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Chief Inspector’s foreword


Owen Evans HMCI

At Estyn, we are committed to our quality assurance responsibilities and playing a key role in the continual improvement of education and training in Wales. The independent review of our work, A Learning Inspectorate (Donaldson, 2018), highlighted the efficient, flexible and innovative nature of the organisation, and the credibility which we enjoy as a result of our independence and professionalism. Since the review we have continued to adapt, aiming to further improve the way in which we work for the benefit of learners in Wales. We have sharpened our focus on identifying how providers, and the wider education and training system, can improve. We have discontinued our use of one-word summative gradings across most sectors. We have enhanced the way in which we work with providers during formal inspections and also as part of our wider evidence gathering and evaluation activities. Drawing on the input of current practitioners remains a key feature of our approach. By acting as peer inspectors and provider nominees, and by taking part in our thematic reviews and feeding into our stakeholder groups, practitioners contribute valuable insights, which we use to inform our work.

We are keen to add value by sharing our findings in a timely and accessible way so that our advice can be readily understood and acted upon. Last October, continuing with the approach we introduced in 2022, we published an early summary of the sector specific findings of the annual report. This approach aims to provide prompt, useful feedback for the education and training workforce and to highlight the examples of effective practice that we have seen during the year. Following on from that early summary, I am now delighted to launch this full Annual Report. It provides considerably more detail and background to our findings, setting out how well each sector in Wales is performing, and also evaluating education and training in the context of a range of cross-cutting key themes. I hope it is of use.

There is much to celebrate about Wales’s education and training provision. I visit educational settings of all kinds across Wales almost on a weekly basis. During inspections I hear directly from pupils and older learners, and speak with teachers and support staff members, as well as senior leaders. For me, the strong commitment of educators across Wales is a source of pride. As the inspectorate, our contributions to supporting further improvement are paramount. It is our role to highlight and share the best practice we see across Wales whilst maintaining our impartial approach to evaluation by clearly identifying aspects that need to improve.

Welsh education and training providers face the dual challenges of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic whilst also working to implement improvement focused policy reforms. The shadow of the pandemic remains apparent on learners’ wellbeing and the progress that they make. Learner attendance, attitudes to learning and aspects of learners’ knowledge and skills remain weaker than pre-pandemic norms. There are also lingering effects on the education and training workforce, with workplace absences compounding the ongoing challenge providers face in recruiting teachers and support staff members across a number of specialisms.

The introduction of Curriculum for Wales (Welsh Government, 2017a), the implementation of the Additional Learning Needs (ALN) Transformation Programme (Welsh Government, 2020), the review of school improvement support services (Welsh Government, 2023a) and the formation of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) (Welsh Government, 2017b) are all derived from improvement focused policy reforms and will affect many providers. Whilst the potential long-term benefits of these changes are clear, effecting the changes presents a significant challenge. In times of such change and challenge, we have been careful to acknowledge the pressures facing each sector. As emphasised by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language in his November speech, providers should not face these problems alone (Welsh Government, 2023b). We have sought to be sympathetic in our approach, recognising the specific challenges practitioners and leaders face, whilst maintaining a focus on the wellbeing and progress of learners. As education and training providers work to recover from the effects of the pandemic, we have seen examples of excellent practice across Wales. In 2022-2023, the implementation of Curriculum for Wales was very much in its infancy, but we have seen examples of emerging practice that justify a degree of optimism for the future. On the whole, the enthusiasm of educators across the sectors to make progress and overcome the challenges they face is encouraging.

Educators across Wales have also worked diligently to support vulnerable children, young people and adults who have arrived here as asylum seekers or refugees. Wales as a nation has opened its arms to offer sanctuary to those fleeing from persecution in other countries. During the summer term, I asked our inspectors to review the way in which our education and training services were caring and catering for these vulnerable children and adults. Although our findings identify a few areas for improvement, our conversations with refugees and asylum seekers themselves left us in little doubt that educators here in Wales have shown real compassion. They have successfully nurtured refugees and asylum seekers and helped them feel able to focus on learning as they settle into a peaceful life here in Wales. We were delighted to learn from educators about the valuable contributions that those who arrived as refugees and asylum seekers had made to their new communities.

