Feel-good report leaves questions unanswered
There was a feel-good factor to this week's chief inspector's report, but teachers' unions expressed disappointment that he seemed to have sidestepped some of the most pressing problems facing schools.
Dr Bill Maxwell (pictured below) focuses criticism on failure to raise the achievement levels of disadvantaged pupils, citing poor targeting of funding alongside falling standards in Welsh.
But many unions complained that schools were not to blame for a lack of support from other agencies or a shortage of Welsh teachers.
Anna Brychan, director of headteachers' union NAHT Cymru, said Dr Maxwell could have shown more empathy for the lack of support received by schools, although she acknowledged that the report was glowing in parts and welcomed it overall.
"What the chief inspector says about raising the achievement of underprivileged pupils and bilingualism does chime with members, but the report says nothing about addressing lack of resources or funding. Schools cannot do it alone, and where is this new tri-partite regime we are supposed to be working under?" she said.
Opposition parties also attacked Dr Maxwell for failing to recognise a lack of resources and funding as reasons for flagging standards in some areas.
Andrew RT Davies, Tory shadow education minister, said schools must have "an equal footing" in terms of resources.
Jenny Randerson, Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, called for a "radical rethink" on educating underprivileged children, and targeted investment in the poorest schools by the Assembly government.
Dr Maxwell acknowledges that schools cannot go it alone and that there must be more of a team effort from government. But he told TES Cymru that schools must do more, regardless of perceived barriers.
He also calls for better targeting of Raise (Raising Attainment in Individual Standards in Education) funding, which is given to schools with 20 per cent or more pupils entitled to free school meals.
In 2007, 27 per cent of pupils on free meals gained five A* to C-grade GCSEs compared with 56 per cent of those not on free meals.
"It is time for schools to recognise learners from socially disadvantaged backgrounds as a vulnerable group who are much more likely to underachieve compared with others, and to focus their attention on this group far more than they have done in the past," writes Dr Maxwell.
Gary Schlick, head of Bettws High School, in a deprived area of Newport, agreed tha teachers must have high expectations of their pupils:
"It's not good enough to say, 'Because we are in a deprived area results are low.' It's important all students aspire to do better."
Dr Maxwell strongly criticises bilingualism in schools, saying that standards in Welsh have fallen over the past two years and that teaching of second-language Welsh is much worse than for other subjects.
Many pupils fail to achieve a key stage 4 qualification because "they don't get enough teaching time and quality of teaching is poor over all", he writes.
But teachers' unions said the problem was largely due to a shortage of Welsh teachers, as well as a lack of enthusiasm for the subject in some anglicised areas.
Welsh teaching at Bettws High School was heavily criticised after a 2007 inspection. Mr Schlick said: "The issue, particularly in areas like Newport, is that some students and parents don't give Welsh a great deal of importance."
Dr Maxwell also laments the shortage of subject teachers, which means that many physics lessons are being taught by biology specialists.
And he blames the disappointing number of A*s at GCSE and As at A-level on local authorities' failure to provide enough initiatives to stretch the most able.
He also attacks local government elected members who, for political reasons, are not prepared to take difficult decisions and shut schools with falling surplus places.
Overall, he finds local authority education services better in 2007-08 than the previous year, but he says they are still falling short - particularly on school organisation and inclusion.
In his first report last year, Dr Maxwell was particularly scathing about local authorities, especially in the areas of inclusion and wellbeing.
Gareth Jones, of heads' union ASCL Cymru, said heads would be "delighted" by Dr Jones' many positive statements in the latest report, but that a multi-agency approach was now "crucial" to taking forward the Assembly government's agenda.
An Assembly Government spokeswoman welcomed the report and in particular the progress made by primary schools.
She said that disadvantaged pupils were being supported through the Raise programme, and there were guidelines for teaching able and talented pupils. The Welsh-medium strategy, to be published this Spring, will address concerns over bilingualism.
- 67,559 - number of children entitled to free school meals in Wales at the last count
- 76 - percentage of second-language Welsh learners who entered an exam
- 1,113 - number of teachers in Wales who are competent enough to teach Welsh but do not
- 92 - percentage of special-needs classes where teaching was found to be good or better
- 75 - percentage of lessons in secondary schools deemed good or better
- 80 - percentage of classes that should be good or better by 2010
- 5 - number of times Neath Port Talbot performed better than the lowest improving local authority
- 4 - number of primaries placed in special measures
- 8 - number of primaries in need of significant improvement
- 5 - number of secondaries in need of significant improvement.