Wales reconsiders and returns to a form of ranking
Ten years ago, the Welsh Government drew the biggest dividing line between its own education system and that in England by abolishing school league tables. A great injustice to teachers had been overturned, unions and ministers argued.
But with results across Wales now lagging behind the other home nations, school rankings are set to return. Last week secondary schools in Wales were told which of five "bands" they had been placed into as part of a new accountability regime.
Parents and the wider public, including the media, will get the same information in December, allowing an effective comparison of secondary school performance in Wales for the first time since 2001. A primary model is being developed and will follow next year.
The Government is adamant its new system is not a return to unpopular league tables, but rather a tool to drive up performance and monitor progress. Its original plan to call it a grading system was quickly dropped to avoid unwanted accusations.
But its opponents are not convinced. Within each band, schools will be given individual scores, which the Welsh Government is also considering publishing - effectively allowing the creation of detailed rankings.
Gareth Jones, secretary of teaching union ASCL Cymru, has warned that there could be "months of tension" ahead, as the Government refines its position and schools prepare for the fallout.
"The concern is that if a school is placed in band five, will parents remove their children or stick with it while remedial action is taking place?" he said. "There must be good communication with parents before the data is published to ensure they don't go into crisis mode.
"Once it's hit the headlines you might get a flight of pupils, and that can have a significant impact on the school's budget."
David Evans, secretary of NUT Cymru, predicted a "cycle of decline" for schools in the lower bands. "If pupil numbers drop, funding will be lost and teachers will be made redundant," he said. "Just because the Government says it's not a league table in principle doesn't mean it's not going to be a league table in practice."
League tables were ditched in Wales after years of opposition from parents and teachers, who said they were divisive and failed to recognise the achievements of schools in disadvantaged areas. A controversial report by Bristol University last year suggested that the move had had a "sizeable" impact on grades, equal to a fall of almost two GCSE grades per student per year.
But other research, published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last month, suggested that league tables published in England give an inaccurate picture of achievement in as many as four out of 10 schools.
The new banding system was first announced in February as a key part of education minister Leighton Andrews's 20-point plan to improve school standards in the wake of Wales's "disastrous" Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results.
Dr Philip Dixon, director of teaching union ATL Cymru, has urged parents not to panic if their child's school is in the bottom band. "The Government is not saying those are the ones parents shouldn't choose," he said. "It has given assurances that there will be extra help and resources for the schools in most need.
"I genuinely don't think it wants to create a market-driven system like that in England."
But no extra funding will accompany the system, and schools in the bottom band will not necessarily get any extra cash to help them improve. Instead, local authorities will be expected to target intervention strategies and support.
Schools will also be unable to appeal their banding position if they think it is unfair - a situation the NUT says is "flawed".
In response, the Welsh Government says the system is not about apportioning blame, but identifying issues and tackling them effectively. "It is not what band a school is in that matters so much as what is in place and planned to improve the outcomes for learners; and that's true of schools in all bands," it said.
But such sentiments are likely to fall on deaf ears if league tables in all but name return and teachers find their efforts derided in the rankings.
FROM TABLES TO BANDS
2001: Wales stops publishing secondary league tables.
2007: Welsh pupils get "disappointing" results in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests.
2010: In November, a Bristol University study claims scrapping league tables had a "sizeable" impact on grades, equal to a fall of almost two GCSE grades per student per year.
2010: In December, "disastrous" Pisa results see Wales fall further behind other UK nations.
2011: In February, education minister Leighton Andrews announces a school grading system, later renamed a banding system.
2011: In September, secondaries are given their provisional banding information.
2011: In December, final banding information, based on 2011 results, will be made public.