Making a difference at Key Stage 3

Stevie Upton unveils a new study on attainment by students aged 11 to 14 in Welsh schools

A major report on how the performance of students in their middle years in Welsh schools can be improved will be launched at a national conference in Cardiff on Tuesday 12 April.

Making a Difference at Key Stage 3 – Learning from five successful schools, the outcome of an 18-month project undertaken by the IWA, is being launched at a critical moment for the Welsh education system. Its publication comes in the wake of Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ judgement that there is a ‘systemic failure’ in Welsh schools. This trenchant view was prompted by our falling behind other nations in the latest PISA programme of international assessment – shown in the table below.

National Conference 12 April, WJEC, Cardiff

School leadership, Transition and Innovation at Key Stage 3

As well as launching the IWA’s new report, the conference will hear from Professor David Reynolds, of the University of Southampton and a Welsh Government education adviser, and Anna Brychan, Director of NAHT Cymru.  There will also be a session on Ceredigion’s innovative ‘Through School’ initiative, in which it is restructuring education in 3 to 19 schools in its more rural areas.

For more information and to book click here.

The research underlying our new report was conducted in response to observation of an apparent dip in performance among Welsh schoolchildren during Key Stage 3 – the first three years of secondary school. This dip has persisted over at least a decade. Comparative data suggests that performance in Wales is also falling behind that in other nations. Since Key Stage 3 performance lays the foundations for achievement at Key Stage 4, any indication that results are not as good as they could be is of serious concern.

Performance in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in reading, mathematics and science

Points scores
Reading Mathematics Science
2009 2006 2009 2006 2009 2006
Wales 476 481 472 484 496 505
England 495 496 493 495 515 516
Northern Ireland 499 495 492 494 511 508
Scotland 500 499 499 506 514 515
OECD average 493 492 496 498 501 500

The purpose of the research was to better understand, within the Welsh context, good practice at Key Stage 3. Having determined the key characteristics of successful schools, we sought to identify commonalities in their implementation. In addition to contributing to our understanding of how successful schools operate, our findings have a number of implications for Welsh education policy.

The first aim of the research was to identify the factors that contribute to outstanding performance. Analysis of data showing the value added by schools between KS2 and KS3 was used to select thirty Welsh secondary schools for further study. These schools were drawn from across the value added spectrum, with an equal number performing better than would be expected, as expected and less well than expected. Cross-referencing of details from their Estyn inspection reports led to identification of eleven factors of particular importance.

To understand which of these factors carries the greatest weight in successful schools, and how they are put into practice in different school environments, a final selection of five schools was made:

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

These schools were shown to be effective by their value added data, examination results and Estyn inspections. Collectively they do not form a representative sample of Welsh schools. However, they have been chosen for the insight that they can provide into the varied approaches to school improvement taken by successful schools facing quite different circumstances.

In the report, interview-based research, supplemented by documentary evidence, forms the basis for case study reports on each of the schools. In each case the features that contribute to the school’s success are identified, and the context within which those features are operationalised is detailed.

The detailed case studies demonstrate that excellent practice is occurring within Wales. There are features of this practice which are common to many or all of the schools.  These can be grouped under five headings:

  • Leadership, self-evaluation and external support.
  • Ethos – encompassing pupil engagement and the motivation and challenge of pupils.
  • Innovation in teaching and learning.
  • The gathering and use of data.
  • Approaches to resolving underachievement and basic skills deficits.

A focus on these factors forms the core of the schools’ success. It is in the detail of their implementation that the schools vary. Our report provides both comprehensive descriptions and a synthesis of the schools’ approaches. Taken together, it is hoped that they will inspire and inform practitioners in other schools and local authorities.

Although research commenced prior to the release of the 2009 PISA statistics and the subsequent Welsh policy response, the findings also provide insight into five issues addressed in the Education Minister’s recent speech, “Teaching makes a difference”. In the run up to our “School Leadership, Transition and Innovation at Key Stage 3” conference on 12 April we will be setting out these policy implications in greater detail.

Dr Stevie Upton is Research Officer with the IWA.

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