT Secretary in 2015. While this was general advice to all members based on policies specific to this London Local Authority at that time, I believe that there are points within it that can still be generalised in answer to the query about ALN staff performance management. In particular, it advises that, rather than accepting numerical targets which cannot possible be genuinely ‘SMART’, targets should be agreed that link to the work that the teacher is doing in a more general way. One example that I listed, which might have been appropriate for a London-based SEN/ALN teacher, was "work to develop distinctive teaching approaches to support those pupils with English as an additional language". 

I hope that's helpful but, as the questioner implies, the real solution is not, of course, via individual casework, but to change the basis of our existing performance management system and to break its link with narrow pupil progress and performance pay.

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