The school inspection report that shows how far Wales has to go in improving the education of its poorest children
Wales will only prosper if it has a well-educated population: that should be clear to everyone.
But a school inspection report published the other day provided depressing evidence of the huge educational challenges still faced in many of our poorer communities.
In May Estyn, the school inspection body, carried out its first inspection of Caerau Primary School in Caerau, near Maesteg, for nearly eight and a half years.
The school has been put into special measures, which means firstly that the inspectors formed a pretty low opinion of how it was run, and secondly that significant improvements will only come if there is significant change underpinned by external help and monitoring.
A quarter of a century ago, pro-devolution campaigners were clear that the establishment of what is now the Senedd would see tangible change for the better in terms of prosperity. No one doubted that meant improving educational attainment in the poorest parts of Wales, where more well-paid jobs could only be created if workers had the skills that were attractive to employers.
It’s therefore extremely disappointing to read the latest inspection report on Caerau Primary School.
Free school meals
We learn at the outset that, on a three-year average, 55.7% of its pupils have been entitled to free school meals, against a Welsh average for primary schools of 23.0%. This is the standard recognised measure of poverty in schools. Having a positive impact in a school like Caerau Primary would be, one might think, a major priority.
The inspection report starts well: “Caerau Primary School is an inclusive school that fosters strong relationships between adults and pupils, and supports their emotional and social needs effectively. Provision for pupils’ well-being is a key priority for leaders, and teachers create calm and thoughtful learning environments. As a result, most pupils behave well and demonstrate care and support towards each other.”
In view of what follows, however, such comments quickly retreat into the background and lose their lustre. Instead we focus on descriptions of the school’s shortcomings like this: “The school collaborates closely with parents, but poor attendance and notable lateness hamper the progress of too many pupils across the school. The school has developed a curriculum that offers interesting learning experiences. It provides valuable opportunities for pupils to learn about Welsh history and culture and to develop their personal and social skills.
“However, the curriculum does not develop pupils’ skills systematically enough. Added to this, the majority of teaching does not lead to effective learning.
“Pupils develop skills, such as their communication and digital skills, appropriately. However, their progress in reading, writing and mathematics is not strong enough.
“Throughout a period of instability, leaders have worked hard to provide a positive environment that supports pupils’ well-being. However, the leadership team has too little impact on the quality of teaching and learning at the school. Their strategies to evaluate pupils’ learning and to bring about improvements are not effective enough. While the governing body supports the school wholeheartedly and is taking steps to become more effective, it does not meet all of its responsibilities appropriately.”
One comment in a more detailed section of the report stands out: “Overall, the quality of teaching is too inconsistent. In the majority of lessons, teaching is weak, and this hampers the progress that pupils make in their learning.”
A further section expresses disappointment at the failure of school governors to challenge the senior staff robustly: “Governors have begun to visit the school and develop a better first-hand knowledge of what is working well. However, this work is at an early stage and, over time, governors have not challenged the school’s leaders or held them to account well enough.
“For example, they have not questioned leaders robustly about strategic decisions, such as ending school early on Friday afternoon. This decision has had a notable impact on pupils’ poor attendance. Governors and leaders now recognise the need to reconsider this decision carefully. There is a high proportion of temporary staff at the school as a result of an extended period of staffing turmoil.
“Across the school, the quality of teaching is too inconsistent and, in too many classes, teachers’ expectations of what pupils can achieve are not high enough. Leaders have not taken the appropriate actions to ensure that all teachers deliver consistently good classroom practice that moves pupils’ learning forward over time.”
There is clearly a lot of work to be done before current and future pupils at Caerau Primary have the same life chances as their counterparts in more prosperous parts of Wales.
And yet because of the double whammy of spending cuts and higher inflation, there is every likelihood that schools of this kind will be forced to reduce their teaching staff. This doesn’t make sense from any point of view and poses a severe risk that another generation of children will be condemned to poverty.
We needn’t think, either, that the problems identified at Caerau Primary are rare aberrations. Schools across Wales have been further disadvantaged by the pandemic, as is made clear in Estyn’s most recent annual report, which states: “Cases of Covid-19 among learners and staff caused continued disruption to teaching and learning throughout the year.
Overall, learners’ skills have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. This is especially the case for numeracy and literacy skills, particularly oracy skills. The social and personal skills of a minority of learners have also been affected, especially the youngest children and those who have struggled to settle back into more ‘normal’ educational routines.
“Learners’ use of spoken Welsh generally declined as a result of the pandemic. Restrictions have had a negative impact on learning involving practical elements, including work placements, practical assessments for vocational qualifications and subjects such as music, design and technology and physical education.
“Overall, the progress providers are making towards implementation of the Curriculum for Wales is too variable.
“Across all sectors, there has been a notable increase in demand for well-being and mental health support. Attendance, in schools in particular, continues to be below pre-pandemic levels and persistent absence issues have increased. There have been significant challenges related to staffing, particularly in terms of managing Covid-related absences, sourcing supply staff and recruiting new staff.
Summing up the impact of Covid-19 on poorer pupils, the annual report said: “In 2021-22, external research and our inspection and engagement work showed that children and young people from deprived backgrounds were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In many cases, these learners fell behind more than their more privileged counterparts and their attendance, which was already poorer, became worse.
Research also shows that child poverty in Wales is worse than in all the other UK nations, with an average of 34% of children in Wales living in poverty.”
Of course there are points to be made about an austerity-focused UK Government that has let Wales down in terms of funding, and there are those who believe schools should not have been shut during the Covid lockdowns.
That’s not a route I’ll explore, believing as I do that opening schools prematurely could easily have resulted in many more deaths.
But we should definitely see the Caerau Primary inspection report as an urgent reminder that improving the standard of education in impoverished communities must now be a major priority – as it should have been for the last 25 years.
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