Squaring the circle of accountability

Gareth Evans critiques accountability in Welsh education, and offers on how to improve the system

Education opens doors, enriches lives and builds futures.

Without it, economies fail, relationships crumble and nations flounder.

Little wonder then, that schools are subject to such stringent regulation.

We all want the best for our children and ensuring each and every pupil has access to the same high quality teaching and learning is of paramount importance.

It is a civic right to be educated and educated well – and it is right, therefore, that schools are held accountable for making that happen.

Checks and balances are as essential in the teaching profession as they are in any other; in fact, given the precious commodity with which teachers work – namely our children and young people – they are, I would argue, even more crucial.

But holding schools accountable for pupil outcomes is not straightforward.

The many contextual factors impacting on performance compounds the challenge further.

Comparing schools is like comparing apples and oranges.

Every school is different and no one set of criteria will ever balance the equation.

As a result, we in Wales have what the vast majority of the world’s education systems have – an incoherent, confusing and often contradictory quality assurance process.

Schools are accountable to regional consortia, local authorities, Welsh Government, education watchdog Estyn and, of course, parents and guardians.

They are judged according to GCSE outcomes, the results of National Reading and Numeracy Tests, attendance rates and teacher assessments, to name but a few.

National School Categorisation, with its colour-coded support system, is the closest schools come to being ranked outright.

Despite the Welsh Government’s protestations, comparisons with league tables – still in operation and attracting fierce criticism in England – were perhaps inevitable.

And then there are the unintended consequences.

Secondary schools can sink or swim according to their GCSE results and there is a great deal riding on the proportion of pupils attaining five A*-C grades, including English or Welsh and maths (what is known as the Level 2+ benchmark).

There is a widely-held perception that this has impacted significantly on both pupil outcomes and the subjects they are choosing to study.

Such is the pressure on schools to meet Level 2+ targets, there have been accusations that those capable of achieving the very highest grades have not been pushed enough and a focus on getting as many pupils as possible over the C-D threshold has prevented some of our more able learners pushing for A*-A grades.

So too might it have resulted in more pupils being entered for GCSE exams ahead of schedule – a growing number of early entries would suggest more and more pupils are banking grades without completing their course.

This possibility has not gone unnoticed within the corridors of power and one would imagine the open door to early entries will soon be slammed shut.

The well-documented deflation last month in Wales’ key GCSE pass rates will have done nothing to alter that view.

I suspect a sharp decline in the proportion of pupils sitting certain, less mainstream subjects at GCSE is another unfortunate effect of school benchmarking, with greater emphasis on core disciplines limiting the options available to learners.

Few could argue that the way in which schools are currently held to account is fit for purpose.

And, refreshingly, the Welsh Government agrees.

In a speech to secondary headteachers in February, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said she had listened to the sector’s concerns and was committed to acting on them.

She said: “I am announcing today a fundamental review of our accountability system which will be shaped by you and our partners.

“I want an accountability system that is: fair; coherent; proportionate; transparent; and based on our shared values for Welsh education.

“This means a system with clear roles and responsibilities, which promotes inclusion and equity, and recognises the value that is added by teachers in classrooms across the system.”

For whatever reason the announcement was not reported in the media and slipped quietly under the radar.

But its lack of coverage made it no less significant.

As we embark on the beginning of a new academic year, squaring the circle of accountability will be a major priority and the impact of whatever transpires from stakeholder engagement will be felt for many years to come.

So what might accountability look like in the future?

The general consensus is that Wales needs a ‘value-added’ measure that better reflects the progress of pupils over time.

Schools need to be rewarded for the contribution they make to a pupil’s development – and they must do so from a level playing field that gives no one school an advantage over another.

Taking better account of a school’s intake will provide a fairer and more accurate indication of performance and, all being well, restrict any ‘gaming’ of the system seen currently.

But Wales is not alone in challenging the status quo and England’s new ‘Progress 8’ metric is worth considering.

The Westminster Government’s new accountability measure was introduced last year and has been hailed as a big improvement on the bar-setting of old.

Progress 8 uses a pupil’s Key Stage 2 results from primary school to give a forecast of expected grades at GCSE level – if pupils meet their predicted grades, a secondary school is deemed to have done well.

