Keane bats off critics in drive to raise standards

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Estyn chief tells TES Cymru that the new inspection framework is working well - and says she wouldn't `particularly blame' teachers for the shortcomings of Wales's schools

Ann Keane has had a busy first year as Her Majesty's chief inspector of education and training in Wales.

When her predecessor, Bill Maxwell, unexpectedly returned to Scotland last February, Ms Keane was handed the reins of Estyn at a critical time for the inspectorate. With a major internal restructuring taking place and a new common inspection framework to finalise and launch, it is fair to say the new boss has had her work cut out.

It has not all been smooth sailing: Estyn has been accused of "moving the goalposts" with its new focus on literacy and numeracy. Neither has she been afraid to speak out, just last week accusing some teachers and heads of being "in denial" about the poor results in the recent international Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. Speaking to TES Cymru, she admits that there has also been "complacency" at Estyn.

But a year on, with a reorganised inspectorate and new inspection system both deemed "fit for purpose" by the education minister, Ms Keane is taking stock and looking to the future.

She says she is happy with the progress of the new framework, which started last September. "The inspectors are becoming more familiar with it and we're getting higher levels of consistency," Ms Keane says.

But the changes have meant that more schools are now officially causing concern and needing follow-up inspection visits, leading to the charge of shifting goalposts.

Ms Keane denies that is the case, but is happy to admit that the focus has changed. "There is no getting away from that," she says. "We are looking in more depth at things we were not looking at before.

"In the past our judgments were based on the grades we gave for all the subjects in the curriculum. We have changed that focus.

"We are no longer looking at content and knowledge, but at higher order literacy and numeracy skills, which apply to every subject in the curriculum.

"We have had very few formal complaints. Schools have by and large accepted the judgments that have emerged from inspections. They have adapted to it and understand the reasons why."

Ms Keane faced further criticism after her first annual report was published in January, in which she looked back over the previous six-year inspection cycle and concluded that although things had improved, the rate of progress was too slow.

Some of the findings proved contentious, particularly that a third of schools were underperforming and 40 per cent of pupils entered secondary school with basic skills gaps.

Critics claimed that the report was "sexed up" to put more weight behind the education minister's reforms after Wales' poor Pisa performance.

But Ms Keane says she has not faced any direct criticism from schools. "On the contrary, I have had heads telling me it's worse than 40 per cent.

"Part of me resented the implication that we changed the report because of the Pisa results. The underperforming schools figure didn't just appear; we have reported on it before. The annual report reinforced the message that we need better leadership on all levels."

Estyn is set to play an integral part in the radical reform of the education system outlined by education minister Leighton Andrews.

Plans for a national reading test and a grading system for schools have received a mixed reaction, but Ms Keane agrees with the minister that there is a clear need for both.

"I think we do need a reading test; it would make it easier for inspectors," she says. "Although schools and local authorities do administer tests at present, they are using different tests so you can't benchmark."

A grading system would actually help schools as well as hold them to account, she says.

"We published a report last year about how local authorities deal with schools causing concern. We found unacceptable levels of variation. Under a national system there would be more consistency and schools would know what support they are entitled to.

"Local authorities should be giving schools the support they need before inspection. Some are waiting for Estyn's judgment, but it should be the other way around."

Although Ms Keane agrees with the minister's assessment of the system, she disagrees with his accusations of "classroom complacency", which have caused particular offence.

"I wouldn't particularly blame teachers; they have been doing what is expected of them," she says. "There is complacency throughout the system. We (Estyn) are in there, too.

"It's a matter of leadership and training. Not that we haven't been making progress - it's that the rate of improvement is slow. I think we have been amiss in giving teachers the leadership they need. We need better leadership at all levels.

"We close the gap between government policy and implementation. It's about learning from schools how policy should be implemented and whether it is improving outcomes for learners. At the end of the day it's not about teachers, it's not about inspectors, it's about learners."

CV: 27 years at Estyn

- Born in Carmarthen; attended Ystalyfera and Llandysul grammars.

- Studied English literature and art at Aberystwyth; postgraduate qualifications in education and social administration from the London School of Economics; masters degree in art history from University College London.

- Variety of teaching posts before being appointed at Essex Institute of Higher Education (now Anglia Ruskin University).

- Joined Welsh Inspectorate for Education and Training (now Estyn) in 1984. Held several posts, including district inspector, managing HMI, head of directorate and strategic director before becoming chief inspector.

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