Estyn Annual Report: Looking behind the headlines …and getting an accurate reflection

Estyn’s Annual Report has important messages for everyone working in schools and school improvement. But we need to mine the report for the important and balanced messages contained within.

The headlines in the press last week have given an incomplete and often misleading impression of the important strengths and areas for improvement in our schools.

Contained within the report are important messages on the best and most effective practice and supporting case studies. As we grow a self-improving system, this will be critical to guide those who need most support to improve.

“The biggest influence on learner outcomes is the quality of teaching and learning. Various strategies have been introduced in Wales with the intention of improving the quality of teaching and learning, and of helping practitioners to develop their practice throughout their careers. The aim is to build capacity and to drive out variations within and between schools. Current education reforms are based on a model of a self-improving system and of school-to-school working. This means that schools and providers, leaders and practitioners, including teachers and support staff, take responsibility for their own development and that of their peers. This self-improvement approach is school-led, and balanced by support from local authorities, regional consortia and the Welsh Government.”

In addition, there are identified areas highlighted which will be important for all of us working in schools and school improvement to improve, and strengthen.

These include: “There is more excellent and unsatisfactory practice in the secondary sector than in primary schools. This increasing variation as children become older is not only apparent in inspection outcomes. For example, the gap between girls’ and boys’ performance and the gap between the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals and their peers also become wider as pupils progress from primary to secondary schooling. Having one teacher for each class for the year may mean that it is Primary and secondary education easier for primary schools to establish a consistent approach to teaching and learning, and to address the needs of each child in the round. The larger size and compartmentalisation of secondary schools into departments make this harder to achieve.”

Many schools have an inclusive ethos and staff work hard to make sure that all pupils have the opportunities to take part in all aspects of school life. These schools promote tolerance and respect.

“Regional consortia do not analyse the progress of groups of pupils, including the more able, in enough detail. Some providers that meet the needs of more able pupils well use ICT to provide suitable challenge for these pupils to learn by doing and by receiving immediate feedback.”

There is a focus on those schools causing concern, which do not improve at the desired pace, however, there is a clear message that there are fewer of these.

“This year, the proportion of primary schools requiring statutory intervention reduced when compared with last year. Inspectors placed seven primary schools (4%) in a statutory category following their core inspection this year. This is a reduction on the 20 schools (9%) identified last year. Three schools (2%) require special measures, compared with eight schools (4%) last year. Four schools (2%) require significant improvement, compared with 12 schools (5%) last year.”

“During this year, most of the schools placed in Estyn monitoring last year improved and did not need further monitoring by inspectors. However, a few schools made insufficient progress, and now require significant improvement. In these schools, improvements in the quality of teaching and the accuracy of teacher assessment have been too slow, resulting in a decline in pupils’ standards. During this year, most of the schools placed in significant improvement last year were removed from further monitoring. Follow-up activity: Primary Schools A very few schools required a second monitoring visit to ensure that recent improvements became embedded. This year, around a half of the primary schools that required special measures last year were removed from further monitoring activity. In these schools, improvements have been rapid. In a few schools remaining in special measures, ongoing reorganisation or closure proposals make it difficult for the school to attract the right teachers and leaders to improve the quality of the provision.”

In addition, the Annual Report tells us of improvements seen by inspectors this year, and of developments which will help us prepare for the significant changes in curriculum, qualifications and the new standards for teachers and school leaders.

These include:

“This year, we identified 40 primary schools with excellent practice for at least one quality indicator. This represents 22% of the schools inspected, compared with 18% last year, and continues an improving trend of schools judged to have some excellent practice. We judged six schools as excellent overall, for both their current performance and their prospects for improvement, which is two more than were identified last year.”

“A key strength of most special schools, many primary schools, and about half of secondary schools, is the wide range of professional learning activities that they undertake.”

“There is also an emerging culture of collaboration and support around professional learning, although regional consortia have adopted differing approaches to school-to-school work and have not evaluated the effectiveness of these various models. Typically, regional consortia use their challenge advisers’ knowledge of where good practice exists in the region to broker school-to-school support. The challenge for our most successful schools is to ensure that their succession planning processes are robust enough to develop their leadership capacity, so that senior leaders can contribute to school to-school support while not compromising their own provision and development.”

“Increasingly, schools are taking advantage of the professional learning opportunities that regional consortia provide for using evidence-based practice, especially for literacy, numeracy, and raising the achievement of disadvantaged pupils. One example concerns facilitating training, based on educational psychology research, on meeting the emotional literacy needs of pupils. The training helps staff to gain a greater understanding of topics such as building pupils’ self-esteem through positive social interaction. Staff apply this knowledge to direct and personalise interventions to meet the needs of their pupils, particularly those with the most complex needs.”

“In the few very best schools, there is a strong focus on professional learning for all staff. Teachers and leaders across the schools are involved in an extensive range of networks of professional practice within the school and at local, regional and national level.”

“Over the last three years, the consortia have improved their knowledge of where good practice exists in schools and they have also improved how well they share this good practice regionally and nationally”

“The consortia are developing more effective strategies for challenging, supporting and monitoring schools causing concern. While consortia usually provide sound information to local authorities about schools causing concern, local authorities do not always act on this information by using their powers of intervention. This limits the extent to which the consortia can help schools improve. Also, where local authority education services such as school reorganisation or human resources are ineffective, this can hamper the progress of a school, even if the consortium provides a good school improvement service.”

“Standards are good or better in around seven-in-ten primary schools inspected this year. This builds on the improvement seen last year. The proportion of schools judged as excellent or as unsatisfactory has remained broadly the same. Where standards are good or better, the gap in performance between boys and girls, and between pupils eligible for free school meals and others, is narrowing. Most pupils with additional learning needs and those with English as an additional language make good progress. In around a third of schools, more able pupils do not make enough progress because the work they are set is not challenging enough.”

In primary schools – “This year, teaching and assessment have improved, with just over seven-in-ten schools being good or better.” “This year, the proportion of primary schools with good or excellent leadership increased slightly to 72%, while the proportion with unsatisfactory leadership reduced to 3% from 7% last year”.

In secondary schools, “In many schools, attendance is improving and rates of persistent absence continue to fall, with most pupils attending well and understanding the importance of regular attendance. Overall, the variation in attendance between schools has decreased and many schools have responded well to the challenge to improve attendance rates”.  “Provision is good or better in many secondary schools inspected this year. This is an improvement on last year, largely due to improvements in care, support and guidance. However, shortcomings remain in the provision for developing skills and in the quality of teaching and assessment.

The balanced picture presented in the Annual Report rightly challenges us to reduce the variation seen in schools across Wales. We should work together across departments, schools, LAs, regions and government to bring about the self-improving system referred to in the report.

The variation in outcomes for learners, especially those in receipt of free school meals, or those more able and talented.

The variation is too great between our very best schools and those who are not improving at the pace required.

The variation is too great between those teachers who deliver high quality inspiring lessons to pupils and those who do not enthuse pupils to achieve their potential.

The variation in the impact and quality of support given to schools by regional consortia affects the pace of improvement.

The variation between efficient, effective local authorities and those who are poorly organised is also significant especially where the use of relevant powers, school organisation, attendance and support for ALN is concerned.

As we enter this period of significant change in schools, the developing  self-improving system will be called upon to help reduce variation. This will require further collaboration, and in some organisations, a necessary cultural change. Regions are committed to this effort and part of this process will be a relevant and fair exploration of the Chief Inspector’s Annual Report.

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