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.

12 thoughts on “Schools Challenge Cymru: a progress report

  1. Yes, the author is correct to point out that comparisons between England and Wales in terms of education are now meaningless. Similarly so when it comes to matters of health and social care and local government.

    Wales get poorer, England gets richer. But at least the we’ve still got the language, a Celtic language imported from where and at a time we know not. Nor do we seem to very much care from where this language came just as long as it can be used to remind us of ‘difference’. Difference where no difference has ever existed other than that introduced by devolution.

    Is this what the people of Wales wanted when they voted in 1997?

    I suspect not now.

  2. Without wanting to suggest any grounds for complacency, it is really heartening to read some good news about the Welsh education system.

  3. Everything thats wrong with the Welsh education is neatly summarised in Mel’s following paragraph:

    “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”.

    If anyone believes that the divergence from England is for a ‘good cause’ is deluding themselves. The divergence is a deliberate and a planned strategy originally initiated by Leighton Andrews and now followed by Huw Lewis to hide Welsh education failings imposed through prioritising Welsh language and Welsh speaking teachers.

    To my thinking this is a criminal policy as there are the real victims and these victims are our children who are used s Guinea Pigs to prop a failing language that most Welsh kids have no interest in!

  4. I think that you should think again about these assertions:-

    “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….”

    Firstly we in Wales are well aware of the school statistics of all other schools in our locality through the “My local school” web site and, here in Wales as much as in England, decisions on schooling are made in different ways by different socio-economic groups. There is therefore parental scrutiny, there is competition between schools for pupil numbers and schools recognise that they live or die by their key stage assessment or GCSE statistics.

    Although we have been determined to claim that we don’t have “league tables” we clearly did in the form of secondary school banding and, subsequently, data is so readily available that the Western Mail and Daily Post have produced league tables of their own. In Wales therefore, as much as in England, middle class parents in particular, are sought after by schools and in Wales the freedom to choose schools is far greater than in England because we have far more empty spaces in our schools.

    The question is; is there any evidence that government policy in Wales has resulted in social division in education along the same lines as that which exists in England? The answer is obviously yes; the consistent drive to increase the number of Welsh medium schools and pupils in those schools has resulted in clear segregation along lines of both language, ability, socio-economic status and race.

    The further question that should be asked (and you would hope that a director of the centre for EQUITY in education might ask it) is; have we a deliberate policy of pupil segregation in Wales that is fostered and encouraged by politicians? I think that if Professor Ainscow took a cursory look at the Welsh medium schools in various local authorities he would find that those schools had consistently lower levels of free school meals than the surrounding schools. He might also notice that those schools benefited from free travel for pupils from any reasonable distance and he might like to look at the “Welsh Medium supplement” in operation in places like Cardiff where Glantaf and Plasmawr have been funded for two extra teachers for decades. The Welsh medium funding system has changed I’ll grant you but every WM school in Cardiff still gets its handsome bonus.

    At GCSE in 2014, of the pupils in Glantaf and Plasmawr only 5.9% were eligible for free school meals. Of pupils taking GCSE from the English medium Cardiff schools 20.2% were eligible for free school meals. Coincidence? I think not. Do the sums for Swansea:- At GCSE 2014, of the pupils in Ysgol Gyfun Gwyr and Ysgol Bryn Tawe only 8.8% were eligible for free school meals. Of pupils taking GCSE from English medium schools in Swansea 19.5% were eligible for free school meals.

    It is fair to ask how this segregation takes place and there are several separate elements to the mechanisms of this phenomenon: Parents who Speak Welsh at home want their children to learn in their first language, Welsh. Parents who speak Welsh are disproportionately in secure, well paid, public service jobs….their children are less likely to be eligible for free school meals. Parents who look at WM school results see only the “bottom line”, that is the good results that come from having few pupils eligible for FSMs, they choose Welsh medium schools in the expectation of good outcomes for their children. Pupils who go through Welsh medium primary schools but fail to learn Welsh to a good standard do not go on to WM secondary schools; these pupils are the same pupils who are underachieving in any school; pupils from deprived homes and pupils with additional learning needs and so the Welsh language becomes a proxy for segregation on the basis of socio-economic status and learning ability.

