I hadn’t intended to return to the issue of Schools for Penarth for a while, but I received a comment from someone senior in education in the Vale questioning my understanding of the issues. I’ll hold up my hands and confess I’m no expert on school banding. But I thought I’d find out a bit more from someone who is. Step forward GD from the Welsh Government.
Most of the rest of this blog will be in the form of quotes from our critical friend in the Vale (let’s call her/him MC) and GD. But don’t let that make you think it won’t be interesting.
MC: “You obviously do not understand the banding system and the way it is calculated. It will be very difficult for any English medium school in the Vale to reach band 1 due to the way performance is measured. Welsh medium schools have an advantage over their English counterparts when it comes to recording the number of pupils who achieve a C+ grade in language. It can be either first language Welsh or in English. English medium schools teach Welsh as a 2nd language which doesn’t count. As all Welsh medium schools enter students for both subjects they have two bites of the cherry to achieve this performance indicator. Four of the 12 measures of banding performance include this one indicator”.
GD: “It is true that Welsh Medium schools have more bites of the cherry in terms of being able to count the highest qualification out of English or Welsh. This may give a small number of schools an advantage on one or two measures. However this has to be offset by the fact that Welsh Medium schools will need to cover 4 subjects in terms of English and Welsh language and literature which is a greater stretch on their resources than covering 3 subjects as is the case in English Medium schools where Welsh literature is generally not covered. Additionally, many English Medium schools, whilst being required to teach Welsh as a second language, do not enter many pupils for the exam, this has amounted to up an annual total of up to around 10,000 pupils across Wales in recent years. This frees up time for English Medium schools to focus on other subjects which contribute to the threshold and capped point scores indicators.
In terms of your specific question, for 2011, 157 pupils (0.9%) who gained the L2 threshold did so solely through achieving A* to C in Welsh, 17.7% (3,068)through solely achieving English and 81.4% (14,126)got both. A very small proportion of pupils overall therefore were counted in the level 2 threshold measure solely because of Welsh, however we recognise that Welsh language is very focused in a small number of schools and a very small number might have benefitted for this particular measure. However, we also are very aware that this is an excuse being made by many English medium schools whose performance is so low that it could not be possibly explained by this factor”.
MC: “There are many other flaws in the banding process: There is a heavy reliance on deprivation, disadvantage and free school meals – the Vale scores low on these indicators when compared to other areas of Wales. The over reliance on Free School Meals as an indicator of social disadvantage. Many parents who would be eligible do not apply for FSM as other benefits, such as family tax credits are cut, so that [they] are worse off”.
GD: “It is true that there is a heavy dependence on FSM data in the banding calculation, but that’s because the correlation between levels of FSM and performance is very strong. Suggestions are put forward on a regular basis for other measurements of deprivation to be used in the banding, but none come anywhere near to showing the same strength of link to the performance data as FSM.
The accuracy of FSM data is a constant source of discussion and it is true that it is difficult for schools to ascertain whether they are recording all their pupils who are entitled to FSM as opposed to those who are applying for it, the latter being the only thing which they can measure in reality. However, this is the same difficulty for all schools and we have no evidence to suggest that any one area or type of school is being disadvantaged more than any other. In fact the strong relation between performance and the FSM indicator suggests that this is not the case”.
MC: “If you look more closely most Band 1 schools are either welsh medium or in socially deprived areas. Having said that Bro Morgannwg is an excellent school and would score highly in any company”.
GD: “The statement that ‘If you look more closely most Band 1 schools are either welsh medium or in socially deprived areas’ is certainly very wide of the mark. Firstly, whilst it is a major achievement to be assessed as being in Band 1 I would not agree with the statement that it is extremely difficult for an English medium as opposed to a Welsh medium school to be in Band 1, as a high proportion of Band 1 schools are English medium.
It is certainly not the case that schools in the most deprived areas benefit from the banding calculation – in fact we get many more queries suggesting the opposite. The majority of the calculations are set against deprivation measures, so it is a case of how well schools are doing against what is predicted for them based on the poverty levels of their pupils rather than a school benefitting or not from being in a disadvantaged area. Band 1 contains schools from across the spectrum of disadvantage”.
MC: “There is no recognition of those schools who take a significant amount of pupils who do not speak English as a first language. Some schools take many students from families who have moved from Eastern Europe. Some also have a significant intake from families from SE Asia who have found employment at hospitals etc. They may be bright students but they cannot access the curriculum due to poor language acquisition skills”.