A weighting system maintains a focus on maths and English, while other priority subjects are given a higher rating.

But that’s not to say Progress 8 is completely flawless and by comparing pupil performance nationally, rather than clustering schools by levels of disadvantage, those in poorer areas still face more of a hurdle in reaching their target.

If the Welsh Government was to adopt a similar mechanism, the reliability of teacher assessment would surely come into play given the known variation in reporting at primary level.

In the absence of standardised attainment data (SATs having been phased out in Wales some time ago), primary school teachers would be required to predict grades based largely on their own knowledge and understanding of pupil performance.

Ensuring uniformity across the piece would be incredibly difficult, not to mention the added pressure there would be on teachers to make the correct judgement.

Then again, assuming predicted scores are a fair reflection of a pupil’s ability and promise, there will always be winners and losers regardless.

While value-added mechanisms such as Progress 8 identify schools that are performing well with a challenging student intake, it will be more likely to penalise those in which attainment appears to be good, but whose results are not what they could be.

In the absence of a definitive school assessment tool, we in Wales make do with a muddled myriad of measures that confuse more than they clarify.

And then there’s the small matter of curriculum reform.

The bottom line is that Wales’ quasi-punitive accountability system is at odds with Professor Graham Donaldson’s philosophy of empowering teachers to take control and innovate.

I know of several school leaders who are reluctant to dive headfirst into curriculum development for fear of retribution under the existing inspection framework.

It is therefore no great surprise that Prof Donaldson has been charged with reviewing the role of Estyn in supporting education reform.

The review is to be welcomed – as is the Welsh Government’s growing willingness to consult with the teaching profession when challenging existing policy.

The input of school leaders into discussion around accountability is extremely valuable and while I would not advocate a mimicking of practice in England, Progress 8 offers a useful point of reference for further debate.

Ultimately, what we need is a system that works for Wales – and a system that works for all.

But to quote Ms Williams, this does not mean “going back to the days where we do not hold people accountable for their performance”.

We left the handbrake off once before – and we can ill afford to do it again.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.



Gareth Evans is executive director of education policy at Yr Athrofa (Institute of Education), University of Wales Trinity Saint David

5 thoughts on “Squaring the circle of accountability

  1. I’m not sure that we in Wales take education very seriously. In England various measures are used to drive parental demand for the school; the better the school’s attainment the more parents send their children there and therefore teacher’s jobs actually depend on how well they teach pupils.
    Not so in Wales. Here we are using the school system to…increase the number or Welsh speakers to one million by 2050. To make sure that this happens we have to hide the fact that Welsh medium schooling really disadvantages pupils who don’t have Welsh as a first language.
    Look at the advantages that WM schools have:-


    Wherever you look, Welsh medium schools have smaller percentages of the pupils who are actually a challenge to teach.
    So do those schools blessed with the most advantaged pupils actually come out on top?


    Quite clearly not. But look at which pupils hold Welsh medium primary schools back. Pupils who have Welsh as a first language, 8.3% of all pupils in Wales, 9.6% of the cohort in this sample, do quite well, as well as pupils in EM schools (but remember the advantages that WM schools have).
    Look now at the pupils in WM schools who DON’T speak Welsh at home…clearly, for them WM schooling is toxic.

    Pay particular attention to the Welsh results. Never believe anyone who tells you that at the end of primary school pupils from English first language homes are as good at Welsh as pupils from Welsh speaking homes.
    Do we care? We do not; even Gareth wouldn’t dare actually come out and say it; WM schooling is ruining education in Wales.

  2. At least the demand for no accountability and the claim that grading school performance is “divisive” are both dead. Everyone agrees we need accountability and that is progress of a sort. The push for value-added measures is also progress. But now we need to spend more money on education. The figures quoted by Eurfyl ap Gwilym showing the relative decline on school spending in Wales are shocking. The Welsh government should declare an immediate teacher premium: all teachers in Wales get the UK pay scale plus 10 per cent. We need to increase the supply of good teachers and keep them in the profession. It could easily be afforded by cutting £150 million from the Economics Department budget. No-one knows where their money goes anyway.

