Schools Challenge Cymru: a progress report

Mel Ainscow says Schools Challenge Cymru must demonstrate that the Welsh approach can foster excellence and equity.

Working initially with 40 secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities (designated as the ‘Pathways to Success’), Schools Challenge Cymru is a national initiative that aims to have a major impact on the way that the Welsh education system works.  In particular, it sets out to make better use of resources, most importantly the expertise that exists within the system.  With this in mind, it aims to foster new, more fruitful working relationships: within and between schools; between schools and their local communities; and between national and local government.


At the end of the first year of the programme it is pleasing to report that progress in implementing our strategy has continued with pace.  The recent announcement of the provisional GCSE results provided an early indication of the impact.  Overall, the picture for the Pathways to Success schools is beyond my expectations.  Indeed, neither the London nor Manchester Challenges made the same progress after just one year.  This provides a strong foundation for our efforts to have a wider impact during the coming year.

Across the country there are particularly impressive results – staggering in some cases.  There is also evidence that carefully brokered partnerships between schools have been a powerful factor in bringing about these improvements.

Over the next few weeks we will be analysing these arrangements in more detail in order to determine the impact on progress in both schools in the partnerships.  Anecdotal evidence about this is already pointing to promising trends.  This is a potentially important finding in that it draws attention to a way of strengthening relatively low performing schools that can, at the same time, help to foster wider improvements in the system.  It also offers a convincing argument as to why a strong school should support other schools.  Put simply, the evidence is that by helping others you help yourself

Inevitably, there are a few results that were disappointing.  In these cases we will need to dig deeper and analyse what to do next.  In some instances, we are talking about schools where we have had to deal with extremely difficult circumstances, such that significant changes in leadership and/or governance were necessary.  Inevitably, these have been time-consuming.  It is pleasing to report that these changes are all now completed and I expect to see significant progress in the next few months.

Positive factors

In looking to the second year we will want to build on the strategies that have proved to be successful during the last twelve months.  In particular, these are as follows:

  • The work of the Advisers – this has, in my view, been the most powerful lever for change.  Our emphasis on ‘high trust, high accountability’ has meant that the team of expert Challenge Advisers has had considerable autonomy to analyse particular contexts and get behind those within the schools in implementing changes.

  • Professional learning – It is very clear that the rapid progress that has been achieved in many of the schools has resulted from the introduction of new forms of professional learning for practitioners.  These are based on the findings of international research regarding what makes professional development powerful as a strategy for school improvement.

  • The Accelerated Improvement Boards – I have been surprised by the positive impact of these arrangements for coordination.  Their power seems to be that they emphasise the importance of headteachers themselves taking responsibility for improvement strategies, using a small number of key outsiders as sources of support and challenge.

Some reflections

Recently there has been much media attention focused on comparing the performance of Welsh schools with those in England.  Given the differences that now exist regarding forms of assessment between the two countries, this is becoming increasingly pointless.  What is interesting, however, is the style of the different national improvement strategies being developed in the two countries.  These are clearly based on very different ‘theories of change’.

Put simply, the English approach concentrates on the power of competition between schools to drive up standards, with little or no involvement of communities, including local authorities.  There is evidence that this is leading to increased segregation within the system in England.  It is, therefore, likely to create losers as well as winners.

In stark contrast, the Welsh approach emphasises inclusiveness, not least through the involvement of many partners working cooperatively to achieve success for all learners.  The danger of such an approach is that it might lead to an acceptance of mediocrity – a belief that satisfactory is acceptable.

For me, Schools Challenge Cymru must demonstrate that the Welsh approach can be successful in ways that foster both excellence and equity.  In this sense, I was much encouraged by the comment of one headteacher who, having seen his school achieving massive improvements in the recent examination results, said: ‘Yes, but it is still not good enough’.

Mel Ainscow CBE is the Welsh Government’s Champion for Schools Challenge Cymru. He is also Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Equity of Education at the University of Manchester.

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