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HMCI’s Foreword

Owen Evans

In my first annual report as HMCI I’d like to start by thanking both colleagues and the sector for the welcome I’ve received as I’ve travelled the country meeting practitioners, learners and their parents, governors and bodies supporting education and training. I’d also like to thank Claire Morgan in her capacity as interim chief inspector and to former chief inspector Meilyr Rowlands for his leadership and commitment to education and training in Wales.

Education in Wales is changing and at Estyn we are evolving our approach to our work to reflect this changing landscape. In this foreword, I’ll talk about these changes and highlight some themes from our work this year. These themes include the continuing effects of the pandemic, the importance of alleviating the impact of deprivation and issues affecting the teaching of Welsh as a second language and Welsh-medium education.

One of my main priorities since joining Estyn has been ensuring that our work has more impact and so this year’s annual report is different. We’ve tried to make it more accessible, timely and useful to practitioners whilst retaining the rigour and breadth people expect from our work. To this end, in September we published our first early insights summarising what’s working well and what needs improving in each sector, and our reflections on key themes in education in Wales. We also provided resources for practitioners on areas for improvement in the form of self-reflection questions.

This full version of the annual report expands on the messages shared in September and includes the usual commentary and analysis. As well as this, there are guides to contextual information about each sector. Another key aspect of our work each year is producing thematic reports on a range of important topics. We have chosen five of our thematic reports from 2021-2022 and produced summary versions of these as part of this annual report.

Learners remain the primary focus of our work and we are continually looking for ways to improve our engagement with them. Therefore, for the first time we have created resources for pupils in primary and secondary schools based on themes from our annual report. We hope to expand on this work in the future.

For all sectors, 2021-2022 was dominated by dealing with the ongoing impact of the pandemic. Education and training providers responded with fortitude to these challenges, placing learners at the heart of their work. In light of this, we recognised the need to slowly and sensitively resume our work. Although we had carried out monitoring visits and online inspections in a few sectors during the autumn term, one of my first decisions was to delay the re-commencement of the majority of our core inspections until after February half term as we judged that the system remained under critical pressure.

We were pleased and grateful that headteachers volunteered to pilot our revised inspection arrangements in schools. The pilot model built on our engagement visits and the recommendations of the 2018 report ‘A Learning Inspectorate’. This new approach took into consideration the impact of the pandemic whilst retaining the rigour expected of Estyn but without summative gradings. This was a significant change and one that aligns with national efforts to develop a self-improving system. It also reflects our commitment to working more closely with education providers to highlight best practice and have more professional dialogue on areas for improvement.

We have received positive feedback about our new approach. In particular, that the removal of summative gradings has enabled providers and inspectors to focus more closely on strengths and areas for development. This new approach is not without its challenges, of course. Feedback from parents in particular highlighted difficulty in communicating our findings without gradings, which is why we have launched our first parent friendly versions of inspection reports to better explain the findings.

Despite the many challenges the pandemic brought, there have been some positive outcomes for the education system. For example, it brought institutions closer to their learners and to the communities they serve. It also helped to highlight for the public, educators’ passion for their vocation and their ingenuity in adapting to the difficulties they faced. Although many of the issues that arose during the pandemic started to show signs of gradual improvement, challenges remained. For example, the numeracy and literacy skills of many learners, particularly the oracy skills of younger pupils, were slow to improve. A few pupils demonstrated challenging behaviour as they struggled to readapt to the routines and expectations of school life. Across the system we saw increasing demand for well-being and mental health support, and attendance, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged learners, remained at lower levels than pre-pandemic.

The effects of the pandemic were longer lasting on certain sectors and groups of learners than others. Learners from more disadvantaged backgrounds and those learning Welsh as a second language were affected particularly negatively by the pandemic. In addition, for PRUs, special schools and work-based learning providers recovery has been slower and more challenging. Recovery for these groups and sectors will take time. It was, however, encouraging to see learners welcome the return to face-to-face learning and the move towards more normal education.

In evolving their new curriculum, the majority of providers recognised the importance of adapting and improving their teaching as well as their curriculum content. However, not all providers gave sufficient priority to improving the quality of teaching and learning alongside their curriculum design. Many leaders remained concerned about assessment and progression and what progress through the curriculum should look like. The support received by schools from local authorities and consortia was often too generic rather than sufficiently bespoke.

In autumn 2022-2023 Estyn strengthened the emphasis in our inspection frameworks on providers’ work to alleviate the impact of poverty on educational attainment. The work of schools and other providers are of course only one part of the solution to tackling child poverty. We are also focusing on the work of local authorities in this area, in particular how they coordinate their support services. We will continue to focus on providers’ work to mitigate the impact of deprivation over coming years. In this annual report we have provided examples of the type of practice we see in providers who are particularly effective in tackling the impact of poverty and disadvantage.

Local authorities published their 10-year Welsh in Education Strategic Plans (WESPs) in 2021-2022. This was a significant milestone in preparing to meet the national targets set out in the Welsh Government’s ‘Cymraeg 2050’ plan. There was variation in the scale of ambition and commitment to deliver these plans. Many of the plans set out clear steps to increase Welsh-medium places in schools and settings and there is a clear focus on improving Welsh-immersion provision in line with the recommendations from our report on Welsh Immersion Education – Strategies and approaches to support 3 to 11-year-old learners. In our inspections, we continued to see shortcomings in the quality of teaching and learning of Welsh in English-medium schools and the majority of the WESPs did not make concrete and ambitious plans to address this aspect.

During periods of lockdown, pupils did not have enough opportunities to develop and use their Welsh language skills. This had a significant impact on pupils’ confidence, fluency and inclination to speak Welsh in all schools. Also, there was clear frustration amongst educational leaders regarding the lack of Welsh-speaking staff across the education system. In addition, progress towards developing practitioners’ confidence and ability to use the language and their understanding of how to teach Welsh was limited. We saw some promising collaboration, for example between a local authority and providers of Welsh for Adults and higher education to deliver professional learning for school-based staff and students of initial teacher education. However, overall, progress towards increasing the use of the Welsh language remains a significant area of concern.

This year we undertook a range of inspection activity and thematic reviews of post-16 education. We looked at the overall curriculum opportunities across schools, colleges and work-based learning for 16-19 year olds across Wales. We found that there was too much variation in the opportunities for young people depending on where they live. As in previous years, there was a lack of collaboration between providers to address this variation. The new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research aims to promote greater coherence and collaboration across post-16 provision. We contributed to the discussion on the reform of further and higher education and the review of vocational qualifications that took place prior to the establishment of this commission.

Education has evolved as providers responded in an agile and flexible way to the changes brought about by the pandemic, but the system will continue to feel the pandemic’s impact for years to come. Whilst all providers rightly focused on learner and staff well-being, our strongest providers continued to have open and honest self-evaluation and an unrelenting focus on teaching and learning, alongside national and local priorities.

Finally, I wish to highlight once more the resilience and innovation displayed by educators across Wales over recent years. We are grateful for the dedication and commitment that they have shown in the face of enormous challenges.