Monday 27 January 2014

Below expectations - Carmarthenshire's secondary schools

The Welsh Government last week published a report on academic achievement at GCSE weighted for relative levels of economic disadvantage as measured by the take-up of free school meals. The report, which you can find here, was picked up by the Western Mail and the Daily Post in North Wales.

What it shows is that there is a wide variation in performance at GCSE between the different Welsh local authorities. Some do very well, such as Neath Port Talbot, Conwy, Flintshire, Swansea and Ceredigion, all of which out-performed expectations.

There were one or two spectacular fails, most notably Merthyr Tydfil, while a larger group failed to meet targets by varying degrees. These included Carmarthenshire, which performed worse than most of the councils for which there were comparable targets.

The gap between the performance of children in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire is truly staggering. The percentage achieving the Level 2 Threshold (including an A*-C in English, Welsh and Maths) at GCSE was 63% in Ceredigion, compared with 54% in Carmarthenshire. The only local authority to score higher than Ceredigion was Flintshire at 65%.

Ceredigion is overwhelmingly rural, but the urban or largely urban Neath Port Talbot and Swansea both performed much better than expected at GCSE, and just like Carmarthenshire they all have areas of significant social deprivation.

The latest report follows hard on the heels of the Welsh Government's banding tables, which were published in December. The banding tables tell a similar story. Not one secondary school in Carmarthenshire achieved a Band 1 rating, whereas Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Ceredigion all did well. Practically the only success story in Carmarthenshire was Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn which went from Band 4 to Band 2 after a major shake-up.

Strikingly some of the worst rated schools in Carmarthenshire are those which have attracted the most money from the council's Modernising Education Programme. The flagship Queen Elizabeth High went from Band 1 in 2011 to Band 5 in 2012, before climbing back to Band 4 in 2013.

The banding system has attracted a lot of criticism, but taken with the weighted GCSE performances set out in the latest report and also GCSE results in absolute terms, a picture is emerging of significantly worse performance than neighbouring local authorities apart from Pembrokeshire.

Carmarthenshire is not about to join the other Welsh local authorities which have been put into special measures, but people in Monmouthshire may be wondering why the chief executive of Carmarthenshire was parachuted in as a part of a special task force to turn round their county's schools when his time could perhaps have been better spent sorting out problems at home.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Carmarthenshire faces is recognising that it does have a problem, and that closing small schools and spending scores of millions on new school complexes do not guarantee a good education.

Judging from the picture the council likes to paint of itself, we are a very long way off the sort of honesty that will be needed if our children are to be given the same start as children in neighbouring Welsh authorities. Here is what the council's press office has had to say:

"Pupils in Carmarthenshire are top of the class" (Council press release on GCSE results in 2013)

"County's schools to get £120m windfall" (Carmarthen Journal publishing a re-hashed press release on the schools building programme in December 2013).

"Carmarthenshire is celebrating today" (same story in a press release from December 2011).

 "Pupils across Carmarthenshire have scored top marks in GCSEs" (Council press release on GCSE results in 2012).

Rather oddly, you may think, the Ministry of Spin has had nothing whatever to say about the bandings tables or the latest report.

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