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Narrowing the gap

Richard Parry on moves to bring greater parity of performance between schools

ow do you pinpoint the measures that help a school improve? A survey of 100 Welsh secondaries that appeared to show significant progress identified eight important factors in raising standards centred around motivated staff, use of data, review, positive approaches to behaviour and attendance, and a focus on teaching and learning.

These schools, had a willingness to analyse strengths and weaknesses.

Individuals were empowered to lead as "agents for change". Whole-school approaches had been developed as well as effective communications.

The Narrowing The Gap project team - I am there as representative of the Association of Directors of Education in Wales - identified four factors critical for improvement. The right culture and ethos is paramount; progress is less likely without it. This was underpinned by key people in key roles and supported by a strong interaction between the monitoring of teaching and learning and sharing effective practice, on the one hand, and analysis and use of assessment data, on the other.

In our visits, we saw that no school had all the elements in place and each of the key factors was at a different stage of development. But, when these factors were there, other common priorities such as key stage 2-3 transition, literacy, behaviour management and attendance were more easily addressed. Success was also more likely when the school had a focus on individual pupils.

Several schools had raised both the profile of learning and the profile of school through the community. There were enormous spin-offs as the esteem and aspirations of the community rose, pupils became more engaged, achievement was raised and employment potential increased.

Various factors hinder narrowing the gap and sometimes conspire to generate a situation where, as some schools said, "we feel like we are perpetually trying to catch up".

In 2002, an analysis of end of key stage performance data was carried out across Wales. Our results have improved but the gap between the lowest and highest schools and LEAs has been constant.

A clear link between increasing numbers of free school meals - the indicator of disadvantage - and decreasing performance in key stages 3 and 4 was established. This appeared to become more significant beyond about 15 per cent free meals which paints a picture that increasing disadvantage is a barrier to improvement.

However, further work on the data at key stage 3 showed deprivation is by no means insurmountable. In considering 50 schools where more than 25 per cent of pupils took free school meals, 10 made significant progress beyond expectations. Of these, eight showed significant progress without taking the free school meals factor into account.

Our visits to schools show that, where there is joint working between the local authority, the school and other agencies, improvements can be made.

So deprivation need not be a barrier to raising standards.

Richard Parry is director of education for Swansea. He is writing here in a personal capacity. He will be giving an expanded talk on this topic at the Cardiff conference on Friday, May 23 at 10.30am. For further details of the project, visit m

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