With less than a month to go until publication of the Welsh Government's controversial banding system for secondaries - a slightly more subtle take on league tables - schools are beginning to get severely twitchy. Widespread concerns have emerged that some highly rated schools are in for a nasty surprise.
Schools in the principality have not been subject to league table-style accountability since 2001, when the embryonic assembly government outlawed the tables. But now - following a severe drop in school and national results - banding is being introduced. The system will place all schools in one of five bands, which will be decided based on raw results, progress, attendance, behaviour and socio-economic circumstances.
Schools and their representatives are nervous to say the least. Take, for example, David Bright, head of Llantarnam comprehensive in Cwmbran. Undoubtedly the provisional scheme has produced some shocks, he said. "Many of us are anxious, because (although) performance data has been published for such a long time, this is a fundamental change."
He was echoed by Tim Pratt, head of Caerleon comprehensive and president of heads' union ASCL Cymru, who said a number of heads were surprised when told their schools' provisional banding positions in September.
"That has been abated somewhat by presentations from the standards unit on their methodology, but the goalposts have clearly moved, and some colleagues are uncomfortable with their outcomes," he said.
The issue emerged after Conservative shadow education minister Angela Burns claimed that some "excellent" schools, considered "pathfinders" within their local authorities, had found themselves in the lowest two bands because of the criteria being used by the Government's school standards unit.
"What kind of message do you think that sends out to those schools, heads and teachers who have made amazing strides in those particular areas?" she said. "They are being looked at as exemplars and yet they are in a category that doesn't reflect the work that they have done."
Even education minister Leighton Andrews has admitted there had been concerns, and said some schools that may have enjoyed "relative success" in the past were now failing to stretch pupil performance sufficiently.
"It's inevitable that in constructing an approach to the banding of schools for the first time there will be arguments, disagreements, challenges and questions about the nature of the data and the particular band in which schools are placed," he said.
"This is not a simple process, it's complicated," he added. "We have been at pains to answer queries and my officials have answered many queries from schools about the bands in which they find themselves."
Documents seen by TES reveal that in south-west and mid-Wales, 15 per cent of schools were placed in the lowest bands. Their councils had estimated 11 per cent.
Councils in the south-east said they had the highest share of schools in the lower categories of the banding system, although they did not specify the figure. TES understands that the majority of secondary schools in Torfaen, which was recently inspected by Estyn, are in the lowest two bands.
Mr Andrews has also admitted that data on behaviour and attendance has had an impact on schools' banding positions. "The fact we have put weight on the issues of behaviour and attendance has caused some schools to find they are in a band below which they had expected to be," he said.
"I think it's only right that we seek to improve attendance rates and behaviour. We see that as part of the responsibility of school leadership."
That approach was welcomed by attendance and behaviour expert Ken Reid, who chaired a groundbreaking review into the issue several years ago.
Professor Reid, former deputy vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University, said some schools had failed to tackle poor behaviour and attendance in the past and did not have sufficiently robust procedures.
"I would go even further and say there's a case for giving schools an additional, separate grade for attendance and behaviour, which could act as a trigger for inspectors to get involved. We have been too lenient in Wales on this issue for too long."
The banding system will be updated next month with the latest exams data and the information will be published on the Government's website, although the format and content has yet to be decided.
Heads and teaching unions are anxious that it is not perceived as a return to league tables and that schools in the lower bands are not publicly named and shamed.
Although Mr Andrews said that is not the purpose of banding, he knows he will be powerless to stop it happening in practice.
How attendance affects banding
Attendance is one of the factors that will determine a school's banding position, and some high-performing schools have found themselves in lower bands as a result of their attendance statistics.
- Recent figures show that in 201011 just over 1,700 pupils were absent for more than half the time that they were on roll at a maintained secondary school, and almost one-fifth of pupils accounted for over half the number of missed school sessions.
- In 201011, just over 7,000 pupils (4.1 per cent) had no absence from school, while just over 22,300 pupils (12.9 per cent) were absent for more than 25 days, or five school weeks.