THE HOTSEAT: Goddard Park head Mike Welsh on education in Swindon and beyond

This Is Wiltshire: Goddard Park Primary School headteacher Mike Welsh Goddard Park Primary School headteacher Mike Welsh

IN THE hotseat this week is Mike Welsh, Goddard Park Primary School headteacher and former president of the National Association of Headteachers.

He has been answering education-related questions from our readers this week.

Most recently, Mike was in the news discussing the Government's announcement that all schools must provide a hot meal for all pupils in Years 1 and 2 by September.

Mike, whose school was recently given a glowing report from Ofsted, will be here to answer your questions on Ofsted inspections and criteria, recent teacher strikes and much more.

Nick Clegg’s policy of free school meals sure sounds good but can the country afford it? And does it actually make a difference to kids’ attainment?

I am not the Chancellor so I can't comment on its affordability, but I would pose the point - can we afford not to do this? 40% of my children already receive free school meals. The idea of all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in Primary gaining a free school meal is very positive. Studies have shown the improvements that children make at this time are vital to their future. The main question is - will this reform be properly funded in the short and long terms as it cannot be absorbed into existing budgets?

Why is it we parents can’t take our children out of school at term time because ‘every day is so important to their education’ and yet teachers can strike when they want?

We have two fundamental issues here. The right of children to receive a good education for which they need to have a very high attendance to make the most of. At the same time any worker has the right to withdraw their labour and lose the pay involved.

The recent classroom teacher strike by one union meant that three classes in my school were closed for the day. I am keen to see children attend and following a tightening of the rules this school year have seen a distinct improvement.

If any Government wishes to change its view on either of these it would need to convince the public and those involved, that any settlement respects these hard working public servants.

There is a growing rift between the profession and successive governments which is not healthy. The Social Partnership favoured a few, whilst currently we have megaphone diplomacy.

As a headteacher I feel I just have to do my very best for my children in every circumstance.

What are your thoughts on Michael Gove’s reforms of the education system? Are they working?

Educational reform is not something you can judge overnight. Children have several years in the formal system and it cannot be seen like a football match with a quick fix of putting a substitute on. In my own experience the independence of being Swindon's first standalone Primary Academy has been very positive.

The new National Curriculum places even more pressure on primary schools taking on areas formerly taught in Secondary. Successive Governments keep piling on more and more for schools to cover. This must stop.

Other reforms such as Secondary examinations will be judged over time.

Changing structures by itself though does not raise standards.

This is done by high quality teaching in the classroom, from hard working and committed professional teachers.

We still have too much change. It is time to let teachers get on with the job. What would football be like if the authorities made 17 rule changes each year?

If you were Michael Gove, what would your priorities be for reforming education?

I have been a headteacher for 28 years and for over 25 years we have had radical reform of the Education system. This has sometimes involved excellent change to raise standards, and at many other times confusing, contradictory and unhelpful tinkering e.g. OFSTED changed its Inspection system three times in two years. I welcome accountability, but we need some consistency. I would fervently hope that any Secretary of State would virtually stop any further change for five years and let high quality teaching flourish. We might need a Royal Commission to agree a political and professional consensus over the longer term. Children would benefit immensely.

Shouldn’t schools do more to protect children from the so-called ‘cyber-bullies’?

We do an enormous amount on this with children and staff as part of our Safeguarding approach, but whilst we can do something in school time, much of this exists beyond school hours. We can raise awareness and encourage children to see that everyone loses in 'cyber-bullying', but Parents also have a major role to play in ensuring their child does not do this or check if they are suffering from it. Modern communications can be a great bonus, but also have severe drawbacks. We take a zero tolerance view.

Why do so few kids from Swindon make it to university?

I love my town. I recognize it's many positives, but also know there are still some downsides. One of the largest towns in the country not to have its own university is a major one. This would provide access, bring a wider student population, and would act as a role model. For the last two years we have been part of a Raising Aspirations programme with the Dorcan Learning Cluster, taking our Year 5 (10-year-olds) for a day at Bath University, meeting students and seeing what their life and work involves.

Swindon was a world leader in locomotive technologies. It has a proud history in engineering including car manufacture, and also now financial services. We have a University Technical College opening in the near future. I want my children and all Swindon children to be the very best they can be.

Adult literacy is at an all-time low, surely this starts with getting kids to read from an early age and not be glued to their iPads and games. What are teachers doing to encourage reading and writing?

I want young children to grow up with curiosity about the world around them and a keenness to make sense of it. This requires the ability to read and write. The use of iPads and games is not necessarily negative. iPads in particular are an amazing tool for children to use. It is though a question of balance for parents and schools. I always encourage parents to take their children to the local and central Libraries in Swindon which are a fantastic resource. Children should have books as presents from the earliest age. One of my pleasures is the daily reading of a story to young children.

In Schools, we devote a substantial amount of time in developing a child's competency and enjoyment in reading and writing, and using these skills across the curriculum. My children regularly communicate with their twin school in Nairobi. They write letters, and also Skype using iPads. Children need a range of quality skills, knowledge and understanding for their future world.

With so many schools becoming academies, aren’t they simply small businesses running free from local authority control? Sounds like privatisation through the back door to me.

In my own experience the independence of being Swindon's first standalone Outstanding Primary Academy has enabled more local people to be involved in the running of the School, without further bureaucracy. Our goals are getting the best for our children not making a profit.

Our engagement with public, private and voluntary sector suppliers is a question of who best provides that service for our children.

Local Government financial settlements in recent years have in any case moved it from a major supplier of services to one which commissions these from the best provider. It is essential that all providers and suppliers have staff employed on good contracts that value their work.

As an Academy we have a No Detriment policy that does exactly this. It is important to value staff and maintain both salary levels and conditions of service to have a highly motivated team.

Are free schools the best way forward for our children?

The case for Free Schools could only be made in my view when there are unique circumstances. One would be in a village when it was losing it's School and it could be proved that there was no viable alternative. It would be essential to prove that local people were willing to take on the long-term responsibility of running a school.

A Free School in North Swindon is at its initial planning stages, but there are already significant concerns that if such a school also covered the primary age group it could have a negative impact upon existing good schools in the area. Creating unnecessary capacity of school places is not a good use of Government resources.

It is yet to be decided.

In the hotseat next week is Chief Fire Officer Simon Routh-Jones. Send your questions to him by emailing newsdesk@swindonadvertiser.co.uk.

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