We must be honest about our problems

14th March 2008 at 00:00
There has been much discussion about the report from the chief inspector, Dr Bill Maxwell, published a couple of weeks ago.

The headlines are well known - the primary sector in Wales appears to be thriving while the secondary sector is more worrying in its performance. The FE sector and its colleges appear to be on a steep curve of improvement, but generally the rapid rise in educational standards that we have seen in Wales since 2000 is levelling off. The local authorities are criticised.

We should not be too concerned about some aspects of this report. The English chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, has reported a similar plateau of improvement in England, which also has an increasing number of schools causing concern at the trailing edge of performance. There is probably a similar proportion of one school in 10 not doing well enough.

But within the report are some worrying statistics that will fuel concern that our education system has major problems.

First, the report gives information about the proportion of our children with the "headline indicator" of five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, by comparison with England. The gap between the two countries is now an astonishing 8 per cent compared with 2 per cent in 2002, suggesting as in the Programme for International Student Assessment statistics on 15-year-olds globally, released before Christmas, that things are going badly wrong here.

Second, there are the school buildings - half of schools have "some poor aspects of accommodation", a finding strangely absent from the Assembly government's press release and the chief inspector's report.

Third, there is non-attendance at school. Unauthorised absence, the true definition of truancy, is at its highest level for eight years. This strangely is also absent from the government press release and the chief inspector's report.

Then there are the local authorities. We in Wales, probably alone in the world, have been allowing LAs to increase the amount of money they "hold back" from schools to about 25 per cent of total education budgets, from the 15 per cent they controlled when the Assembly began. There are 22 LAs, highly variable in their quality, and with a pound;1,400 difference in the amount of money they spend per pupil.

Getting them right in Wales is vital, because they have been given an importance - as in the School Effectiveness Framework released recently - that they have long ceased to have elsewhere.

In fairness, the government press release and the chief inspector's report said the quality of the local authority services was "patchy" and "overall worse than last year".

But delve into the report and you will find that it is actually "much worse" than last year and "the worst since 2001". Dr Maxwell omitted a key word. Why?

Other things have happened to the text. One-third of LA services are said to be "poor" and two-thirds are "unlikely to improve", but in the summary report the poor figures are not mentioned, and in the case of the two-thirds, "we were uncertain about the prospects for improvement in the short term".

In the report, he believes they are unlikely to improve, in the summary he is uncertain. Dr Maxwell appears to have "sexed down" his own findings.

Everyone is being urged to collaborate in the framework. Without it, nothing will work. But collaboration requires trust and honesty.

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth and Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Exeter. He lives in South Wales.

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