Sector report: Primary 2021-2022
No. of Primary Schools
2021 = 1,228
2020 = 1,234
The number of primary schools in Wales has remained largely consistent over the last three years.
No. of pupils in primary schools
2020 = 272,006
2021 = 273,063
Percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals
2021 = 21%
Percentage of pupils with English as an additional language (A-C)
2020 = 6%
2021 = 6%
Percentage of pupils able to speak Welsh
2020 = 13%
2021 = 13%
Percentage of pupils with additional learning needs
2020 = 22%
2021 = 21%
No. in follow-up September 2021SM7SI6ER23
No. removed 2021-2022SM7SI6ER22
No. went into follow-up 2021-2022:SM3SI1ER9
Total in follow-up August 2022SM3SI1ER10
- No. of inspections 84
- Welsh-medium 23
- Bilingual 5
- English-medium 56
- Faith 15
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, core inspections only took place between the end of February and July 2022
- No. of case studies 28
- Schools with case studies 23
- No. of visits/calls 182
- Welsh-medium 51
- Bilingual 5
- English-medium 126
- Faith 18
Inspectors found that many pupils started school with skills in literacy, mathematics and physical development below those expected for their stage of development. The impact of the pandemic led to a majority of pupils entering nursery and reception classes with low levels of social and independent skills. This was particularly the case in areas of high socio-economic deprivation. Most pupils, including pupils with additional learning needs (ALN), made suitable progress in their skills, knowledge and understanding from their various starting points. However, vulnerable pupils often made less progress than their peers.
Most schools recognised a need to focus on developing the communication skills of younger pupils following periods of lockdown. In these schools, many pupils listened attentively and developed their communication skills well. Through consistent and engaging learning activities, they improved their spoken vocabulary quickly and talked with increasing confidence with each other and adults. Many pupils who learn through the medium of Welsh made strong progress in their Welsh oracy skills because of an increased focus by practitioners on developing pupils’ language skills. However, a majority of pupils in English-medium schools lacked confidence to speak the language as their vocabulary and sentence patterns were underdeveloped. This was partly due to fewer opportunities to use Welsh during the pandemic, but also reflects our findings from previous years. Similarly, the pandemic impacted negatively on the language skills of pupils in Welsh-medium schools where Welsh was not spoken in their homes. St Mary’s RC Primary School in Chepstow, used professional learning well to develop the Welsh language skills of staff and raise standards for pupils.
In most schools, pupils developed their reading skills through a variety of approaches, and many made sound progress. In the most successful schools, teachers encouraged a love of literature and developed a culture of reading through a rich literacy curriculum. In a few schools where there was an over-focus on reading techniques, pupils did not develop an enthusiasm for reading and this hindered their progress.
In many schools the impact of the pandemic led to poorer progress in the development of pupils’ writing skills. In particular, there was a deterioration in the quality of pupils’ handwriting and presentation. On pupils’ return to school, teachers recognised a need to provide enhanced opportunities for pupils to develop their writing skills. For example, younger pupils practised their mark making skills in the outdoor area and older pupils returned to producing extended pieces of writing. However, a few pupils continued to find producing longer pieces of writing a challenge and required increased support. In a minority of schools, pupils of all abilities often made basic mistakes with grammar, spelling and punctuation. Too often, they repeated these errors over time and did not regularly edit or refine their work to make improvements.
Many pupils made sound progress in their mathematical development. In the most successful schools, the youngest pupils used apparatus, such as counters, blocks and number rods, well to develop their understanding of mathematical concepts and had a good understanding of mathematical vocabulary. Older pupils developed resilience in tackling mathematical problems and were willing to use a range of different approaches and trial and error methods to find a solution. In schools where the development of pupils’ mathematical skills was less effective, a minority of pupils used their mathematical problem solving with variable success as their understanding of a few concepts was less developed. As in previous years, despite slight improvements, a majority of pupils were not able to apply their numeracy skills well in other curriculum areas.
