When Welsh Labour won the 2011 Welsh assembly election, we did so with an honest admission that progress on improving our schools standards had slowed unacceptably. That is not to say, as the Tories do, that we were going backwards. Results continue to improve. But, to compete with the very best education systems in the world, we knew we had to do much more. Not least for those pupils suffering the twin disadvantage of coming from poorer households, and attending underperforming schools. This accounted for too many young lives being stunted, in terms of both ambition and opportunity.
Tackling the link between poverty and educational attainment became – alongside improving literacy and numeracy – one of our key three education priorities for the lifetime of this assembly.
In stepping up our improvement journey, we needed proper information about the state of our schools in Wales. This we achieved through our banding system for secondary schools. The system works by using a range of data relating to performance to place schools in a band from 1-5. Those schools in Bands 4 and 5 were deemed to be underperforming and in need of urgent support from local authorities, working together to share good practice. We put in more money in too – allowing heads to buy in specialist support to tackle specific weaknesses in the school. The second round of school bands are about to be published, so it is early days, but early indications suggest the policy is having a positive impact. Initial numbers indicate that over two-thirds of Band 4 and 5 schools have improved their performance.
It is clear we need to do more, however. And that is why I was delighted to recently announce that Teach First will soon be starting to work in Wales.
In fulfilling our employment-based teacher training programme, Teach First will initially ensure 150 of the brightest and best graduate trainees will be available to some of our most challenged Band 4 and 5 schools. Teach First recruits will not just bring excellent academic qualifications and enthusiasm to the classroom, they will also have superb communication and leadership skills – they will become a great new addition to our education system in Wales. Along with our new masters in education, this signals our commitment to attracting the highest calibre people into teaching.
Looking to where Teach First is already operating, we can clearly see a record of success in the face of the most difficult circumstances. Schools going from catastrophic results, to improvements across the board – pupils accepted to Oxbridge for the first time in a school’s history. The record is encouraging. Schools in Wales now have a real opportunity to take advantage of this programme, and I am encouraging heads and governing bodies to get involved and embrace this scheme.
Ambition and opportunity simply cannot be a limited to a lucky few in our schools. Economic disadvantage need not, should not, lead to educational disadvantage. Let that be the first lesson of Teach First in Wales.
Leighton Andrews AM is minister for education and skills in the Welsh Labour government. He tweets @LeightonAndrews
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