Headteachers in Wales have been strongly criticised by the country's chief education inspector for failing to focus on the "core business" of improving teaching and learning in their schools.
Speaking as her annual report was published this week, Estyn's Ann Keane said there was still "much to be done" to improve education in Wales, especially in the three key areas of literacy, numeracy and breaking the link between poverty and low attainment.
Her report revealed that the proportion of schools judged to be good or excellent in 2011-12 was slightly lower than during the previous year, despite intense pressure from government for improvement. Standards were variable across all sectors but more secondary schools were at the extremes of performance - either excellent or unsatisfactory - than primaries.
Ms Keane (pictured left) said there was "unevenness" in teaching standards between and within schools, and that the remedy lay in the capacity and quality of leadership. "It's not enough to delegate responsibility to heads of department. Heads have to get to grips with the quality of teaching and learning in their schools," she said.
All heads should address mediocre teaching performance "robustly", and secondary heads in particular needed to address shortcomings in the performance of middle and senior leaders, Ms Keane said. Heads needed to make improving literacy and numeracy and closing the poverty gap central to their planning, and mobilise their resources to make it happen, she said. "Leaders need to change the culture in schools in order to promote these priorities," she added.
Ms Keane said the Welsh government's literacy and numeracy framework, and the #163;7 million support programme announced this week (see panel, left), should help to raise standards by supporting teachers.
In literacy, Ms Keane said that writing standards remained a concern across all sectors, and that there was an "unacceptable" degree of variability in the reading level scores of Year 6 pupils from tests carried out by local authorities last summer. From this summer, the Welsh government is introducing national reading and numeracy tests for every age group from Year 2 to Year 9, which should make national comparisons easier.
The lack of progress in breaking the link between poverty and low attainment was also highlighted in the annual report. Ms Keane blamed a lack of staff commitment to raising the achievement of disadvantaged learners.
The report was also highly critical of the performance of local authorities. In the past two years, 15 out of the 22 have been inspected, of which only five have been rated good, six adequate and four unsatisfactory, with two placed in special measures. None was rated excellent. Ms Keane said the problems identified by inspectors were often due to limited capacity and capability among officers as well as a failure of elected members to challenge performance.
The comments will no doubt influence the ongoing review of education service delivery recently launched by education minister Leighton Andrews, which will explore a number of options including whether local authorities should be merged or lose their education responsibilities altogether.
Despite the criticism, Dr Philip Dixon, director of teaching union ATL Cymru, welcomed the report. "It strikes a good balance between carrot and stick," he said. "The main problem we still have though is that in almost every sphere there is too much variation.
"Those on the chalk face can legitimately expect that heads, local authorities and the government should act as 'brokers' of best practice. The report is very candid about the negative impact on schools caused by lack of capacity and capability in small local authorities. It makes a strong case for collaboration - but not abolition."
Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said most heads would accept the findings of the report. "One cannot dispute that strong leadership at all levels of the workforce, with a clear focus on teaching and learning, is essential," he said. "Unfortunately, too many headteachers report that they are frustrated by the various obstacles that they face when they do challenge mediocrity, with the ongoing battle to implement appropriately the new performance management regulations a good example."
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The Welsh government's flagship programme to improve standards in literacy and numeracy was published this week along with a #163;7 million support programme to help schools deliver it.
The Literacy and Numeracy Framework will support curriculum planning in primary and secondary schools and help teachers to monitor pupils' progress against national literacy and numeracy targets for pupils aged 5-14.
But teaching union NUT Cymru has threatened strike action over the introduction of national reading and numeracy tests, fearing they could lead to increased workload for teachers.
Schools will have a full academic year to embed the framework before it becomes statutory in September 2014.