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Education

Pupils face phased return to school

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WALES’ teaching unions reacted cautiously to the Welsh Government’s announcement of a phased return to face-to-face schooling.


Most under-16s in Wales have not attended school since before Christmas. At that time, a rolling series of lockdowns in schools combined with parents’ anxieties to cut classroom time.


At the last minute, the Welsh Government abandoned a planned return to direct teaching for the current school term.


Since January, the overwhelming majority of under-16s have got their lessons online.


FIRST MINISTER SETS TARGET


Last Friday (Jan 29), Mark Drakeford announced the youngest children in Wales could begin returning to school after the February half-term. Their return will depend on rates of coronavirus continuing to fall. 


Rates of coronavirus across Wales have fallen below 200 cases per 100,000 people for the first time since early November. And every day, thousands more people receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine – the latest figures show almost 11% of the population have been vaccinated.


The return to primary school will be planned in a phased and flexible way from February 22, if the public health situation continues to improve. Students studying vocational qualifications will also be among those prioritised for the phased return to colleges.


However, those studying at Welsh universities will not return to their campuses until after Easter.


SCIENCE & SAFETY MUST LEAD WAY


Dilwyn Roberts-Young, UCAC General Secretary said “Everyone wants to see a return to face-to-face learning as soon as it is safe to do so – the advantages for children, young people, families and staff are clear.


“We welcome the fact that the final decision about any possible phased and flexible return will be based on the latest scientific and medical evidence. We note the need to provide schools and colleges with sufficient notice to put the relevant arrangements in place, before half term.


“We will continue discussions with the Welsh Government, local government and Further Education colleges to ensure that any return is as safe as possible for everyone. We will certainly be raising the issue of vaccinating staff in these discussions, as well as the need to ensure support for the mental, emotional and physical health of staff and pupils.”


First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We are making steady progress in bringing coronavirus under control once again. Every day, the vaccination programme is speeding up as more people are vaccinated and more clinics open. Each vaccine is another small victory against the virus.


“We’ve seen a really welcome fall in cases of the virus all over Wales, but they are still too high and the NHS continues to be under intense pressure.
“We need to keep the lockdown restrictions in place for a little while longer to help us bring rates of the virus down further. If we can do this, we will create the headroom we need to get children back to school after half term – starting with the youngest at primary schools


“We will work with teachers, colleges, local authorities to plan for the safe return of children to school over the next couple of weeks and keep parents updated.”


CAUTION CALLED FOR
NEU Cymru’s Senior Wales Officer, Gareth Lloyd, said: “We welcome that Welsh Government want to use any ‘headroom’ created by sustained efforts to suppress the virus, to support the education sector. We have highlighted the need for a range of measures to be put in place – such as smaller class sizes and social distancing. NEU Cymru continues to work with the Welsh Government to try and make any wider return as safe as possible. 


“We must be mindful that everyone will be apprehensive about a potential rise in the virus levels if we open up too quickly, so a phased approach is welcome, as a safe return is essential. 


“It is really important to remember that schools and colleges are open now, and that education professionals are working hard to support children and young people with their learning, through this challenging time for everyone. Educators want a full return to the classroom, as nothing is better than face-to-face learning for everyone. But sadly we are not in that place at the moment.”


Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru, said: “It has been a challenge for families to juggle employment and home-learning, and school leaders want to see nothing more than pupils back in class as soon as it is safe to do so.


“But it is clear that there are still too many unknowns, such as the effectiveness of the vaccine and the pace at which infections are falling, to put the February 22 date firmly in the diary yet.


“Talks have already begun between the Welsh Government and trade unions to make sure that there is a workable plan for lifting the lockdown. This includes reviewing all of the safety measures that schools have been using up to now, to make sure they are still effective.


“The Welsh Government will also have to put effort into reassuring families that it is safe to send their children back to school – there is a confidence test the government must pass to make the return a success.


“It is also important that the teaching workforce is prioritised for vaccinations. This would give confidence as well as providing a better chance that once lockdown measures are lifted, children’s education is less likely to continue to be disrupted by staff absence and illness.”


VACCINATE TEACHERS


The Welsh Government has so far resisted calls to move teachers up the priority list for vaccinations, although Suzy Davies, the Conservatives’ Shadow Minister for Education first called for it to do so at the beginning of January.


Speaking on January 8, Suzy Davies said: “Welsh Conservatives have called for early vaccination of school staff. Everyone recognises how the virus has damaged education, affecting pupils and teachers alike, and no stone should be left unturned.”


At the same time as making that call, Mrs Davies highlighted the digital deficit which discriminates between those with access to devices to enable remote learning and those without. This week, the Welsh Government confirmed it had provided thousands of devices and means of access to school students in need but could not identify how many children remained without online access.