However, progress for all learners across the education and training sectors in Wales is being impeded by weaker aspects of practice. We continue to see too many examples of ineffective self-evaluation and improvement planning. It is vital that providers make sure that their work always adds value. They should have a clear understanding of what is working well and should prioritise improving teaching, training and learning to secure the best possible outcomes for learners. In the context of the new curriculum, the problem has been compounded by some schools overly focusing on ‘what’ to teach, i.e. the content of their curriculum, without giving sufficient attention to ‘how’ it is taught and how assessment and progression are monitored. The effectiveness of the external support available to schools, particularly with their evaluation and improvement processes, is inconsistent. We have seen effective examples in well-developed partnerships, but elsewhere, and particularly for secondary schools, the variable quality of support is a cause for concern.

Effective well-being support for learners, including for those with identified additional learning needs, continues to be a high priority for providers. This annual report shows that the legacy of the pandemic persists, with clear effects on learner attendance and the progress that they make in their learning. Learners’ literacy and numeracy skills remain affected, with inconsistent progress being made to close the gaps that developed during the pandemic. Our ITE settings face ongoing challenges, compromising our ability as a nation to ensure a reliable pipeline of talented and suitably qualified entrants into the teaching profession in the numbers that we need.

The recently published results of the 2022 round of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Ingram et al, 2023) show that, despite the improvements seen in Wales’s PISA scores in 2018, there has since been a notable fall. The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on pupils’ learning were clearly evident in the PISA 2022 outcomes. Across the OECD countries on average, and particularly in Wales, there were substantial declines in pupils’ assessment scores in each of the three domains of maths, science, and reading, since 2018. The 2022 assessment scores of pupils in Wales were below the OECD averages and below the scores of the other nations of the UK.

Attendance at school is vital if pupils are to make the progress of which they are capable. Attendance following the disruption of the pandemic continued to be a significant concern in 2022-2023, despite the efforts of schools, settings and their support services. In comparison to pre-pandemic norms, absence rates had doubled among secondary school age pupils. The proportion of lessons missed by secondary school age pupils eligible for free school meals (eFSM) reached over 20% (Welsh Government, 2023c). Missing on average one day a week of their formal education had a significant impact on the progress of these pupils. Among this group, the issue of persistent absence was acute, with more than one in three deemed persistently absent in 2022-2023. The Welsh Government’s renewed focus and activity in this area is, therefore, welcome. The proportion of learners being mainly educated other than at school (EOTAS) has nearly doubled since 2009-2010, with primary aged children in particular missing out on school in greater numbers (Welsh Government, 2023d). On the whole, these pupils do not return to mainstream education and, for those that do, their return is too slow. This limits their access to the full curriculum and the wider social interactions available at school. Increases in both fixed term and permanent exclusions, particularly at secondary school level and among pupils eligible for free school meals (Welsh Government, 2023e), are a further concern.

With around 28% of children in Wales living in relative income poverty between April 2021 and March 2022 (Welsh Government, 2023f), mitigating the impacts on learning and educational attainment is rightly a Welsh Government priority. We have seen that pupils from less affluent households tend to miss more schooling and make less progress in their learning than their peers (Welsh Government, 2023g). Following on from our focus on this in the 2021-2022 annual report, we describe the features of leadership that enable schools to successfully help pupils to overcome the barriers to learning that are often associated with poverty. Successful schools know their communities well and actively form productive relationships with families. They are aware of the costs associated with schooling and use resources carefully to help struggling families. Underpinning these approaches are the high aspirations and expectations that these schools maintain for all their pupils. However, practice is variable across Wales and the substantial fall in school attendance among pupils from less affluent households over recent years is compounding the difficulties that these children, and their teachers, face. The Welsh Government’s programme to develop Community Focused Schools is a welcome development aimed at building on existing effective practice and strengthening relationships between schools, support agencies, parents and their communities (Welsh Government, 2022).

