Painting the Picture of Categorization

29 Jan

“Give freedom to colours and then you shall meet the rainbow everywhere” – Mehmet Murat ildan

Yesterday saw the publication of school categorization, the system which places schools in a color-coded model running from Green-Red via Yellow and Amber.  It is the second year these figures have been published following the scrapping of the controversial and ultimately discredited school banding policy.

One of the early successes of categorization, in contrast to its predecessor, is the way the Welsh Government have attempted to communicate its worth.  Despite it supposedly not being the objective of banding the Welsh Government did appear to, intentionally or otherwise, promote the view that this was the primary way of judging schools.  Very quickly it became the go to measure for schools and created damaging competition and rivalry within the system, and mislead a great number of parents as to the quality of their local provisions.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that often the rankings contrasted wildly with Estyn inspections and by year two we saw some radical changes in rankings  where schools classed as the best in Wales one year were in need of emergency intervention the next. (or vice versa).

There were some real concerns with the effectiveness and foundations of banding.  You can read some of my thinking at the time here if you are feeling particularly nostalgic.  However, perhaps the biggest puzzle was why the Welsh Government had created a system that would not actually allow progress to be shown.  Under banding for any school that moved up the bands another had to drop down.  Why any government would wish to put in place an accountability measure that would not enable them to show positive results I have no idea.

It is therefore very pleasing to see that categorization has learnt from that mistake.  It is somewhat ironic that the positive news story being championed of so many additional schools in the green category this year could not exist under banding.  I am reluctant to get drawn into the discussion of saying all is well in Welsh education based on the fact that we have more schools in green for two reasons.  Firstly, changes to the way categorization is put together mean you can’t in all honesty compare like for like with last years results.  Although I am of the understanding that it certainly isn’t any easier to secure positive results this year compared to 2015.  Secondly, education moves in a cyclical motion.  Who knows how things will pan out next year when small changes in some schools make a big difference to the end result?

That issue of small changes having such a large impact is something small schools in Wales have felt aggrieved about.  I think they have a legitimate concern in fairness.  In a school of 1,000 pupils one individual under-performing will not have anywhere near the same impact on the schools overall outlook compared to a single pupil in a school of 100.  In that sense the system is unfair on them.  To credit the Welsh Government I do believe the nature of how categorization works, taking into account more than just raw data as banding did, does mitigate that concern in a better way.  However, it is still an issue that everyone should take into consideration.  We should always reflect on the system to see where ongoing improvements can be made.

While I would guard against seeing these categorization results as a definitive assessment of schools in Wales they, taken alongside the encouraging Estyn report; GCSE results; A Level results and other indicators, do show a growing narrative of positive action.  Progress is being made against the backdrop of continuing challenging times.  The hope is we can keep that momentum going as the new curriculum comes in and the New Deal is developed.  If we manage to get those two big policies implemented effectively, and that is a very big if still, then there is no telling where we could go.

Whatever your views on categorization, and there is still reservations undoubtedly about the system, it is a marked improvement on what we had before.  The Welsh Government have been far more prepared to discuss the system as a developing tool and have been more focused on making it a model for identifying support rather than proportioning blame.  The real test of course will be to see if that promise of support is delivered.  If we do see schools receiving quality support from categorization I think it could prove to be a useful and effective tool, if not then inevitably it will lose the confidence of the sector.  Fingers crossed for the former.

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