School colour categorisation will be ditched in Wales in a move away from “high stakes” performance monitoring, the new head of standards in schools in Wales has told WalesOnline. The annual banding sees a traffic light system with the best schools colour coded green and the worst languishing on red.
Colour rankings were not carried out during the pandemic and are now not expected to return. Owen Evans, who is the new chief inspector at Welsh schools watchdog Estyn, said it would be part of a radical shake up, already under way, with on the spot and more frequent school inspections also now being suggested.
The Welsh Government would not confirm school colour categorisation would go but said an announcement will be made soon. Meanwhile a new focus will also look at how well schools tackle wellbeing and the poverty attainment gap.
School inspections, also halted since the pandemic, resumed under a reformed system piloted since Easter this year. Estyn inspection reports will no longer have headline rankings for schools of excellent, good, adequate and needs improvement or unsatisfactory and needs urgent improvement. Instead there will be evidence on how schools are performing and improving.
Mr Evans, who took over as Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales earlier this year, said he was in favour of unannounced visits to schools as well as more frequent inspections. Currently schools are inspected every seven years, which he believes is not often enough.
“Blind inspections give a better, more realistic view. I am looking at how we can go in more often working on adapted inspections,” he told WalesOnline.
Mr Evans said this was not to catch schools out and unannounced inspections would also mean less stress for teachers as the run up to a visit can pile on pressure.
Asked about using data to rate performance he said it was useful but had drawbacks and colour categorisation – f irst published in January 2015 and halted during the pandemic from 2021 – is not expected to return.
On new inspection reports he said: “The report now has a more succinct over view. It’s moving from high stakes good or bad to a focus on how schools can improve.
“All energy before went on where you are on the ladder, now it will be on how and where schools can improve. The rigour is still there because that’s our job.
“Even if we had all the data in the world I don’t think inspections should be data led, but supported by data. Our job is to reassure parents, learners and policy makers. We employ very experienced leaders and inspectors.”
Performance measures such as exam results will still be looked at, but won’t be the be all and end all – wellbeing and the poverty attainment gap as well as how to improve will be part of the new focus.
“Data is important and has a role but sometimes you can become a slave to data,” said Mr Evans, “If I am a teacher and what I’m measured on is exam results you teach to the test. Education is about more than that.”
The head of Estyn said he also wants to tackle differing school standards across Wales. He said some are “struggling” since Covid but in others “you would not know the pandemic had happened”.
“Variation between and within schools is an issue. We have some excellent schools but we have come that have struggled and we still have schools and local education authorities in Estyn categories.
“Equity and the attainment gap is one of the biggest issues. Non attendance is worrying and attendance is only 80% in some schools.
“The biggest thing wrong with schools is inconsistency – and that’s down to leadership. The best thing about schools in Wales is the incredible committed workforce, who are passionate about what they do.
“We are here to ensure standards of teaching are strong. The difference between a good school and a bad school is teaching – it all comes down t teaching. I am confident there are some brilliant teachers in Wales. I have seen school where you’d think the pandemic never happened.”
Under colour categorisation every school in Wales is attributed one of four colour-coded groups, green, yellow, amber or red. The system, launched in 2014 with the first rankings published in 2015.
Red schools are deemed “highly effective” while yellow are “effective”, amber “in need of improvement” and red “in most need of improvement”.
The accountability measure replaced the old, and also controversial, banding system and ranks primaries as well as secondaries according to a host of available data.
There is emphasis on the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals and the colour system also takes accounts of self-evaluation, moderated at a regional and national level.
The Welsh Government would not confirm school colour categorisation would go but said an announcement will be made soon. A spokesperson said: “Following a consultation, we will be announcing more details soon on our approach for school improvement, which will include the support available to schools following the suspension of school categorisation during the pandemic.”
Last year, as well as pausing colour banding, schools were not required to report performance measures such as exam results and attendance in prospectuses or to governing bodies, and instead that data was available on a national basis on the Welsh Government statistics online. That approach was continued this school year.
Local authorities and schools will not be required this year to include data on authorised and unauthorised pupil absences in their prospectuses and governing body annual reports will not include performance and attendance data for 2021 to 2022. Information at a national level only will be available on-line.
The bodies representing headteachers said they would be pleased to see colour categorisation go. They said the system was divisive and too blunt to help show where school standards really were.
“I would be delighted to see them go if that is the case. We did not want them in the first place , ” said Eithne Hughes, Director of the Association of School and College Leaders.
“There is stigma attached to children’s schools and communities if they are in the bottom two categories. It is a system of labelling schools and painting by numbers which reduces the complicated system of schools to traffic light colours.”
National Association of Headteachers Cymru Director Laura Doel said colour categorisation has had little to no impact on outcomes for learners.
“It was brought in as part of a new accountability system but did not focus on what made a real difference for our children and young people, instead it was predicated on a range of data including assessment, exam results and attendance, as well as assessment by the consortia.
“The focus is wrong, we should be looking at progress of pupil from starting points, achievement, value added, good leadership and of course teaching and learning.
“Publicly branding schools in such a crude way also has a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of the school. It is unfair to downgrade a school for needing support, surely we want to encourage a culture of being able to say there are areas where help is needed.”