This summer’s GCSE and A-level results have once again concentrated minds on the standard of the education system in Wales.
As usual, TV cameras and newspapers reported the results, analysing success, failure and progress or otherwise but concentrating on performance within the A*-C bands.
But when did you last see a smiling school pupil saying how pleased they were that through hard work and determination they’d actually managed to achieve a D grade at GCSE?
The trouble is, it’s not just the youngsters taking the exams who are being graded every summer, it’s the whole education system in Wales.
We all know that the Welsh Government’s annual report cards have read: “Could do better” or “Not good enough” for some years now, but it is completely unrealistic for them to be so reliant on simplistic targets like exam results and the A*-C threshold.
Despite the Education Minister’s written statement on July 3 this year, which attempted to separate the achievements of learners in examinations from the overall success of schools, in reality the grades achieved by pupils will always define how well a school is performing.
Even in recognising that there is “undue focus on the C grade”, the minister still clings to the threshold as an important indicator, so even though I applaud his attempts to try to change how we measure success, I believe that more could be done to acknowledge the aspirations and attainment of all pupils.
What we need is a system of continuous, individualised assessment which charts each student’s performance right through their time in school. That way, we can celebrate a school’s achievements for each individual in raising them to be at or above their anticipated outcome level by the time their GCSEs come around.
The current system sends a message to pupils, teachers and parents alike that only the very best grades matter, and that message is demoralising and misguided – which brings me on to school banding.
Banding was first used in Wales in December 2011, when secondary schools were split into five quintiles using exam results, attendance figures and the number of pupils on free school meals as the key indicators.
Each year, when the bands are released, Band One schools are eager to promote themselves to parents of potential pupils but the wild fluctuations from year to year can mean a Band One school in 2012 can be in Band Four a year later.
But because of the way that banding works, there will always be a fixed number of schools in each band, leaving parents (and many teachers) confused about why their school has been re-banded despite the fact its results have stayed the same.
In too many cases, the banding system and the results of Estyn inspections are at odds with each other leading to uncertainty and instability within the sector.
From September this year, primary schools will also be assessed and given grades, but I seriously question the wisdom and necessity of this move because of the risk that the perpetual anxiety to be successful will start to over-ride the desire to simply teach.
Most importantly, the very youngsters whose lives could be enhanced and inspired by learning are at risk of becoming completely disengaged from education as soon as they pick up on the fact that achievements are being measured in this way.
The value judgements being made in the system mean that too many youngsters can lose the motivation and ambition to try harder to reach their full potential.
I believe what we need for the future is a comprehensive and well thought out education policy. The policy should be developed with the education sector, so that rather than lurching from one failed initiative to the next in a series of unsettling upheavals, everyone in Wales can get behind a trusted, consensually-based model of working which will improve outcomes and ambitions.
Once that policy has been agreed and implemented it should be given plenty of time to “bed in”. In implementing such a model, school leaders and potential future leaders are crucial in helping to guide young people through the education system and we owe it to them to make sure they have the tools, training and support they need to do their jobs.
We also need to trust teachers to get on and teach, not insist on overloading them with vast swathes of assessment paperwork from a variety of different sources (using different criteria) so that they and their work can be graded accordingly.
On the positive side, there have been some welcome developments. In future, Estyn inspections will be undertaken with less notice, which will give a more accurate picture of our schools. From this September Estyn inspections will include reference to how schools spend their Pupil Deprivation Grant funding to make sure that disadvantaged pupils get all the additional support they need to improve attainment.
And a series of reviews and recommendations for qualifications and the curriculum will provide the basis for incremental change leading up to and past the next Assembly election.
Huw Lewis, as Education Minister, has the opportunity to provide a new style of leadership more in keeping with the needs of the modern sector. By building on a consensual approach we can develop a more appropriate and effective form of measuring overall attainment.
This would take massive commitment from all sides, as well as an abandonment of the “Punch and Judy” politics we see far too often in the Assembly, but considering the alternatives, I’d like to think that’s not an impossible task.