In the frame for success

8th February 2008 at 00:00
There has undeniably been a significant improvement in the performance of pupils of all ages in Wales over the past two decades. This can be seen in indicators such as Estyn inspections and in test and exams data.

But two other things are equally apparent. First, the PISA 2006 results reveal our performance does not compare favourably with other parts of the UK and many other countries across the world.

Second, there is a great deal of variability in the performance of our schools. Some achieve better outcomes than others in the face of broadly similar circumstances. Others achieve results well below what might be expected of them in benchmarking terms.

The overall correlation between social and economic disadvantage and pupil outcome is strong in Wales, and girls generally do far better than boys. Our primary schools seem to be more successful than our secondaries. Some local authorities appear to outperform others. Most striking of all, there can be wide variations in achievement within a single school due to differences in the quality of teaching. Sometimes this internal variation can be four or five times bigger than that between different schools.

The vast global knowledge that we now have about how schools can improve tells us that things do not have to be like this. In our view, it is absolutely the right time for the Assembly government to work closely with schools and LAs in introducing a School Effectiveness Framework for Wales.

We have been delighted to play a part in the framework over the past year, and we believe it has been developed in a way that can enable Wales to use cutting-edge knowledge on school transformation and reform.

We certainly do not see it as being a strategy for "failing schools" or as being founded on the deployment of "super heads". All schools can improve and become more effective. All heads, as well as LAs, have a critical role. This is why all schools in Wales must engage with the Effectiveness Framework as soon as possible.

If the framework is to succeed in improving pupil performance in Wales, we suggest six critical success factors must be in place.

First, the quality of teaching in our schools is absolutely fundamental and strategies should be used to improve this. We have wide knowledge of what works in achieving high pupil outcomes. Teachers must use this knowledge to provide personalised opportunities for young people.

We need teaching models that specify the content, learning strategies and interaction between learners and teachers. Each model should be designed to bring about particular kinds of learning. How teaching is conducted has a large impact on young people's ability to educate themselves. In this way, models of teaching can also be models of learning.

The second critical factor is leadership. We need to ensure that our school leaders are the drivers of educational effectiveness. Those who have already achieved success should share expertise with other schools and colleagues. They must become our "system leaders", heads who are willing to shoulder system-wide roles to support the improvement of other schools.

Third, it is important that what we do in Wales is totally up to date. The fact that we are taking this initiative after many countries have tried their own interventions means we can learn from their successes. We know that we need to provide schools with rich data systems and up-to-date knowledge on learning and teaching, such as insights into brain research.

Fourth, it is clear that in many education systems, including Wales, accountability - mainly achieved through external inspections - is used to drive improved performance. We believe within the School Effectiveness Framework in Wales that accountability has a role to play, but that in future we should use what we would term as "intelligent accountability".

The features of this system, designed to maintain public confidence, should be transparency over the outcomes of pupil assessment, rigorous school self-evaluation and targeted external inspection. In general, where there are high levels of achievement and small variations in performance between schools, the use of external accountability should be modest.

Where there is a need for more robust forms of external accountability, it should be designed to support teacher professionalism and the school's capacity to use data to enhance pupil performance.

Fifth, we must develop ways for networks of schools to stimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborating to provide curriculum diversity, extended services and community support.

We need not just excellent schools but also excellent networks of schools. Effective networks require strong leadership and clear objectives.

Finally, we have to recognise that schools need the support of parents, communities and other public services to nurture and develop young people, who spend no more than a fifth of their waking time each year actually in school. All of them, particularly secondaries in the most disadvantaged areas, should offer out-of-hours activities and be a base for multi-agency working.

If these challenges can be met through schools, LAs and the Assembly government, we believe Wales can become one of the most effective and improving educational systems in the world. We would all be the beneficiaries, but none more so than the young people of Wales.

David Egan, is professor of education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.

With contributions from David Hopkins, the HSBCiNet chair of educational leadership at the London University Institute for Education and David Reynolds professor of education at Plymouth University.

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