    In Wales we have the bizarre situation where government actually recommends that parents send their children to schools where many will underachieve because they are learning through their second language. There is nothing to celebrate in such wilful blindness.

  5. I wish the Prof well, but Pisa will tell us if decline has been stopped, at last, and Wales is on the long road back to a good education system. This collective passion described risks mediocrity, as the Prof recognizes, But how do you share good teachers? How do you pass on motivation and the habit of diligence to the children?
    I doubt the whole shebang as Wales Government insists on introducing more emphasis on the Welsh language, without choice!! It .How do Welsh medium schools teach science or computer literacy to adequate levels? Only this Welsh government could so misspend the riches of Wales’ s talents.
    Why must one size fit all? Why no academies in Wales? Answer, because they would succeed.If you give the young the chance to aim at excellence very many will succeed. Remember how good were the Welsh Grammar Schools. The injustice of that old system was academic selection took place too soon and there was no equal division of resources for vocation based alternatives.

  6. It is just astonishing the extent to which some people who do not speak Welsh cannot get over the fact that some other people do. Karen evidently regards the existence of Welsh as a personal slight on her. And she is not alone. How to explain this resentment? When I suggested it might denote an inferiority complex, I was accused of “ranting”. Anyone want to offer a better explanation?

  7. “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’.”

    What this really means is that CONTINUITY of education between England and Wales is now toast! A fact recognised long ago by the Ministry of Defence when they introduced the Day School Allowance (North Wales) to cover Gwynedd and Anglesey, later extended to 5 LEAs in North Wales, so that kids in service families stood a chance of not having their education disrupted (read damaged) by moving in and out of North Wales.

    Now we find, anecdotally of course because hardly anybody will put their head over the parapet, is that this lack of continuity now increasingly means that high flyers in both the public and private sectors no longer want to risk damaging their kids’ education by moving them into and out of Wales and the skills death-spiral continues. High flyers leave and are not adequately replaced. Probably most obvious in the NHS in North Wales but it’s everywhere now…

    But, to be brutally honest, nobody in their right mind should now consider moving their kids into Wales from almost anywhere. The way to improve their chances is to move them out before the damage is done in primary, let alone the rest of the discontinuous system.

  8. I am also heartened by the signs I see of improvements in my daughter’s school and of the supporting work being done by the South East Wales Education Advisory Service. I see real leadership skills blossoming and this is translating into results. (and no I am not involved in education !)

    There are important differences between Wales and England that impact upon education. Firstly the overwhelming majority of our politicians and civil servants are products of state education and their children are subjects of it. Not so in England with its bigger middle class and higher proportion of private sector education. I would hope that this means our people are motivated to get it right as they will reap what they sow.

    Next there are important differences in context. Inner city environments in London and other English cities that are seeing a turnaround have high proportions of immigrants, many of whom have proven by getting here that they will seize opportunity with both hands and appreciate the benefits education can bring – they have good home support and do well. With a different racial mix, our problem areas here in Wales are often dominated by ‘under achieving white boys’ – the sector they still haven’t cracked in Middle England.

    Then London has been particularly successful in attracting the brightest graduates entering teaching and other professions. It is an exciting and challenging cosmopolitan environment full of like minded people in their 20s/early 30s. Aberdare on a wet Thursday doesn’t offer that and never will so we struggle to get the best and the brightest in at that stage of their careers.

    What can we do about it ? Play to our strengths. Focus on attracting in the teachers and other professional s who have done their time in London but now want space, a beautiful environment, affordable housing and good schooling for their young families – things the cities struggle to offer. Parents want the best for their children and good schooling is highly attractive for those considering relocating. High educational standards in schools will attract in those young families and the knock on effect is that their dynamism will drive up our economy – a virtuous circle.

    Personally I would like to see WG close down the ‘Department for Backing Lame Duck Businesses through Squandering Taxpayers Money’ and divert all the cash freed up into good education for all within Wales. That investment is rarely wasted.

