Estyn: schools have “coped well” but things aren’t “back to normal” yet

Published 17/03/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

The latest annual report from the education inspectorate, Estyn, suggests that, while schools have generally done well in supporting children and young people’s recovery, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a dark shadow over their progress.

The Senedd will debate this on Tuesday, as well as hearing from the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, Jeremy Miles, on the Welsh Government’s next steps in its ‘national mission’ to achieve “high standards and aspirations for all”.

The 2021/22 annual report is the first from Owen Evans as HM Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales (HMCI), and summarises the quality of provision in schools and other education settings inspected by Estyn in the last academic year. It was published in January and discussed in the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee on 2 February 2023.

In his statement to the Senedd, the Minister is expected to say more about the Welsh Government’s plans to improve education standards – something that’s been high on the agenda for over a decade.

More attention is now needed on teaching and learning

Last year, we wrote about Estyn’s main message that learners’ well-being should continue to be prioritised, as it was during the most acute phase of the pandemic. As Estyn resumed its inspections in 2022, following a pause due to both the pandemic and preparations for the new Curriculum for Wales, the full educational impact of the pandemic become clearer. HMCI told the CYPE Committee:

…during the pandemic, all schools, virtually without exception, focused on the well-being and mental health of pupils, and I think that's laudable. Where the best schools focused, though, as well, was on teaching and learning, and really that's where it's fallen behind, I think, in some schools that we do need to pay attention to.

He added that while schools had “coped well” with supporting learners’ recovery, this will “take time” and “any thoughts that we’re getting back to normal here should be dispelled”.

Another difficult year for schools

Schools have continued to face the challenges of the pandemic, at the same time as delivering the new curriculum and Additional Learning Needs (ALN) reforms. HMCI is generally positive about prospects for successful implementation of the reforms, whilst noting that progress has been variable. His annual report and evidence to the CYPE Committee highlighted problems such as:

  • Many of the issues that arose during the pandemic started to show gradual signs of improvement. However, literacy and numeracy skills, particularly oracy skills of younger pupils, have been slow to improve.
  • Some pupils have shown challenging behaviour as they struggled to readapt to the routines and expectations of school life and there have been higher demands for well-being and mental health support.
  • Attendance remains lower than before the pandemic, but “more worrying” is the attendance among the most disadvantaged learners. The gap with other learners is “widening, not shortening”.
  • There continues to be shortcomings in the quality of teaching and learning of Welsh in English-medium schools, and the majority of local authorities’ Welsh in Education Strategic Plans (WESPs) do not make concrete and ambitious plans to address this. In Welsh-medium schools, pupils’ lack of practice using Welsh during lockdowns, where Welsh was not spoken in the home, affected their confidence, fluency and inclination to speak the language in school.
  • There is too much variation in the opportunities available for 16-19 year olds across schools, colleges and work-based learning, depending on where a young person lives.
  • Children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and their educational progress has fallen further behind their peers.

A different approach with no graded judgements of schools

Under its new approach to inspections, adopted from 2022, Estyn no longer issues a summative grade of the schools it inspects, unlike in the past when it used four judgement categories: ‘Excellent’, ‘Good’, ‘Adequate and needs improvement’, and ‘Unsatisfactory and needs improvement’.

Estyn describes its rationale as follows:

Our new approach aligns with the personalisation of the new curriculum for Wales. Our inspections will also involve more in-person discussions, placing less emphasis on achievement data.

We believe our new inspection approach will make it easier for providers to gain meaningful insights that help them to improve without the spotlight on a judgement.

Estyn’s inspection reports include a key overview of findings focusing on a school’s strengths and areas for development. A separate report summary is issued for parents containing what Estyn calls “the key information they need about an inspection quickly”.

In the case of schools causing concern, Estyn continues to place schools in three levels of follow-up: ‘Estyn review’ and two statutory categories of intervention: ‘requiring significant improvement’ and ‘requiring special measures’ (these are in ascending level of concern).

As of August 2022 (the end of the reporting period):

  • Three primary schools were in special measures and one required significant improvement (out of a total of 1,214 primary schools);
  • eight secondary schools were in special measures and three required significant improvement (out of 178);
  • two all-age schools were in special measures (out of 27).

HMCI’s annual report includes sections on each of the sectors Estyn inspects.

The on-going ‘national mission’

The term ‘national mission’ was coined in 2017 by the previous Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, and referred to a “drive to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and public confidence”. The current Minister, Jeremy Miles, has continued this approach, prioritising “high standards and aspirations for all” and vowing to pursue all education policies through the lens of whether they help tackle the impact of poverty on educational attainment.

All of this reflects the on-going aim to raise educational standards, the genesis of which was the “wake up call to a complacent system” from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

More recently, the Welsh Government has published new school improvement guidance (June 2022) and the Minister set out his updated approach in written and oral statements in January. Considerable stock is being place on the new curriculum to help raise standards in the long-term, with a new suite of school performance measures under development.

In terms of evaluating progress over the past decade, eyes will be on Wales’ PISA 2022 results later this year. Will there be an acceleration to the limited pace of improvement last time? Will Wales remain the lowest of the UK nations? And will the Welsh Government achieve its target of 500 points in each of Reading, Mathematics and Science?

How to follow the debate and statement

The Minister is scheduled to give his statement in the Senedd on Tuesday 21 March 2023, with the debate on Estyn’s 2021/22 annual report to follow later the same day. You can watch it on Senedd TV and read the transcript shortly after.

Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament