Despite funding complaints, some poorer LEAs do better, reports James Graham
For many headteachers in Wrexham, the biggest complaint is the lack of funds. It is one which the local education authority hears all the time.
"The funding formula does not put Wrexham in a good position," admits Hywyn Williams, service manager for the school inclusion improvement service. "I think our schools would like more money."
Wrexham was 15th out of 22 LEAs in terms of the gross expenditure per secondary pupil delegated to schools in 2004-5. But when it came to GCSE results last summer some lower-spending Welsh LEAs did much better. And that was after taking into account deprivation levels - as measured by pupils' entitlement to free school meals.
In Wrexham, free meals take-up is a little below the Welsh averages of 19 and 16 per cent respectively for primary and secondary schools. Allowing for that, the number of pupils getting five or more A*-C GCSE grades in 2004 was 9 percentage points lower than predicted, at 45 per cent.
Education chiefs at the LEA, which is striving to push up results, say it has been difficult to identify specific reasons for this performance.
Senior secondary education officer John Roberts thinks the entry requirement of four, rather than five, GCSEs by Yale, the main sixth-form college, may have some bearing.
Then there is the fact that Wrexham loses up to 200 pupils a year to neighbouring secondary schools in Flintshire and Denbighshire at Year 7.
And there is also the issue of disaffection, with Wrexham having the highest rates of temporary exclusion in Wales for 2003-4. And, crucially, funding.
In schools, the use of Fischer Family Trust data has provided the LEA with some highly-specific answers.
Last year it found that it was not the high level of exclusions dragging results down but the middle-ability pupils who failed to hit their own targets.
"There were 71 pupils within touching distance," said Mr Roberts. "If 71 out of 13,000 had gained one extra GCSE, we would have been on the average.
It would have made a big difference to our league position."
Fischer data is now at the vanguard of the LEA's drive to push up results.
It is using the statistics with schools to identify problem areas, set targets for pupils and develop action plans.
Self-evaluation is another key plank of the strategy.
At Ysgol Rhiwabon, head Peter Shaw has embraced the idea. "Schools don't improve from teams of inspectors descending on them every four or five years, schools improve from within," said Mr Shaw, whose teachers undergo an Estyn-style inspection once a term.
Target setting has been introduced and the school is also "big on student voice" - it asks pupils to observe lessons and give teachers feedback. Mr Shaw is positive and committed, but he is still vexed by the issue of funding and admits he "looks to England with green eyes".
At The Maelor school in Penley, near Wrexham, head Geoff Mason conducted his own research into comparative funding and found that the English schools down the road had around pound;200 more for each pupil a year.
"We're set similar targets to those schools in England and yet we're not given the tools to do the job. It's grossly unfair and unworkable," he said.
Funding also affects Wrexham's primary schools, where pupils typically perform in line with the Welsh average at key stage 2.
At Hafod y Wern junior school in Caia Park, head Jan Neil said there was a genuine wish to improve standards and embrace new ideas, "but it needs money".