Wales faces long, hard road to recovery

Inspectorate report reveals extent of literacy problems at key stage 3

Darren Evans

Welsh ministers already know they have their work cut out to improve the country's literacy standards. Major problems in the education system, highlighted in international league tables such as Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment), have even made headlines beyond Offa's Dyke.

But this week policymakers received another stark reminder of the scale of their challenge, following the publication of a report by schools inspectorate Estyn.

For the first time, the inspectorate has detailed a number of issues in key stage 3. Inspectors visited 21 secondary schools across the country and found that, although improving literacy was a priority for most, only a handful set out how it should be taught across different curriculum subjects.

A few schools did not even mention improving literacy standards in their development plans, despite it being a national priority set out by the devolved assembly government.

The inspectors visited Year 9 lessons in science or humanities subjects. In the majority of schools they found weaknesses in the marking of pupils' written work, and said that not enough teachers consistently highlighted errors in spelling and punctuation. They found several examples of pupils making the same mistakes over and over.

In some schools teachers relied too much on worksheets, which limited more able pupils, and used photocopied booklets and other materials with pupils of all abilities, preventing less able pupils from developing their skills and more able pupils from stretching theirs.

The report adds to the growing evidence that serious literacy problems exist in Wales's schools. In January, chief inspector Ann Keane's annual report revealed that 40 per cent of pupils enter secondary school with reading ages significantly below their actual age. And about 20 per cent of those pupils are considered functionally illiterate, with reading ages of below nine and a half years.

Last month, the government launched its long-awaited National Literacy Programme, which includes frameworks for improving literacy and numeracy standards in schools and national reading and maths tests for all pupils aged 7-14. Primary and secondary schools will be obliged to use the framework to embed the teaching of literacy and numeracy skills in all subjects, rather than just in English, Welsh and maths lessons.

Annual reading tests, which will be introduced in September, with the first tests to be taken in May 2013, are designed to give more consistent results and provide a more accurate reflection of pupils' ability and progress.

Launching a consultation on the programme last week, education minister Leighton Andrews said: "Nothing is more important than ensuring all of our young people have the skills they need to read, write and communicate.

"The challenges ahead of us are very clear. It is vital that we see a step change in literacy and numeracy standards."

But not everyone is positive about the programme's chances of success. Conservative shadow education minister Angela Burns said that the programme must win the confidence of teachers and claimed that a "succession of missed targets" by the government have failed to inspire much confidence.

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Aled Roberts said that the programme must be "fit for purpose" and be able to achieve its aims, or it would be "yet another unsuccessful upheaval for teachers and pupils".

In its report, Estyn said that schools should make developing literacy skills a priority in all schemes of work and that teachers should be trained to plan more challenging oppor- tunities in all subjects to improve reading and writing skills among pupils.

Inspectors will revisit the 21 schools as the National Literacy Programme is developed over the next two years, to see how they progress.

Keeping it in the family

Estyn has found that more schools are using data to evaluate their performance and compare it to other, similar schools.

Since 2009, schools in Wales have been grouped into "families" of similar schools based on the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals, the percentage of pupils with special educational needs and other socio-economic factors.

Chief inspector Ann Keane said that, historically, there has been a lack of consistency in how schools and local authorities evaluate their performance to identify areas for improvement.

But since 2009, more have been introducing strategies to tackle underperformance and share good practice within their "families", which is having a positive impact on teachers' professional learning, she said.

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Darren Evans

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