The outcomes of the new school accountability system for Wales, school categorisation, are released tomorrow. We have yet to see the outcomes, but experience and history tells me that improvements will need to be made.
It is very rare that anything done for the first time is perfect. Good practice and common sense tell us that any new initiative should be evaluated and refined, and everyone involved in school categorisation needs to be prepared to do this.
Categorisation is a brand new way of holding our schools to account. It has the promise to be better than the discredited banding system that came before. It includes primary and secondary schools, and both are critical to the cumulative education that young people receive. It also promises to have some fixed points of reference so that schools will be able to show progress more accurately than before.
There is also focus on the performance of our most disadvantaged pupils. That focus is welcome. In general terms, free school meal pupils in Wales are not achieving as well as free school meal pupils in many other parts of the UK. But it is a concern that the categorisation calculations may actually make it harder for the schools with the greatest number of disadvantaged pupils to show the progress they are making in doing something about this.
A school that is making good progress with their disadvantaged pupils but is starting at a low point will have their progress judged more harshly than a school making exactly the same progress but starting from a higher point. If there is a dip in performance, again the school with a lower start point gets its dip marked more harshly than the school with a higher start point. School leaders, governors and parents will be interested in knowing the justification for this.
We are promised that every school will be able to have the progress it makes properly reflected in the scores and judgements it gets. We'll be looking closely at the method and the process involved so that we can be reassured that this does happen.
This matters because one of the key ingredients that is needed for a school to succeed is confidence – having leaders and teachers that are confident in the support they get, confident in the direction being taken and confident that progress can be properly captured, shown and shared.
No-one I have spoken to disagrees with having a smart, slim accountability system. Our school and college leaders fully expect to be held accountable for what they do. We all need the reassurance that the education our young people receive is effective and that public money is being well spent.
However these are tests that we should apply to determine whether an accountability system is fit for purpose:
Is it helping parents and others to accurately understand what is actually happening in our schools?
Does it help us evaluate if we are getting value for the money spent?
Does it make a positive contribution to supporting the education we want for all our young people, regardless of location, need and background, by helping us to get the right support to be given to where it will have the biggest impact?
ASCL Cymru will be applying these tests to categorisation.
As part of this we will look carefully to see whether schools with high levels of deprivation, based on free school meals, fare comparatively worse than other schools under the new formula – and we will expect the Welsh government to consider that as part of any review of the new formula.
Categorisation is far from perfect. It can and should be refined and improved. That’s a discussion school leaders should be contributing to and we look forward to having that opportunity.
But more importantly, the whole story of what is happening in a school cannot be fully captured in a few bits of data and reduced to one grade in a simple grading system. Schools are complex communities, responding to the many different needs that exist among our young people.
Categorisation should be seen as one part of a range of ways in which a school’s performance can be described and evaluated.
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