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Mel Ainscow - Welsh schools moving up a gear

Mel Ainscow photoThe Welsh education system has many strengths, not least its inclusiveness, with most children attending their local neighbourhood schools. There is also a strong emphasis on community participation, encouraged by local authorities. There are, however, concerns regarding overall standards, particularly the progress of young people from low-income families. With this in mind, in 2014 the Government launched Schools Challenge Cymru. Drawing on international research regarding effective strategies for school change, its purpose is to inject greater pace into the improvement of Welsh schools.

Schools Challenge Cymru

Forty secondary schools provide the contexts for these efforts. Chosen because of their relatively high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, each of these schools is at a different stage of development. This being the case, each one has designed its own improvement strategy with the help of one of our national team of expert Advisers. Additional resources have been made available to support the schools in implementing these strategies. There is also an involvement in primary schools within the schools’ local cluster groups.

The schools taking part had previously experienced considerable difficulties in bringing about improvements in their performance. It is therefore encouraging to see the progress that has been made after only one year. Indeed, the overall rate of improvement across the schools involved is greater than that of the highest performing schools in Wales. To put this in a wider context, neither the much acclaimed London nor Greater Manchester Challenges had made the same progress after just one year.

There is, therefore, already a lot to celebrate. This progress provides a strong foundation for our efforts to have a wider impact across the education system during the current school year and beyond. In this respect there are already promising developments, as other schools draw lessons that are beginning to support capacity building across the education system.


Whilst it is essential to look at the progress of each school individually, there are certain patterns emerging in relation to the challenges they face. For example, there are:

  • Isolated schools – these are schools that seem to have previously had limited access to wider support for their improvement efforts. In a few instances, too, there is evidence of similar difficulties to those facing schools serving coastal towns that is apparent across the UK. In response to this, Advisers have encouraging schools to set up partnerships with other schools in order to widen the human resources available to support their improvement efforts. Progress in most cases is already encouraging as a result of these arrangements and it is anticipated that this will be even greater in the second year.

  • Schools working against the odds – these schools face a range of barriers to progress in relation to their standing within their local ‘education market place’. Usually they are not full and, therefore, have to admit students excluded from other schools. They also have difficulty in attracting suitably qualified teachers, particularly in subjects where there is a dearth of specialists. Given their poor local reputations, they are less likely to attract more aspirational families. Nevertheless, it is pleasing to report that there has already been notable progress in these schools as a result of the work of Advisers in helping to strengthen confidence, raise expectations and promote a faster pace of learning.

  • Schools in crisis. A small number of the schools present considerable challenges in that their previous histories have left them with a legacy of severe difficulties that block their progress. During the first year of the Challenge it was necessary to work with local authority colleagues in addressing these structural problems, which were mainly about aspects of management, leadership and governance. Unsurprisingly, progress in these schools in relation to examination results at the end of the first year was limited. However, given the structural changes that have now been instigated, it is anticipated that significant gains will be seen in the 2016 examination results. In each case, a partnership has been brokered with a high-performing school.

  • Schools needing a lift. A significant number of the schools appear to have plateaued over a number of years, although in a few cases things had started to pick up prior to Schools Challenge Cymru. The Advisers have worked with these schools to strengthen various aspects of their work - usually related to student tracking systems, and senior and middle leadership. Considerable attention has also been placed on the improvement of classroom practice through the use of powerful forms of school-based professional development. In most cases, too, there are partnerships with other schools in relation to these developments. Many of these schools have already seen significant improvements in examination results, in some cases dramatically so.

It should be noted that some of the schools can be associated with more than one of these descriptors.

Positive factors

During the second year of the programme we are building on the strategies that have proved to be most successful during the last twelve months. These are as follows:

  • The work of the team of Advisers – this has, in my view, been the most powerful lever for change. Our emphasis on ‘high trust, high accountability’ has meant that team members - all of whom have been successful school leaders - have had considerable autonomy to analyse particular contexts and get behind those within the schools in implementing changes. It is clear that different members of the team bring different skills and experiences to this work. The monthly team meetings have been an important context for the sharing of this expertise.

  • The Accelerated Improvement Boards – I have been surprised by the impact of these arrangements, which involve meetings in each school of a small group of stakeholder to monitor progress. Their power seems to be that they emphasise the importance of head teachers themselves taking responsibility for improvement strategies, using a small number of key outsiders as sources of support and challenge. The fact that the boards meet monthly means that pace is maintained and that those involved are holding one another accountable for carrying out agreed tasks. The notes of the meetings provide an efficient means of keeping other stakeholders informed in ways that avoid time-wasting reporting arrangements. It is encouraging, too, that this strategy is now being introduced more widely.

  • Professional learning – It is very clear that the rapid progress that has been achieved in many of the schools has resulted from the introduction of new forms of professional learning for practitioners. These are based on the findings of international research regarding what makes professional development powerful as a strategy for school improvement. In summary, the evidence is that effective professional development needs to involve a collaborative process which: is located mainly in classrooms; involves opportunities for teachers to see colleagues at work; promotes in-depth discussion, leading to the development of a language of practice; is based on an engagement with evidence, such that individuals are challenged to reconsider their taken for granted assumptions as to what is possible; and is facilitated by someone who has the expertise to help teachers understand the difference between what they are doing and what they aspire to do. It is worth adding that these strategies seem to have been particularly successful when they involve more than one school.

A final thought

Recently there has been much media attention focused on comparing the performance of Welsh schools with those in England. Given the differences that now exist regarding forms of assessment between the two countries this is becoming increasingly pointless. What is interesting, however, is the relative success of the national improvement strategies being developed in the two countries. These are clearly based on very different ‘theories of change’.

Put simply, the English approach concentrates on promoting school autonomy in a context of increased competition, with little or no involvement of communities, including local authorities. By its nature, such an approach is likely to create losers as well as winners. In stark contrast, the Welsh approach emphasises the involvement of many partners working cooperatively to achieve success for all learners.

For me, Schools Challenge Cymru must demonstrate that the Welsh approach can be successful in ways that foster both excellence and equity. In this sense, I was much encouraged by the comment of one head teacher who, having seen his school achieving massive improvements in the recent examination results, said: ‘Yes, but it is still not good enough’.

Mel Ainscow

Mel Ainscow CBE is the Welsh Government’s Champion for Schools Challenge Cymru. He is also Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Equity of Education at the University of Manchester. His most recent books are: ‘Struggles for equity in education: The selected works of Mel Ainscow’ (Routledge World Library of Educationalists series), and Towards self-improving school systems: lessons from a city challenge (Routledge), both published in 2015.