Wales rails at its inspectors

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Teachers fear a repeat of the English story from new Estyn team. Phil Revell reports.

GIVEN the Office for Standards in Education's reputation as a juggernaut knocking over everything in its path, English teachers are often surprised to discover that its remit stops at England's borders. Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man: all beyond Chris Woodhead's realm.

Wales's inspection body seems to have caused less professional antagonism - until now. Once the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector in Wales, it was renamed Estyn ("stretch" or "reach") last year.

The chief inspector is Susan Lewis, an ex-HMI who is ruffling some Welsh feathers.

"Estyn used to be a respected body in Wales," says the National Union of Teachers. Teachers protested at the National Eisteddfod in August over changes, which have left no Welsh-speakers at senior management level.

Four inspectors were replaced by two divisional heads. Three Welsh-speaking staff then left. Susan Lewis, who replaced Roy James as chief inspector in 1997, can't speak Welsh.

Heledd Hayes of NUT Cymru says: "In a bilingual country, this will create massive problems and seems to demonstrate a total lack of commitment to the Welsh language."

Estyn says it is committed to a bilingual service. A spokesman says: "In all divisions there are staff who can work effectively in both Welsh and English."

Very few Welsh schools have been placed under special measures since 1993 (10, compared with more than 1,000 in England) and there has been relatively little talk of "failing schools". At present, only three Welsh schools (less than 0.2 per cent) and one pupil-referral unit are under special measures while England has about 400 (1.6 per cent).

But some worry that there has been a policy shift at Estyn. The "naming and shaming" of Glan Ely high school, Cardiff, was criticised by staff and governors, who said Estyn failed to take into account poor socio-economic conditions.

If Glan Ely fails to meet its targets Rosemary Butler, the Welsh Assembly's education secretary, could be persuaded to make it the first Welsh school to be handed over to an education association for closure or a "Fresh Start".

Neither of these drastic options has yet been used in Wales. "Naming and shaming" the school has also angered the Welsh teaching associations who see the policy as an unwelcome English import.

Gethin Lewis, head of NUT Cymru, said Estyn's "harsh subjective judgment", based on a comparison of Glan Ely's results with national averages, was unfair and damaging.

Estyn is puzzled by these protests. Schools have failed inspctions before and the information has always been made public.

"There has been no change at all," says a spokesperson. "We have always used the same wording, it's getting a higher profile because the unions are jumping up and down about it."

Susan Lewis has pointed out that less than 1 per cent of schools disagreed with Estyn's judgments; this compares with OFSTED's record in England where 2.2 per cent of inspections result in a formal complaint.

Mike Kelly, head of Garnteg primary, near Pontypool, is supportive of Estyn. Garnteg went into special measures in 1997 after inspectors found serious weaknesses.

He says: "What made things worse was that it was a brand-new school, opened in 1995 at a cost of pound;2 million." The headteacher resigned and there were changes on the governing body. Kelly took up his post in January 1998. Over the next 18 months inspectors visited the school every few months.

He recalls: "I was given advice and suggestions. The school benefited from the process."

Stephen Gorard, reader in the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, said: "There's a long history of Welsh children leaving school with lower levels of qualification."

A recent Basic Skills Agency report showed literacy and numeracy rates in Wales were lower than in England: 28 per cent of Welsh adults have poor reading and writing and nearly one in three cannot deal with simple calculations, compared with one in four in England.

Currently, 8 per cent of Welsh children fail to gain a GCSE compared with 6 per cent in England.

"You can't compare Blaenau Ffestiniog with Kensington and Chelsea," says Gorard, who says that, once socio-economic factors are taken into account, Welsh schools are doing as well as English schools in similar areas.

Wales has 230 secondaries and many of its primaries are small and rural. The 22 local education authorities - six are extremely small - were created from eight LEAs in 1996. Welsh schools and LEAs have closer relations with the inspectorate than their English colleagues.

But the language issue is one that English-speakers often underestimate and it's not just the NUT who are hot under the collar about Estyn's air of unconcern.

"It rankles," says Alun Jones, director of the National Association of Head Teachers in Wales. "When Estyn has to make a statement, they can't put up a senior Welsh speaker. That's bad."

"Too often what happens in Wales has been what happens in England with a few sentences changed," said Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council and the Welsh Local Government Association, at the Assembly's launch.

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