Bridging the gap between policy-making and teaching: Inspiration from Wales

14 October 2020

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Wozzie / Shutterstock.com
An old school building used as an outdoor education centre in Aberllefenni, Gwynedd, Wales, UK.

The core values of teaching never change. Yet, teaching methods and support for teachers in their mission are constantly evolving. As part of an ongoing research collaboration, IIEP-UNESCO and Education Development Trust (EdDevTrust) highlight a professional development programme for head teachers in Wales, the United Kingdom. This programme is giving new voice to the profession as it bridges the gap between policy-making and teaching. 

Since 2018, head teachers in Wales can apply to become Academy Associates with the National Academy for Education Leadership (NAEL). The idea is to enable outstanding head teachers to be not only better school leaders, but education system leaders. By placing them in-between policy and practice, the associates are able to speak with “government and experts as the authentic voice of practicing school leaders.” 

While the role itself is rather flexible – head teachers have a lot of agency to create their own position – the three-year professional development programme includes seminars with education leaders, one-on-one coaching, access to a community of practice, and a research-based policy project, called a ‘Commission.’ It is designed so the Associates hone their confidence levels as they act as ambassadors of the Academy, changing the very nature of what it means to be a leader, in schools across Wales. So far, three cohorts have joined, extending to approximately thirty head teachers, giving rise to a new generation of school leaders. 

Here are three takeaways:

Foster trust and collaboration

The importance of teacher collaboration has emerged as one of the early benefits of this programme in Wales. “The participants are experiencing a mindset shift towards collaboration and trust, and as a result of their exposure to research and peer experiences, the Associates are more open-minded now,” says IIEP-UNESCO researcher Chloé Chimier. “They are bringing back to their school a culture of collective ‘enquiry’, trying to come up with solutions to problems in a collaborative way, as well as to foster continued improvement by engaging the whole school community and in particular by giving teachers a voice.”

“We have moved from, ‘Ah yeah, but that wouldn’t work in my school.’  There is a joint understanding about trying to make a difference for the benefit of all no matter what your background,” said one head master. 

The head teachers are also more involved beyond their individual schools and have cultivated a sense of collective responsibility among school clusters – a major breakthrough from the traditional tendency of having schools in the same vicinity compete with each other. “We have moved from, ‘Ah yeah, but that wouldn’t work in my school.’  There is a joint understanding about trying to make a difference for the benefit of all no matter what your background,” said one head master in an interview for IIEP-UNESCO and EdDevTrust’s research on the programme. 

Encourage a voice for the profession 

Public policy has many implications for teaching yet there is often a disconnect between what happens in schools, and in government. The Academy Associates in Wales is an interesting example of how to bridge this gap: head teachers can access policy-makers while remaining strongly connected to teachers. “We could bring our professional voice on behalf of our colleagues into decision making in the system before the decisions actually came out, really influencing things,” said one interviewee.

Head teachers could “translate” policy changes so that they were more digestible and support teachers to implement and experiment in schools,” says Ella Page, a research officer with EdDevTrust. 

The timing of this programme is also important: it is borne out of a period of intense educational reform over the past decade. “Some teachers were concerned about the changes. Head teachers could “translate” policy changes so that they were more digestible and support teachers to implement and experiment in schools. This has mitigated anxiety and brought other educators on board to trust the reform process,” says Ella Page, a research officer with EdDevTrust. As a result, the Associates are playing an important role in successfully implementing education reform, and notably a major curriculum overhaul. 

“The idea of giving voice to head teachers, and access to policy-making is very interesting. It is not very often that policy-makers dialogue with practitioners.” Chloé Chimier, IIEP-UNESCO researcher.

While the programme is still in its nascence, the Associates have been able to drive change, especially with the Commission – a policy-linked research exercise and report – on professional learning opportunities. “[The associates] highlighted the need for more time for professional learning … As a result of that report, for example, we’ve got an additional day for professional learning in schools this academic year.  So, their voice is starting to be heard … it’s a little bit early days but there are signs that they are influencing the system as system leaders,” said one interviewee. 

Enable the rise of leadership roles at the ‘middle tier’

How can the global education community break away from the quintessential image of the teacher, isolated in the classroom? IIEP-UNESCO is currently working with Education Development Trust on good practices to help support teachers and develop professional growth for the benefit of the entire education system. The research is looking especially at one interesting new trend in teacher leadership: the rise of expert practitioners who are promoted to leadership roles at the ‘middle tier’ – or district or sub-district level – of education systems. Professionals in such roles are working across schools and localities to improve teaching and learning, and typically include functions such as teacher mentors, pedagogical coaches, and in the case of Wales, head teachers who act as system leaders. 

“When structures change, individuals are transformed,” says Barbara Tournier, an IIEP-UNESCO researcher. 

While all six of the programmes  (Delhi, Jordan, Kenya, Rwanda, Shanghai and Wales) being investigated are context-specific, there is much inspiration to draw from for the global teaching community. From Wales, this definitely means the inclusion of collaboration, professional development, and dialogue in and beyond the school setting as an important part of teacher reform. 

“When structures change, individuals are transformed,” says Barbara Tournier, an IIEP-UNESCO researcher. “Support structures for teachers should span an entire education system. We need to create a positive dynamic between teachers and structures of the education system.”

 

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