  9. Tredwyn,

    I would suggest that the views of people like Karen are purely to try to create divisions within Wales in order to create a safe-haven for ultra conservative and quite perverse views – almost little England views if you like that would be completely intolerable and quite embarrassing to the overwhelming majority in England. Personally I don’t think this is about the language, it is about creating a rift between people in Wales to further a very different agenda. An agenda guided towards removal of anything in Wales that gives it a unique identity that people can relate to. The motivation is probably simple devilment to see if it can be achieved, but actually achieving it would probably offer no form of achievement whatsoever.

    These views would be rapidly discredited in England as being unsporting, cynical and disruptive and they offer nothing constructive or progressive to the people of Wales. It is very easy to try to blame the woes of the world on selected groups of people – history shows that this is an effective tool to garner support, although this always fails ultimately when it leads to unjust societies – societies where people have no identity and show no affiliation. This is simply a route towards alienation of peoples in a way that is ultimately doomed to fail. In this case there is virtually no base (either in Wales or in Britain) with which to try to build support for these types of views. The views of people like this are reminiscent of inward looking, destructive and cynical, little village power brokers with too much time on their hands. This is not the sort of thing we need in a modern Wales. We need a progressive and dynamic Wales, built on firm foundations of identity and culture.

  10. I fully expect that Wales will pass England in the key Level 2 inclusive measure (5 GCSE at A*-C including English or Welsh first language, and Maths) once the early GCSE entries are counted into the summer GCSE results. It will be interesting to see the effect that this has on final outcomes. At the moment the problem subject for Wales is Maths. English has about 3% more pupils attaining Level 2 but the Summer Maths results for Wales has fallen for two years in a row.

    The reason why we appear to have been improving lies in examination “strategy” in Wales. Schools enter pupils early for GCSE Maths and English, particularly pupils who are perceived to be “borderline D/C”. If they get a C or better they need not sit again; if they get a D or worse they are entered again along with a proportion who may improve their grade. So the Summer results don’t show the full picture….there are pupils who will attain level 2 inclusive when their earlier results are counted in.

    This strategy is old hat in England and that is why schools have been told that only the first entry will count. We have only woken up to gaming since “banding” was introduced. England also only includes English Language in the Level 2 qualification while we in Wales include language or literature (two bites at the cherry) and for Welsh medium schools Welsh Language and literature (4 bites at the cherry). Including Welsh counts for 0.5% on level 2 inclusive in Wales each year (pupils who fail English level 2 but pass Welsh level 2).

    So comparison is no longer possible…which is why Huw Lewis is keener than ever to compare with the increasingly stringent requirements being inflicted on English schools.

    Having said that I still maintain that we are heading in the right direction; Literacy and Numeracy testing and the L&N framework, if teachers don’t manage to get it scrapped, will deliver real gains in the long term. The proper application of Pupil deprivation grants and careful monitoring of individual pupils will also pay dividends but complacency lurks once again…we are doing ourselves no favours if we imagine that the result of years of not properly monitoring pupil’s progress and fictional Key stage assessments can be rapidly reversed.

  11. It really is early to be hailing transformation, as temporary GCSE bounce is not an uncommon phenomenon in improvement strategies. That said, some good stuff is going on. More detailed analysis is needed. Comparisons with England are pretty meaningless most of the time, which is why the minister favours them. What will be the acid test of authentic improvement is whether Challenge is narrowing the gap on a sustainable basis between rich and poor pupils, as measured by Free School Meals. Our national success is this indicator has been lacking- and lags behind most other countries, including England. We cannot genuinely improve just by squeezing more out of advantaged pupils.

    Last point. Unless we improve primary schools Challenge is building on sand. We chase our underachievement tails and throw money at rescue and emergency.

  12. Yes Terry. For years I have been lamenting the relaxed attitude to primary school standards. The result of scrapping of SATs was the rapid escalation of “fantasy” key stage assessments with individual teachers and Heads awarding themselves brownie points by assessing more and more pupils at level 4. The situation became so ridiculous 6 years ago that our school tested all year seven pupils on entry for English, Welsh and Maths. Whilst we were, on the face of it, taking 90% of pupils who were at the age appropriate stage, we had years when 45% were six months behind what we could have expected in literacy and half of those 18 months behind. In one year 85% of pupils coming from WM primary schools were unable to write extended prose in Welsh.

    The malaise in primary education wasn’t making itself known until GCSE and as a result secondary schools bore the brunt of criticism.

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