    I do not share J.Jones’ horror of teaching children in Welsh but all the government’s aspirations in this area will clearly founder on a lack of good, qualified Welsh language teachers. Unless this shortage can be made good current plans will need to be changed. Ultimately one has to cut one’s suit to suit the available cloth.

  3. I must protest Ross! I have no horror of teaching children in Welsh. Particularly; pupils from Welsh speaking homes would benefit from being in a class without any pupils from English only homes.
    Pupils from English only homes should be taught differently in WM schools; early years should NOT be Welsh immersion. Pupils should learn their basic skills and grammar in their first language and be introduced to Welsh later and have the language taught as a foreign language albeit with subject teaching in Welsh as well.
    It goes without saying that I do not agree with the stealthy removal of English medium schools and I particularly dislike the non stop dishonest propaganda that persuades parents that a Welsh medium school is ALWAYS a good option for their children. The statistics show otherwise…and so does PISA.
    Honesty from the establishment should be a fundamental right for parents don’t you agree? Or are you a “perfidious means justify the dubiously desirable ends” sort of a guy.

  4. JJ: I think we have partly agreed with each other on this point before. I am more concerned to foster and preserve Welsh than you are but I concur that the present system leads to an unpleasant form of social apartheid. Parents in places like Cardiff put their kids in WM schools for the social cachet and to keep them out of classes with a large number of children of ethnic minority backgrounds (I don’t think they need a lot of propaganda to do it). This leads to segregation by social class with a tinge of racial segregation too. I don’t know why we can’t have a bilingual education system in all schools. They manage it in other small countries where kids grow up speaking their own language be it Finnish or Latvian and another more international language, be it English, German or Russian, too. In Switzerland they speak three or four.
    I’d have a single system where everyone was taught in English and Welsh, the proportion to depend on the linguistic character of the region. In Gwynedd it could be four days in Welsh and one in English and in Newport the other way around, maybe half and half in Carmarthen. That would also economise on Welsh language teachers in places like South-east Wales; they could cover four schools in a week.
    Unfortunately no-one would like it. Those who want their Welsh laager would resent it and all the people who moan about the existence of Welsh on this blog would be incensed their kids had to do a day or more a week in Welsh. A polarised education system reflects a polarisation in society. It doesn’t suit any politician to bang heads together.

  5. I am happy to agree with you Ross on as much as I can and I don’t see the situation in the South East as healthy. The polarisation and segregation has another knock-on effect of course; as parents who have a higher education and are relatively comfortable financially select a Welsh medium school for their child, the English medium school that would have educated that pupil becomes less effective and loses its reputation for good results.
    The mechanism for this is clear and the results are insidious. Schools with high percentages of pupils eligible for free school meals have poorer results…educated parents look at results when selecting schools…in any one area WM schools have lower EFSM percentages and consequently better results.

    The point that I have made repeatedly for years now is this; English first language pupils in WM schools do “OK” because they come from advantaged homes with educated parents. They DO NOT do as well academically as they would have done if educated in an English medium school.

    Gwynedd is now the ONLY LA where a majority of pupils in the school system have Welsh as their first language. Perversely those pupils are held back by sharing classes with English first language pupils.

    Recently I was in communication with the academic who was under contract to analyse the PISA results for Wales. I was bemoaning the fact that the WG hadn’t asked him to do a balanced comparison between EM and WM school pupil’s performance. He replied that the comparison could be implied from these sections:-

    “….have you read section 6.5 of the Wales national PISA report I wrote (http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/27969/1/161206-pisa-2015-en.pdf). It is basically very much in line with something said below – that responding to PISA in Welsh medium is indeed associated with lower performance. That can be quite clearly seen through Tables 6.7 and 6.8. It also holds true after controlling for things like socio-economic status (see Figure 6.7).

    So, if you are after evidence that Welsh language is associated with lower performance in PISA, then it is already here in the public domain……”

    Of course I was familiar with those sections…but am I the only person in Wales who recognises what we are being told?
    More tellingly, where this piece from Gareth may have spawned 50 comments in times past, now only you and I are interested in this crucial debate…so much for the slow death of the IWA.

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