Across the post-16 sectors of further education (FE), work-based learning, employability programmes and adult learning in the community, learners are generally well motivated in their lessons, practical sessions and review meetings. The proportion of young people reporting issues with anxiety and mental health was growing before the pandemic and this remains a priority for providers. FE learners know how to access the valuable additional support that colleges provide, and apprenticeship providers too are focusing on learner well-being. Apprenticeship providers are expanding the range of support they offer, and they are increasingly able to recognise and provide support for additional learning needs that any apprentices have. However, our inspections have consistently found that the proportion of apprentices who successfully complete their frameworks in the health and social care sector is too low. This reflects the recruitment and retention challenges that employers in these sectors have faced. The Jobs Growth Wales+ youth employability programme has been introduced across Wales to engage young people with training and work experiences. These sessions are worthwhile, with effective teaching and comprehensive support, but too few participants access meaningful work experience as part of this programme. We saw effective provision within adult learning in the community, making use of on-line and in-person delivery according to learner need. However, there remains a need to develop the way that the broad range of provision available across the post-16 sectors in Wales is matched to individual learners. It can be difficult for learners to view and understand the full range of options available to them. The information and guidance that prospective learners receive is not always clear and consistently useful.

Many post-16 learners have successfully built upon the digital literacy skills they developed during the mass adoption of online remote learning across the different sectors during the pandemic. However, post-16 learners’ numeracy skills remain less well developed than those of similar cohorts before the pandemic. Across the post-16 sectors, providers’ approaches to the development of learners’ literacy and numeracy skills do not take sufficient advantage of the vocational contexts and interests of learners. This can be demotivating for learners and limit the progress that they make. The makeup of external Essential Skills Wales assessments, as reported in our recent thematic review (Estyn, 2023), has compounded this issue and I’m glad that this is being reviewed.

Effective leadership is key to ensuring that providers respond to the Welsh Government’s ambitions for the Welsh language. Across the education and training landscape, we see that the provision for developing learners’ Welsh language skills is inconsistent. In Welsh-medium settings, many learners make good progress in developing their Welsh language skills. However, pupils at English-medium schools often do not make as much progress as they could in developing their Welsh language skills. Where we see effective practice, leaders show strong commitment to the Welsh language and this is reflected in their improvement plans. They ensure that practitioners are offered professional learning and support to develop their own Welsh language skills as well as their teaching. This has a positive impact on learners and their ability to communicate in Welsh. Across further education and apprenticeships provision, very few learners undertake any written work in Welsh. There are also limited opportunities through adult learning in the community for learners to access Welsh-medium courses or to develop their Welsh language skills. Leaders across the sectors face significant ongoing challenges such as the scarcity of suitably skilled staff. This problem is exacerbated by too few students enrolling to train as secondary school teachers, particularly through the medium of Welsh.

The topics of attendance and attitudes to learning, the Welsh language in education and training, the implementation of Curriculum for Wales, and how providers are tackling poverty, each feature as key themes within this year’s annual report. We also outline the recently published results of PISA 2022 (Ingram et al, 2023) and we explore the provision and support for refugees and asylum seekers in Wales. The report includes a short section on post-inspection follow-up activity, featuring useful case studies and an overview of recommendations left for maintained schools that go into a statutory category. The annual report concludes with a summary overview of each of the thematic reports we produced in response to our remit letter from the Minister for Education and Welsh language for 2022-2023.

I believe that my report provides a comprehensive picture of how education and training is performing in Wales. It highlights the successes and outlines some of the challenges that continue to face education and training; I hope it prompts constructive reflection and discussion about how we can collectively improve. I would like to thank my colleagues as well as all those educators across the sectors who worked with us during the year. Finally, we as an organisation, and I personally, would like to thank all the educators across Wales for their continuing efforts. We recognise the way they work diligently to build on their successes and respond to the challenges involved in supporting our children, and learners of all ages, to learn and to flourish.

Owen Evans 

His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales


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