Leafy doesn't do best
If you asked anyone in the street where the best schools in Wales are, you could probably predict the answers. Some would say in Cardiganshire, where the GCSE and A-level results have been outstanding for decades. Others would point to Monmouthshire, or the Welsh-speaking areas of the north-west or south-west where the language has bred respect for education.
In fact, recent Assembly government statistics show that Wales's most effective or "best" schools are situated not in some leafy suburb, but in Neath Port Talbot, a relatively deprived community.
These findings (see table, right) are based upon analysis of public examinations results at GCSE, but not the actual achievements of pupils in each local education authority. That would reflect mostly on the levels of disadvantage in different areas.
Instead, these figures look at the "value added" by secondary schools by taking into account the effects of variables such as pupils' previous attainment, gender, their month of birth and eligibility for free school meals. The statistics are a measure of pure effectiveness, giving the difference between what pupils actually achieved and what would have been predicted.
So why is Neath Port Talbot and its schools doing so well? First, they spend at slightly higher levels than the other relatively disadvantaged authorities of Wales, which probably results in some additional funds for improving school performance and morale.
Second, they have put considerable financial resources and time into school improvement, importing people from overseas and other parts of the UK to talk to school staff about effective practice.
Third, the authority and the schools had something to prove, since they were seen as the poor relation when the old West Glamorgan split into Swansea and Neath Port Talbot. Resentment about the popular image of the schools provided a powerful motivation to the headteachers to prove the critics wrong.
Fourth, the authority has no school sixth forms, since Years 12 and 13 go to the FE sector. This means that Y10 and Y11 pupils are the top of their schools, senior pupils who will draw attention from staff and lots of teaching from heads of department - who in other authorities would have been teaching sixth-formers.
Fifth, the secondary school heads have a history of working together, of avoiding competition between themselves over catchment areas, and of helping out colleagues if they are in difficulty. They show a collective vision of education, not a faith in market-based competition.
So much for the well-performing areas. But what is going on in north Wales? The three adjacent authorities of Flintshire, Wrexham and Denbighshire do poorly. All three tend to be relatively low spenders, so this may be a factor.
In some there have been well-publicised issues to do with the competence of education management. Is their poor performance also due to cultural factors in the schools? All three have a history of feeding pupils with low levels of skills into their local low-skill labour markets, without the "top end" jobs offered by, say, Cardiff or Swansea. Is there a poverty of aspiration here?
Then there is Monmouthshire, underperforming against prediction by a whopping 8.9 percentage points. Are the area's schools coasting, because the generally advantaged population means they do not have to try hard to do relatively well?
Does the high proportion of pupils going to the independent sector remove the most able and adversely affect the balance of the schools' remaining pupils?
Are low levels of expenditure to blame - even though in the similarly low-spending Vale of Glamorgan, that does not prevent a good performance?
Whatever the explanation, the general picture is one of considerable variation in the results of Welsh LEAs - more than 15 percentage points on the GCSE measure. This cannot be explained by other social factors so is likely to reflect their effectiveness alone.
While half of LEAs - as with schools - perform much as we would expect, clearly half do not.
We do not know for sure, but it is possible this variation may be greater than in England, since Welsh local authorities hold on to more money, so what they do with it matters more. Since local authorities are the key drivers of educational policies locally, any variation between them is likely to have larger effects on their schools.
All we know is that this variation is likely to be having dramatic effects upon the life chances of the pupils of Wales. These figures may be yet another piece of evidence suggesting local authorities may not be up to the task of making our pupils world class.
David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Plymouth and lives in south Wales
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