In December 2010 it was revealed that Wales had fallen behind the likes of the Czech Republic in standards of English, Maths and Science.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests are designed to measure the ability of pupils nearing the end of secondary school. Out of 67 countries taking part, Wales was ranked 38th for reading, 40th for maths and 30th for science.
Derek Harvard, chairman of Caerphilly Governors’ Association, sets out below what needs to be done to improve education in Wales and the role school governors can play in achieving this. He also defends the Welsh Education Minister’s planned new grading system for schools – something teaching unions have described as league tables in all but name.
Our headteachers are right to make the point that there are many contributing factors for our poor PISA results in Wales. We are underfunded compared to England and statistics can be misinterpreted, but the simple fact is that our schools are under performing and we need to know what’s going to be done about it. We need to be careful that we are not just making excuses.
The Welsh Education Minister has made it clear that action is expected from all stakeholders in the education industry and has said that schools will be graded. This has provoked an outcry from the teaching unions who see it as a step back to league tables, but teachers should realise that it is in their own best interests to get parents on their side. The way to do that is to provide easily understood performance data.
Most parents are not looking for a stick to beat the teachers, they want to help. They want the best for their children and they look to the professionals to achieve it. Transparency can’t hurt good teachers, but secrecy can. Good teachers are frustrated when they believe they are working hard in difficult conditions to just tread water. The growing problem of difficult children, for instance, can totally disrupt a lesson, a situation that needs to be firmly addressed by those in authority. The Minister has highlighted this problem.
Most classroom teachers will be saying “about time”, and there is a feeling in the profession that it is too easy to put the blame for poor results on them regardless of factors beyond their control.
We should all be working together, local authority, advisers, heads, teachers, governors and parents, to make our comprehensive system work properly and well. In Wales we tend to think differently from England. The idea of starting up a so-called Free School, because the local Comp is not up to scratch, is alien to most of us in Wales. That sort of thinking condemns a poor local school to a hopeless future. They’ve even got a name for them in England. They call them Sump Schools.
Wales has traditionally aspired to high quality state education for all and we have the talent to make all our schools achieve the top grade. So why are some of us afraid of comparison? That kind of fear is wholly negative. There are far more positives to be gained from comparison and the good will get better by looking honestly at what has succeeded elsewhere.
So if you find your school in a lower grade than you like, do something about it. That is surely the way forward and it is for all of us to work together to ensure the local school is improved. The cynics will say “easier said than done” – and they have a point. It’s not easy and talk is cheap, but neither is it impossible. The Minister has made a ‘wake-up’ call to the Welsh Nation and he’s right.
We’ve become complacent in Wales and we should take on board the importance of the PISA Report, but there is much excellence in all our schools and it should not be beyond the imagination of an education-friendly nation to find ways of sharing the expertise with those who are not so successful.
In Wales, we possess some of the finest educational professionals in the world. Our teachers are considered some of the best practitioners available anywhere. So why is our nation not in the same statistical bracket as the likes of Finland? According to PISA we are in the lowest bracket in the UK, and the UK is near the bottom of the European Countries. That is not something to be proud of. We are good talkers in Wales but it is time for action.
What can school governors do about it? The Minister has acknowledged that governors must contribute to change the system to make things better. There are over 20,000 of us in Wales, but how many make a serious contribution to the improvement of our schools? Are we critical enough or are we happy to sit back and accept the headteacher’s report?
Critical friend? Sounding board? That’s fine, but it’s no good if it’s one-way traffic. The way that data is fed back to us, if we are to seriously join the debate, needs to be simplified. We need to be able to make an honest comparison with the school down the road.
The statistics leave most governors longing to get out of meetings as quickly as possible. It is true that training is available for governors but it is not compulsory and the ‘take-up’ speaks for itself. Is it beyond the capability of the professionals to simplify the data and still present an honest and true picture?
A good governing body will represent a true cross-section of their community so it is unlikely that many of them will have taken a degree in statistics. That does not mean they are incapable of absorbing what is good and bad in their school. Everyone in the school community, and beyond, can understand what it means to be in a lower grade of something. Governors will ask the question: “Why are we down there and what do we need to do get out of it?”
Governors are the people the school should be most accountable to, and they should be aware they are a truly independent body. They have the right to demand their school is in the top grade. If it is not they must ask the politicians and the professionals what needs to be done to get it there.
We don’t have to go back to league tables – which by their very definition do not present a fair picture – but the four grades that the Minister proposes will give parents a practical way to judge the school, as is their right.
We should all be concerned when a school drops below the highest standard. There’s no need for it. We have the expertise in Wales to push any school up the ladder. So let’s start doing it.