How to improve education in Wales

Stevie Upton outlines the main results of a major IWA research project into school attainment in Wales at Key Stage 3

Continuous monitoring of individual pupils’ performance – coordinated using school-wide computer systems – is one of the most powerful tools schools have for improving education outcomes. Detailed knowledge of each pupil facilitates rapid, targeted responses at the first signs of underachievement. This is a major conclusion of a year-long study carried out by the IWA into the operation of five successful secondary schools across Wales.

The IWA’s report into the experience of pupils in their early years in secondary school, at Key Stage 3 between the ages of 11 and 14, found this to be a common factor in all five schools studied. Schools maintain comprehensive datasets, including information on achievement, attendance, homework completion, support received and behaviour. The report, Making a Difference at Key Stage 3, finds that:

“Taking regular snapshots of performance was consistently described as being critical to the maintenance of pupil progress. Only through regular and comprehensive monitoring can teachers pinpoint the pupils who are at risk of underachieving. Assessing progress across all subjects is also essential, as it serves to emphasis the importance of the target system. Moreover, it contributes to a fuller understanding of a pupil’s overall trajectory, and hence to a precise understanding of the causes of underperformance.”

The report also recommends that the Welsh Government provides funding for under-performing schools to learn from better performing schools. It says that direct observation is key to the transference of best practice.

National Conference

School Leadership, Transition and Innovation at Key Stage 3

The Institute’s research was funded by a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Making a Difference at Key Stage 3 will be launched at a national conference tomorrow, Tuesday 12 April at the WJEC offices in Llandaf, Cardiff. Places at the conference are still available and can booked, at – click on events.

Good practice is a notoriously bad traveller. But people who actually go and see it happening on the ground are more likely to pick up on elements that will work for them, enabling them to implement more effective change. Schools that are already good seek to learn, while those most in need of learning from others rarely do so. These schools need incentives to systematically engage with best practice.

The five case study schools featured in the IWA’s report are:

  • Cwmtawe Community School, Neath Port Talbot
  • Newtown High School, Powys
  • St Joseph’s R.C. High School, Newport
  • Ysgol David Hughes, Anglesey
  • Ysgol y Preseli, Pembrokeshire

They were chosen following a statistical analysis of the performance in 222 Welsh secondary schools and a study of their Estyn reports. The report says the five schools stand out for the time and effort their staff put into creating a challenging yet engaging learning environment. In the schools:

  • Highly ambitious targets are set for the pupils, progress towards which is monitored by senior managers.
  • Each pupil is mentored by a single teacher.
  • The pupils are actively engaged in school decisions.
  • Staff are involved in regular self-evaluation which leads to ongoing programmes for improvement.

In addition the schools displayed:

1)   An ongoing focus on leadership and self-evaluation.

2)   Development of a strong school ethos.

3)   Innovation in teaching and learning.

4)   Maintenance of all-encompassing databases of pupil information.

5)   Use of the data to ensure that all pupils progress, and to inform rapid, targeted responses for those who do not.

Making a Difference at Key Stage 3 also stresses that schools need the freedom to remain responsive to local context, even as they are made more accountable to Government. The five successful schools profiled in the report have all adopted a rigorous and structured approach to improvement, but each is highly innovative and able to adapt to changing circumstances. The report concludes that a wholly centralised approach to school improvement would be ineffective.

The report comes in the wake of the publication of poor PISA data in December 2010, in which Wales was shown to be falling behind the rest of the UK and other comparable OECD countries. The study preceded the seminal Teaching Makes a Difference speech by Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews in February 2011.  However, the report’s findings address the main content of his agenda for change.

Copies of Making a difference at Key Stage 3 can be purchased a£10 (IWA members receive a 25 per cent discount) here.

Stevie Upton is Research Officer with the IWA.

One thought on “How to improve education in Wales

  1. I attended this event and I found it very interesting. I would like to see something similar on change in schools that serve areas where there is significant deprivation.

    Points were made about the challenges of dissemination of best practice. This is happening in a small grassroots way via twitter [#addcym] and TeachMeets. We need to create the right conditions to enable more of this to happen.

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