What’s wrong with banding – Part I

5 Sep

In a recent post responding to TES Cymru’s poll of teachers in Wales I noted that only 10% of the workforce believed that the school banding policy had been positive. In reality the only real shock about that figure is that it is as high as it is. The confusion it has created for parents, especially due to the yo-yo results it throws up and its conflicting analysis to Estyn inspections, coupled with the damaging impact it has had on morale amongst teachers has created chaos. It is hard to really see where the positives could come from with the way the policy has been set up at present.

Like the vast majority of the profession I would like to see the whole banding policy scrapped. It offers little in terms of standards and has had a negative impact on the implementation of other aspects of Welsh Government policies.

There are a great number of problems with the theory and application of the banding system, indeed league tables in general. However, in this post I am just going to concentrate on one aspect which is to look at current way in which schools are separated into bands.

When banding was first proposed most people assumed the process would be based on a criterion referenced system. This would mean that there would be a baseline to each band (presumably established by the first round of banding) which would provide every school with the yardstick to aim for in order to progress up through the bands. In an ideal world, with standards being as high as possible, the numbers of schools in Band 1 would increase and eventually we could see an emptying of Bands 4 and 5.

However, and this is something the vast majority if not all parents do not understand, what we have currently is a norm referenced system whereby the scores required to get into each band are not a constant, but instead change each year depending on the average performances of schools. As a result we are left in a scenario where each year we will essentially end up with the same number of schools in each of the five bands.

So what are the major problems with this? Well firstly it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for teachers and the Welsh Government to demonstrate improvement on a national level. Hypothetically, it could be a case that each year there is an improvement in standards and that 5/10/15 years down the line the school at the very bottom of Band 5 is performing at a better standard (according to banding criteria) than the best performing school in Band 1 was when the system was first introduced. However, the national picture would still show roughly the same amount of schools in each of the five bands. The picture, to those who will just be dipping into the results each December, will look largely unchanged. How then, as a parent, are you supposed to make a qualified judgement on the state of Welsh education performance? Instead of comparing performance on a year by year basis the current system simply averages out the scores across one year, and crucially given the impact of exam results and free school meals (FSM) data, one cohort of pupils.

The second, and perhaps most crucial problem with this system, is that it pits schools against one another. If one school progresses up to a higher band, that will have the inevitable consequence of seeing a school from a higher band travelling downwards. A school cannot move up unless it essentially does so off the back of another institution.

Some may believe that competition is a good thing. Let’s allow the market sort out the weak from the strong and drive up standards. The problem is that education doesn’t work on the same principles as a mobile phone company or a sports retailer. Every leading education system in the world has collaboration at its heart. Those nations know that it is by working together, sharing expertise and resources and creating a community of educators, that standards are truly driven upwards. Indeed, rather ironically, many of the Welsh Government’s other initiatives are focused on this principle. We have consistently heard about the need to share best practice. There are, for example, the lead and emerging schools programmes and lead/emerging practitioner initiatives that have been introduced by the Welsh Government. These are focused on high performing schools and subject specialists working with partners to achieve a collaborative approach to education delivery. Sadly, banding in its current format is acting as a huge barrier to both of these policies, and indeed numerous more, being successful. Why would a school in Band 2 wish to send its English specialist to a school down the road in Band 4, knowing that the improvement in their performance as a result would almost certainly lead to the Band 2 school’s loss of status in the banding ranks? Why would a head teacher in a Band 3 school wish to support a rival school’s leadership development for example if it will essentially result in a poorer reflection of his or her school’s performance come the next round of banding? Banding actively discourages collaboration to the point that it is creating an insular and isolated culture in Welsh education.

A criterion referenced model of banding of course would eliminate part of this issue. While a lot of the problems with this league table style system would still exist, that barrier to collaboration would not necessarily be one of them, or at least not to the extent it currently is. If a school knows its standing is a reflection of its performance relative to set banding scores, and not a reflection of its performance relative to another school, it could open up its expertise knowing that helping others does not mean punishing itself. Indeed that’s when we get to the point that the shared best practice, and the personal development of individuals through mentoring and support, can truly start to transform the ethos, morale and performance of the system in Wales.

No doubt I will return to other aspects of the banding system that have caused concern at a later date.

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