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Reducing the Attainment Gap: Learning from others but implementing in your own way – A message from Sir Alasdair McDonald.

Darllenwch y dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

Multiethnic children in a circleWhile Pioneers are designing and developing the new curriculum and identifying the professional support the workforce needs, primary and secondary heads have been working with Government, experts and partners on co-constructing a new model of schools accountability.

In the new model every learner will count, which presents significant opportunities in terms of focussing on the progress of our vulnerable learners. However reducing the attainment gap between groups of learners is important right now, so action is underway to improve life chances for our pupils in many of our schools today; that work will be supported by our programme of education reform in Wales.

Schools who are learning lessons and adopting practices based on what works and applying them to their own school context will find that they are well prepared by 2022 when the new curriculum and assessment arrangements start to roll out.

This is urgent and important. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (eFSM) were adversely impacted by changes in last summer’s GCSE exams and the move away from vocational qualifications, despite the efforts of the pupils and their teachers. This has made me more passionate that schools must find strategies that will ‘reduce the gap’, and that’s where the Pupil Development Grant (PDG) comes in.

Where are we now?

Earlier this year the Cabinet Secretary, Kirsty Williams, approved the appointment of a PDG Strategic Adviser for each of the regional consortia. They will help us ensure the Grant is used to best effect and that lessons are learnt so that we continue to improve and develop.

All schools are tracking the attainment and attendance of their eFSM pupils; a range of interventions are being used to support these pupils – with professional judgement complemented by research and evidence, including ideas from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit; there is an increasing awareness of the positive differential impact of good teaching and learning on eFSM pupils. Our approaches to literacy and numeracy also support this focus and best practice is being shared across clusters and other school groupings.

Taking this forward

I want to encourage all schools to use strategies that we know are being successful, to stop doing things that are not adding value, and to research and share new ideas. I was told recently in a school “we are trying a new strategy, it’s not working, but we only have 3 weeks to go” – that surely cannot be right.

Robust evidence and insight is available and is an essential tool to support you. Reducing the attainment gap is an international issue and there is increasing evidence from around the world about strategies that are making a difference. Earlier this year the EEF published a brief report on 15 lessons that it has learned in its first six years. You will be familiar with many of these. There is affirmation of much of what we are doing in Wales, but some are particularly worth addressing in our schools:

  • the increasing acceptance that what happens in the classroom makes the biggest difference;
  • transition between phases is still a risk point; and
  • well-trained and well-deployed Teaching Assistants can make a huge difference.

There is no ‘silver bullet’. I am always wary of lists of strategies that may be used, especially with an issue as complex as reducing the gap. But it does seem clear that schools succeeding in this are combining lessons and practice from external evidence and research with their knowledge of their school and their community.

I recommend another recent document which also reflects on ‘what works’ may also be of interest; you’ll see there are many similarities to the experience of EEF.

Either or both of these might make an interesting starting point for a leadership meeting or even a whole staff meeting with a view to identifying which strategies might be priorities for your school for the coming year – ensuring, as is suggested in both documents, that evaluation is built in from the outset.

Your consortia PDG Strategic Adviser can support you in this. Your Advisers are:

  • Sharon Williams, GwE;
  • Kathryn Bevan, EAS;
  • Dylan Williams, ERW; and
  • Siriol Burford, CSC.

Sir Alasdair McDonald is the Welsh Government’s Raising Attainment Advocate

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