Wednesday 19 December 2012

School bandings - a confused parent writes

There should probably be a law against it, but Cneifiwr has raised five children. Three have now flown the nest and have all found decent jobs, in part thanks to their ability to speak more than one language. The fourth is at university in Cardiff, allegedly studying languages, and the fifth - a happy accident was how the doctor described him - is a year and a half away from going up to senior school. Smug, I know.

The subject of which school he will go to is a bit of a hot topic in Tŷ Cneifiwr. In practice he has a choice of two, and Cneifiwr is very keen to see him cross the border and go to Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul (no offence to any school governors who may be reading).

Cneifiwr Junior is going through that difficult stage where everything English is cool, and Welsh is not. Except when Wales does well in rugby. Cneifiwr, who has Victorian Dad tendencies, keeps trying to explain that while all those nasal mutations may be just a little bit of a pain, he will thank his old dad for it one day.

If you don't currently have a child at one of the secondary schools, and sometimes even if you do, getting a good feel for what the different schools on offer in your area are really like can be very difficult. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence doing the rounds. Ysgol Bro Preseli in Crymych has a very good and probably well-deserved reputation; Ysgol Uwchradd Aberteifi went through a rocky patch but seems to be on the up under a new head; Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn has also gone through a bad period but the early indications are that it will turn itself round. Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi certainly has had its own share of problems, but the school is on a human scale, has a positive atmosphere about it and is trying very hard. And it has a strongly Welsh ethos.

Ceredigion schools also appear to have performed rather better in the GCSEs than their counterparts over in Carmarthenshire, although GCSE results are a statistical jungle.

Change the names, and whether you live in Gwynedd, Gwent or Neath Port Talbot, the picture is likely to be more or less the same.

Apart from the anecdotal evidence and open evenings when all schools will try to present themselves in a positive light, where else can parents go who care about their child's education?

Well, they can take a look at what different local authorities have to say about their schools, but you might as well ask George Osborne if he thinks he's doing a good job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. No matter how poor or mediocre some of the GCSE results were at a local authority level this year, they all found something to crow about.

You could also plunge into Estyn's reports. These come in two main forms: a review at local authority level, and a report on individual schools.

It is unlikely that many parents will take the trouble to read Estyn's reports, and having waded through the turgid prose and jargon on quite a few occasions, Cneifiwr can sympathise. To be fair to Estyn, its reports are aimed at several very different audiences (local authority education departments, school governors, teachers and parents), but the value of some of the local authority reports is very questionable.

Here are a few selected quotes taken from the report on Carmarthenshire earlier this year:

Senior leaders have taken difficult decisions which are responded to proactively.

Key plans align well at all levels and senior leaders work in a sophisticated way with a range of strategic partners across public services to set high level priorities together.

Senior leaders understand clearly the impact of wider regeneration and social care on educational outcomes.

If you understand that, well done.

The overall judgment on Carmarthenshire in 2012 was "good", and the county council's Ministry of Spin was quick to seize on this with a press release headed "Education in Carmarthenshire is Good".

But who are these "senior leaders"? Presumably they are the highly paid officers who sit at the top of the county's education department. And what is Estyn referring to when it talks about regeneration? The county's shiny new shopping malls? The closure of large numbers of village schools? Plans to build a new school in a flood plain? Parc y Scarlets?

At about the same time as this back slapping was going on, Estyn published a report on Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, one of the schools those senior leaders are responsible for. The overall finding was: unsatisfactory. Reports on other schools in Carmarthenshire are a mixed bag. Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn in Llandovery was labelled "adequate". Quite a few others have not had an inspection for years.

Our local newspaper, the Carmarthen Journal, found space for the first report on the county ("good"), but did not have a word to say about the dire report on one of the main secondary schools in its area. But that's another story.

So much for Estyn. What about the new banding system? The BBC has produced a handy summary here.

There are five bands, with 1 being the best and 5 the worst. Carmarthenshire does not have a single school in Band 1. Its best scoring school comes in at number 49 out of all secondary schools in Wales, and its flagship Queen Elizabeth High in Carmarthen on which tens of millions have been spent is down in Band 5. Half of the county's schools are in the bottom two bands.

Ironically one of the best performers, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, is earmarked for closure. Remember that the same school was given a measly "adequate" by Estyn.

Somehow it's hard to square this with Estyn's overall grade of "good", isn't it? But then it's also hard to understand why other schools in different parts of Wales have crashed from Band 1 to Band 4 in the space of a year, or how others have soared from Band 5 to Band 2.

When you compare what the local authorities, Estyn and the Welsh Government's banding system have to say, they might as well be talking about three completely different school systems in parallel universes. Perhaps the gossip down the pub is the best indicator after all.


jane davies said...

Home education seems to work quite

m1books said...

The best indicator of all is the pupil voice. Listen to them as they come out of the gates, ask them what's good and bad about their school. Out of the mouths of babes....

Anonymous said...

In truth, if you really cared about your kid you'd be skimping and saving every single penny to send him to a private school.

The fact that you seem happy to consider state education in Wales, no matter where, says everything about you as a parent.

And yet there are still so many like you. I will never understand why.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for those poisonous comments. I care very much about my son, and will leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I notice you are getting more of those kind of comments lately Cneifiwr - go to the top of the class because I think you are hitting a nerve - it's called the truth. Good on you!

m1books said...

It is almost not worth a response such is the insulting tone of your 20/12. Some of the reasons parents choose to send their children to state comprehensives are so that they experience diversity, multiculturalism, an understanding of equality and develop tolerance.
All too often missing from the cosseted private sector and clearly not something anon. is blessed with. So why bother to read the blog anyway? Some of that vitriol could be far better directed at the often very controversial decisionmaking of the local county council.

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

The bandings are fairly useless: if you're at the top of the game, you have to get *even better* in order to stand still, and if you draw from the less poor bits of Wales, you have to do even better.

Also, the criteria for assigning schools into bands are based on the quintile rankings. So, guess what, if my school does better, I will push someone further down the rankings. A nil sum game is where you take off someone else to get better. For all the bandings tell us, most schools in Wales may be equally good or equally bad. gives the raw data on GCSE points - that's more useful for me, and can be used to create a real league table without the politically correct spin.

Pace your 13.22 correspondent, there is excellent secondary schooling available in the state sector locally. For what it's worth, in Bro Cneifiwr my choice would be Ysgol y Preseli: oversubscribed and Top of the Pops, but with caring staff and a homely feel.

You mean there's more??? said...

Bro Elvis or Bro Preseli as it is more normally known, under Martin Lloyd and latterly Mike D has delivered simply outstanding education for my children. For three of them that was hardly suprising as they are A grade academic types. But one was a child with special educational needs which primary school wanted dealt with by sending him to the gulag in Narbeth. He flew though high school thanks largely to Anne Pash and the staff in the SEN unit.

Which of them is, at 20, self employed and in huge demand even in recession?

Anonymous said...

Apologies, I didn't intend to offend. Just to point out the absurdity of education in Wales.

If it ain't good enough, and it isn't, why accept it? Either complain bitterly and get something done about it or avoid the system entirely by opting for private education (and all the hardships this may entail).

This 'Welsh way' of just accepting has to end!

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 13:22 - Successful children have parents who love and invest time in them! With three children in decent jobs and one in university, need I say more!

Cneifiwr ...... I take my hat off to you!