GD: “It is also true that there is no recognition of those schools who take a significant amount of pupils who do not speak English as a first language. That said, even if we were able to do so reliably, which is not possible given the sporadic nature of where these pupils are located, there is an argument that we shouldn’t be doing so as this would be against the ethos of operating an inclusive education approach. However, those arguments aside, if you look at the bands of schools with the highest level of pupils with English as an Additional Language they are doing significantly better than all schools in general”.
MC: “It is a fact that, on average, 15 year old boys notoriously do worse than girls. No account is taken of gender imbalances. So schools with a high proportion of boys also have an in built disadvantage”.
GD: “It is also true that boys do generally worse than girls but on the whole the split of boys and girls evens out at close to 50%. If there is a school, other than a single sex school with a significantly different split than this then I would be surprised”.
MC: “The measures are based on rates of progress. If a high performing school has a slight dip in one year they are punished severely. In one case a school was prevented from being in Band 2 due to attendance data. In 2010 this school had an attendance rate of 93.6%, the highest in the county and 3.6% above the expected level. In 2011 it dipped to 92.9%, the second highest in the county, but the school was placed at the bottom of the pile because it hadn’t made progress. It is like Manchester United being relegated from the Premiership if they don’t win the championship every year”.
GD: “Only 3 of the 12 measures used in the calculation of bands look at progress. I do not agree with the statement that a highly performing school is severely punished if it has a slight dip in one year. Most highly performing schools, i.e. Band 1 schools, also do very well on the progress measures. It also needs to be borne in mind that the absence measures are given a weighting of 50% compared to other measures so poor performance on these is less likely to affect a school’s band – although if is near the boundary between bands then this might make the difference.
There isn’t a school in Wales with the absence figures which they reported to you – it is a common problem we face with schools quoting different figures to the official set. The school with the most similar figures is a Welsh Medium school in North Wales, but I assume you are not referring to that one given previous comments.
There also isn’t a school with an attendance rate of 93.6% which is 3.6% above the expected level. I suspect the school is referring to the old Estyn standard of 90% attendance. This is no longer used as it took no account of individual schools’ circumstances and instead the comparison is made between a school’s actual attendance level and what is predicted based on their FSM level”.
This process has been a bit of a revelation for me. On one hand, I’m sure that the Welsh Government is doing its best to improve performance in all schools across Wales. If it were trying to do anything else that would be a most mysterious way of operating. At the same time, the process is evidently imperfect, and the Welsh Government has conceded that most of the flaws raised by MC are valid. We live in an imperfect world, so my advice to the teaching profession is to continue doing what you’ve always done – teach to the best of your ability. Every child counts.
One note – I find that I can’t agree with one of the points. I don’t disagree with the assertion (true also internationally) that “boys do generally worse than girls”, but it’s the inevitability of this by people in the education sector that is somewhat diconcerting. If a Y chromosome doesn’t somehow affect brain development then there must be social and environmental causes for this particular statistic, and schools and educational professionals are rather well placed to be countering these factors. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation sheds some light on why boys’ performance is worse than that of girls.
Incidentally, I’ve also seen elsewhere people point to this piece of research as evidence that abolishing school league tables “markedly reduced school effectiveness in Wales”, and that league tables should therefore be reintroduced in Wales. However there’s a crucial aspect to this research that most people don’t pick up. At the top of page 13 we see the method for approximating English schools with Welsh schools. It’s based on the characteristics listed on page 30. But what the authors haven’t taken into account – presumably because it’s near enough impossible to do – is both the ability and willingness of Welsh parents to access alternative secondary schools. In many settlements right across Wales there is no practicable choice to the school their child attends. This might be because of the child’s friends attending a particular school, because the school is a religious (Catholic) or Welsh (or English) medium comprehensive, or because travel costs would make an alternative financially unviable for the family. Some of these factors will be common to schools in England too, but the financial aspect is particularly acute in Wales, and the bilingual element has no comparator across the border. And let’s face it, if ‘poster girl‘ of the education world Finland doesn’t use league tables, it can hardly be a critical success factor.
So for the time being I’ll go along with the Welsh Government’s approach to avoid league tables but stick with some element of comparison through school banding.