How Wales got its Zeitgeist back

5th June 2009 at 01:00

It has been credited with changing the education Zeitgeist in Wales.

Now the "high-reliability programme", which has helped raise GCSE results spectacularly in 12 Neath Port Talbot secondaries, is to be exported.

Four years in, the increase in GCSE passes in Neath Port Talbot was more than double that of Wales overall. The area is now one of the top authorities in the principality for contextual value-added scores measuring pupil improvement at key stage 4 (age 15-16).

Meanwhile, in the rest of Wales, the gap between the best and worst- performing schools has grown by up to five times.

In 1996, academics from Wales and the United States produced a plan that would shatter the "myth" that pupil poverty equals failure. It showed that more efficiently-run schools could beat the odds. Earlier this year, they released a final report detailing the success of the project.

The programme is based on research into business, which found that all effective organisations share a number of core characteristics. Most crucial among these is having a strict set of targets.

High-reliability schools are expected to run like clockwork. This is achieved largely through data collection and systematic benchmarking against other schools.

Another key principle is targeted professional development. Teachers get extra time to develop their skills, and there is a strong emphasis on the sharing of good practice.

The project was led by two US education researchers, Sam Stringfield and Eugene Schaffer, specialists in pupil deprivation and under-performing schools. David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, was also in the team.

The former Assembly government adviser said the project had influenced government policy and led to the launch of the attainment-raising school effectiveness framework (SEF), which focuses on narrowing the performance gap between schools. "I think it has had an influence on the Zeitgeist in Wales," he said. "When we created SEF, the high-reliability project was in people's minds. It was certainly in my mind."

Professor Reynolds said the focus on data and benchmarking was the secret to the programme's success.

"The phrase `data rich' was originally ours, as was `zero tolerance of failure'. Now they are everywhere," he said. "Schools need lots of data and, after a couple of years, they can go off on their own."

At Sandfields Comprehensive in Port Talbot, 14 per cent of pupils gained five high-grade GCSEs in 1996, much lower than the Welsh average. Last year, the figure had grown almost fourfold to 55 per cent.

Mike Gibbon, the headteacher, said: "I wanted to get involved because the projects are similar in terms of looking at exactly how you operate and what processes you use. They get back to data, looking at high standards, challenging staff and supporting them."

More than 10 years on, Neath Port Talbot's secondary heads still meet up to discuss standards.

"That sharing of good practice has now become a standard part of Assembly government policies," Mr Gibbon said. "It's not rocket science; it's about common sense. This is about achieving consistency and making it almost difficult for anyone to fail."

The programme has now been taken up in Hackney, east London, where GCSE and A-level results are below average for both England and London; the programme is due to be introduced there in September. Last year, 56 per cent of pupils were awarded five high-grade GCSE passes compared with 70 per cent in Neath Port Talbot.

EFFICIENT SCHOOLS

The high-reliability schools project is underpinned by 12 characteristics, the most important of which are:

- Heightened awareness of the big picture

- A clear and finite set of goals

- Constant and targeted professional development

- Aggressive recruitment of new staff

- Alertness to surprises or lapses.

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