Responding to the First Minister’s announcement last week, Suzy Davies said: “The effectiveness of remote online learning across all age groups during the pandemic has been at best patchy, and our young people’s education has consequently suffered terribly for almost a year now.


“So, we welcome the announcement that a phased return for pupils, beginning with primary-aged ones, will begin from February 22. It’s what Welsh Conservatives have advocated as a safe and sensible approach to take knowing that Coronavirus doesn’t seem to follow any sort of predictable pattern.


“What we want now is a can-do, will-do attitude to opening all our schools as quickly as possible”


“We’re all hoping that this lockdown will be the last one, and Welsh Conservatives will work with the government to make this happen because too many futures depend on it working.”


Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Education, Siân Gwenllian MS said that the safety of all pupils and school staff should be the main driver of policy in preparation for the reopening of schools.


Ms Gwenllian continued: “The UK Labour Party has called for teachers to be vaccinated, suggesting this be done during half term week ahead of schools re-opening. Yet – in Wales – the Labour government has ruled out prioritising giving teachers the vaccine.


“The safety of all pupils and school staff should be the main policy driver as we prepare

 
“Vulnerable groups should not be de-prioritised as the vaccine is rolled out, but the staff in school settings should be added to the second tranche of the rollout unless sufficient vaccine supplies allow them to be included earlier. This will give maximum confidence that schools can re-open as safely as possible.”

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Education

Major prize for UWTSD lecturer

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A UWTSD academic has been awarded the prestigious Henry Stopes Memorial Medal.
Based at the University’s Lampeter campus, Dr Martin Bates accepted the outstanding contribution award from the Geologists’ Association during an online ceremony on Friday 7 May. This prize is awarded just once every three years for exceptional work in the archaeological field and specifically ‘on the Prehistory of Man and his geological environment.’
During his career, Dr. Bates has been involved in several major discoveries within the UK archaeological field including the Dover Bronze Age Boat, the Clactonian Elephant butchery site in Ebbsfleet, the Harnham terminal Lower Palaeolithic site near Salisbury.
He discovered the Happisburgh human footprints in Norfolk (the oldest presently know in the world outside Africa).
It was noted during the presentation that the Henry Stopes Medal had been awarded to Dr Bates for his “significant contributions to understanding the geological environment of prehistoric human occupation of Britain and elsewhere over the last 40 years.”
It was also noted that in the spirit of the Geologists’ Association he was “generous with his time and expertise to colleagues, students and members of the public alike.”
Following the awards ceremony, Dr Martin Bates commented: “It is incredible to be recognised in this way and I’d like to thank the Geologists’ Association for this honour.  
“However, this award really reflects the support I have received through my career from a whole range of specialists who have provided me with the data I have used in my research. Without them I would not have been able to do what I have done”
“I think this all goes back to my very early days spent on the beaches of West Wales being dragged along on Saturday fieldtrips led by my father for students studying geology at Aberystwyth.  He has a lot to answer for!”

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Education

Students relying on free school meals fell further behind

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THE ATTAINMENT gap between disadvantaged primary school pupils and their classmates has grown in mathematics by one month since the onset of the pandemic, according to interim findings published this week by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

The findings are drawn from an ongoing EEF-funded study that aims to understand changes to the gap which might have occurred due to the periods of partial school closure resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes in mathematics seem to have been hit hardest by the first national lockdown, the attainment gap did not widen (or shrink) during the Autumn 2020 term.

Thar suggests that gaps caused by Covid are unlikely to close without intervention.

The research is based on assessment data collected by FFT Education from 132 primary schools prior to and after the first national lockdown.

The report did not measure the impact of school closures on overall learning progress (sometimes referred to as learning loss) but, instead, looked at the differences in progress between pupils eligible for free school meals and those that are not.

Data from reading and maths assessments (PIRA and PUMA tests) taken in Autumn 2019 was used as a baseline to track the trajectory of the attainment gap.

Pupils whose data was included in the sample were all in Years 1 to 5 (5-to-10-year-olds) during the academic year 2019-2020.

Reading and maths tests were administered to these same pupils on their return to the classroom in September 2020, and then again towards the end of the Autumn term 2020.

Disadvantaged pupils’ performance in the tests was compared to that of their classmates to examine changes to the attainment gap which might have resulted from the first period of partial school closures.

The analysis of these results indicates that pupils from socio-economically deprived backgrounds have fallen further behind in maths since the onset of the pandemic.

Contrary to previous estimates, this study found no discernible change to the disadvantage gap in reading.

The findings also highlight the difficulty of combatting educational inequality in classrooms.

