‘School banding undermines the focus on collaboration’ – Western Mail Article

2 Dec

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Next month will see the third annual publication of school bandings in Wales. As many people will no doubt already be aware teachers have opposed the system since the outset and are increasingly worried about the impact it is having on children’s education.

Teachers have outlined two particular concerns, amongst many, about the way the bandings are put together. Firstly, the system at present judges schools on an annual basis. One consequence of this is that school performance is viewed in the context of just one cohort of pupils. This, unfortunately, gives a rather misleading picture for parents that has resulted in hugely volatile outcomes. For example, we saw the number one ranked school in Wales according to the 2011 bandings drop over 150 places in just one year. Another school was the first ever in Wales to receive outstanding ratings across the board in its Estyn inspection, yet in the same year it went from band 1 to band 3. That unpredictability cannot be informative for parents who are left to ponder competing analysis of schools from different sources.

A much more realistic picture for parents would be presented if these bandings were published on data collated over a longer period of time. Potentially every 3-5 years. While this may not be in-keeping with the 24/7 news agenda of modern life it would be a better indicator for schools and allow a fairer assessment of actual performance. It is important of course to recognise the challenges of not leaving children behind through a longer appraisal process, but it is equally harmful to the education of those pupils if their school is in a state of constant flux as a result of the existing volatility. We have to question which, in the long-term, is most appropriate for creating a world leading education system, an ambition shared by everyone involved in the sector in Wales.

A further concern is that the current approach to banding is based on a norm referencing system. This means that schools are not ranked purely on their own merits but in relation to the performance of others. Ignoring the lack of logic behind comparing a school in Bangor with one in Barry; Newtown or Newport; the Gower or Gwynedd, and the different social; geographical; economic and cultural challenges that those areas present, the fact is that this system puts schools in competition with one another and means there is no real way to show national improvements. While the scores of individual schools may rise and fall the net result will be that under this system there will always remain roughly the same amount of schools in each of the five bands. It is consigning a set number of schools to be in the bottom bands irrespective of national performance.

Last year the then Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM, said that there had been noticeable improvements amongst band 4 and 5 schools. However, to any parent looking at the headline figures the state of play was almost identical. Yes you can track individual schools to an extent but there will always be an inbuilt bias in the system that locks a percentage of schools in the lowest bands. There is no escaping that fate for some. What is more, this system completely undermines the focus on collaboration. While the Welsh Government have policies, such as the lead and emerging practitioners programme that are focused on schools helping each other, the overarching banding system makes that ambition redundant. Under the existing referencing approach schools are apprehensive about collaboration as they know any improvement in banding scores for others could mean a decline in their own status.

What would be a more progressive system is one that sets an average for each band and that through criterion referencing schools can actually empty the bottom bands if they reach high enough performance ratings. Not only would this remove the glass ceiling for the lower bands it would also address some of the fears about collaboration. Schools, no longer explicitly in competition with one another where banding rankings are concerned, would be free to work closer together. Given that we know the best form of continued professional development is peer-to-peer support it makes perfect sense that we aim to help encourage that as much as possible. That includes taking away any potential barriers to its application.

Teachers, and parents, have lost confidence that banding can successfully improve standards. Increasingly it is seen as delivering the opposite of that objective. To give credit to the Education Minister he has stated that he will be reviewing the metrics that contribute to the banding scores. Hopefully that will also include looking at the structure of the system and any potential anomalies, such as those detailed above, that could be addressed to help create a system that has greater support amongst the profession and the wider public. The fact the Education Minister has been prepared to look at policies as an on-going practice is certainly positive.

While implementing these changes certainly would not resolve all the major problems with banding, they would be a step in the right direction to supporting parents in making more informed judgements.

You can read the origional article as published here

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