Results prove enigma
Welsh primary schools with similar numbers of disadvantaged pupils are still getting widely varying results at key stage two, according to newly-published data. But denominational and particularly small schools seem to be doing better than might be expected, given free school meal entitlement.
Results for 11-year-olds in EnglishWelsh, maths and science have been improving steadily over the past few years.
However, this summer the numbers achieving the standard expected for their age (level 4) went down in all subjects except maths (TES Cymru, September 8).
The individual school results for 2006 have yet to be released. But TES Cymru has obtained individual school results for the previous five years under the Freedom of Information Act.
They confirm the link between deprivation and achievement, with schools with high free school meal (FSM) entitlement generally doing less well.
However, the results varied hugely. For example, among 64 schools with FSMs of 50 per cent or more, the scores for children achieving level 4 in all three subjects (the core subject indicator, CSI) ranged from 27.8 to 90.9 per cent. In 61 schools where 5 per cent or fewer pupils were entitled to FSMs, the CSI ranged from 60 to 100 per cent.
In 63 schools, half or fewer of the pupils were assessed as achieving the CSI. Most had FSM levels of 30 per cent or more, but a handful were below the Welsh average of 19.7 per cent.
Eighty-six schools scored a perfect 100 per cent in the CSI, with FSMs (where available) ranging from 3 to 39.5 per cent. Around a fifth of these were denominational schools, and more than 60 per cent had 100 pupils or fewer (see page 1).
Puncheston primary near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, achieved a 100 per cent CSI pass rate, despite nearly 32 per cent of the 69 pupils being entitled to free school meals.
Head Alun Ifans put its success down to several reasons: continuity (he has been at the school for 30 years); keeping his staff happy; being "truthful"
with parents; small class sizes; learning support assistants and volunteers.
"A volunteer comes in every day to listen to the children reading, and that's a huge help," he said.
While small schools appeared to cater for a wide range of pupils, denominational schools tended to attract better-off ones. Two-thirds that could be identified from the data had FSM levels below the Welsh average of 19.7 per cent.
But more than three-quarters of such schools achieved above the Welsh CSI average of 74.3 per cent in 2005.
The Rev Edwin Counsell, education officer for the Church in Wales, disputed the suggestion that faith schools do better because they attract better-off pupils. He said it was difficult to draw conclusions from the FSM and CSI data when Church in Wales schools are unevenly distributed across the country and serve different communities.
He added: "There is a commitment to higher standards in every school in Wales. Within the Church in Wales, we focus on the distinctive character of the school and make sure the ethos is right.
"We want fully-rounded young people. If they have good results as well that's a bonus."
The Assembly government has already highlighted its concerns about the "significant" gap in outcomes between schools serving similar (and different) socio-economic areas, in The Learning Country 2, its updated education programme to 2010.