Data collected from PIRA and PUMA assessments taken at the end of the Autumn term 2020 indicate the return of all pupils to school in September has not been sufficient in narrowing the gap.

Further analysis is currently underway.

A final data set will be collected in June 2021 to examine whether the disadvantage gap narrows, widens, or remains stable.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Today’s research gives us more evidence of the enormous impact school closures have had on young people, especially those from low-income homes.

“The research indicates the need for long-term, sustained support for schools as they work to accelerate the progress of their disadvantaged pupils.

“To mitigate against the long-term impact of lost learning, large government funding is required. The cost of failing to act now will be a catastrophe for young people from low-income homes.”

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The pandemic has brought the significance of social and educational inequality into sharp focus.

“Research studies like this one are providing clear evidence that substantial existing gaps have grown further due to the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic.

“In strategizing an approach to recovery, we are presented with the opportunity to go beyond restoring the learning lost during partial school closures, and work towards rebalancing the scales for disadvantaged pupils.”

Researchers from FFT Education said: “Our study makes a fresh contribution to the research on the effects of COVID.

“We find that attainment gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers have widened slightly in maths, but not reading.

“We also find that there were surprisingly weak associations between school responses to COVID – for example, phoning students during the lockdown – and attainment.”

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Education

Skills competition beats Covid restrictions

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THE ADVANCED Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) recently hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales.

Entrants visited the Academy on April 21 and 22 to complete challenges as part of the CNC section of the competition, which focuses on cutting metal using a computer-controlled machine.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the entrants completed their challenges two at a time in a controlled environment using machines that are well spaced apart.

Some of the entrants are apprentices at the Academy, which opened its doors last year with the aim of building the skills needed to deliver technologies that keep Wales’ manufacturing industry globally competitive.

It provides students with technical training to degree level, all within one facility in the IQ building in SA1, Swansea.

Working in partnership with three leading manufacturers – Mazak (machine tool supplier) Renishaw (measuring/inspection equipment) and Sandvik Coromant (material cutting tools supplier) the Academy is fully equipped to cater for the needs of a multitude of industry sectors.

The apprentices at the Academy are all currently employed trainee mechanical engineers who have been given the opportunity to study at the Academy as part of their apprenticeship programme to further enhance their technical skills using modern, high-end industry-standard equipment.

“We are able to provide them with full exposure to the technology and allow them to have valuable machine time without the added pressure often found within a manufacturing environment,” says Lee Pratt, manager of the Academy at UWTSD.

“To say I’m proud of these young engineers is an understatement!

“Given the limited amount of time to prepare for the skills competition due to COVID restrictions, they have gone above and beyond and are a credit to their employers.

“A big thanks to Adam Youens and the team for organising such a great competition, Mark Aspinall from competition sponsors Quickgrind and our 3 judges Steve Franklin, Steve Cope and Andrew John. I’m sure next year will be even bigger and better. On to the next competition now!”

Lee said hosting Skills Competition Wales was an important step in highlighting the work of the Academy as well as creating opportunities for its apprentices.

“This competition was an exciting opportunity to raise the profile of the Academy within the industry sector and hopefully attract further business,” said Lee. “We entered the apprentices into the competition to not only give them a platform to display their talents nationwide but also enhance their training with us.

“We believe that by taking them out of their comfort zone and placing them in a competition environment will expose them to some of the demands and pressures found daily in a modern manufacturing environment.”

The competition was held over a two-day period, during which competitors had seven hours to produce a component from a 2D drawing and 3D CAD (computer-aided design) model with the use of CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software and a CNC (computer numerical control) machining centre.

If the Academy’s apprentices are successful in the competition, they will be invited to attend the awards ceremony, which is usually held in Cardiff but is likely to be online this year due to Covid-19.

“We will then be putting them forward to compete in the World Skills Competition and hopefully gain squad selection,” said Lee. “They will then undertake a two-year training programme building up to the global competition due to take place in France 2023.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales

The competition comes at the end of a very positive first year for the Academy. It has run a highly successful pilot course with its first cohort of apprentices and has received some excellent feedback from industry, with employers reporting a significant rise in both ability and confidence amongst their apprentices.

“We are looking to further expand this training to upskill the existing workforce through a suite of bite size training modules in various disciplines,” said Lee.

This comes at a time when the impact of Covid-19 has heightened the need for these skills within the various industries served by the Academy.

Graduates equipped with high-level skills have a vital role to play in helping to stimulate economic growth during these uncertain times and beyond, and UWTSD has been working closely with Welsh Government, local authorities, and industry partners to deliver the skills and opportunities that will help rebuild the fabric of communities in Wales.

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