Most pupils acquired beneficial skills in information and communication technology (ICT) during the pandemic. Younger pupils developed skills quickly and applied them well to support their learning. Older pupils used their knowledge of different apps and programs to present information effectively in a variety of contexts. In general, pupils used their digital skills well to support and extend their learning in other areas of the curriculum. Although pupils developed many aspects of digital competency such as communication effectively over time, in a few schools there were gaps in pupils’ learning, such as the use of databases and spreadsheets.
Teachers placed a strong emphasis on the development of pupils’ creative and physical skills as they returned to school in September 2021. Many pupils developed their creative skills well through activities designed to support their well-being. Increased use of outdoor areas by most schools supported pupils to develop their physical skills. For example, younger pupils engaged more in activities to develop their balance skills and were more willing to take managed risks in their play.
Well-being and attitudes to learning
The well-being of pupils and staff continued to be a priority for schools during the autumn term. Most pupils enjoyed being back in school, socialising with their peers and engaging in face-to-face learning.
Pupils showed a great deal of resilience and adapted well to changes to school timetables and routines. In a few schools there was an increase in referrals to outside agencies due to concerns around pupils who had difficulty in regulating their behaviour or were not attending school regularly. This was particularly true in areas of socio-economic deprivation where families had been most affected by the pandemic. In most schools, overall attendance rates had not returned to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the academic year.
Most pupils coped well on their return to school in September. They felt safe and cared for. In a few instances, pupils started to think more about their emotional health and took part in activities to support this, such as listening to calming music, taking about their experiences and taking part in more physical activities that promote relaxation. This generally continued in schools that introduced these activities as they realised the long-term benefits to pupils.
Increasingly, pupils understand and talk about children’s rights. For example, pupils in many schools considered how the war in Ukraine was affecting the rights of refugees. As in previous years, we found that nearly all pupils understand the importance of healthy eating and exercise, but not all pupils use this information to make healthy choices. Most continued to know about keeping safe online and how to guard against potential dangers.
Cameo: pupils influence school life
At Clwyd Community Primary School, Swansea, pupils took full advantage of opportunities to influence what and how they learn, for example through their work in a considerable number of pupil voice groups. These groups included a Safety Squad, and a Rights Respecting group that helps pupils to recognise and promote the children’s rights in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Over time, nearly all pupils developed a secure understanding of their rights, for example by creating class charters that set out agreed expectations for pupils.
In most schools, as they prepared for the Curriculum for Wales, pupils developed an awareness of the four purposes of the curriculum. In a minority of schools, pupils did not have a good enough understanding of how to strengthen these characteristics in themselves through their actions, such as how to become more ambitious or behave more ethically. This resource provides self-reflection prompts to support primary schools to plan for the development of the four purposes.
In most schools, nearly all pupils continued to behave well in lessons. Pupils’ behaviour and attitudes to learning were strongest in schools where pupils found learning interesting and stimulating, and the pace of learning was well judged. In these schools, pupils engaged well with tasks, persevered with challenges, found alternative solutions to problems and made strong progress. In most schools, pupils collaborated well with their peers.
Teaching and learning experiences
Inspectors found that a majority of schools continued to focus on improving pedagogy, often using the pedagogical principles from Successful Futures as a vehicle to discuss effective approaches to teaching and learning. In these cases, teachers frequently used research or Estyn publications, such as ‘Improving Teaching’, to help develop their practice. COVID-19 restrictions limited opportunities for teachers to work collaboratively to improve their professional practice as observing lessons, triad working, mutual observations became very difficult to arrange.
Where schools were most effective in developing pedagogy, they reviewed and strengthened their approaches to teaching and assessment to support learning before designing the content and structure of their local curriculum. This ensured that they had a strong foundation upon which to build a new curriculum and evaluate its impact on pupils’ learning and well-being. However, in a few schools, designing the curriculum took priority over improving the quality of teaching and opportunities to discuss and improve the quality of pedagogy were missed.
Many schools quickly returned to foundation learning. However, in a few cases, this provision continued to be too formal and over directed by practitioners. This had a detrimental effect on pupils’ wider skills, such as independence, problem solving and resilience. Almost all schools trialled approaches to teaching with older pupils that entailed ‘authentic’ learning experiences aimed at encouraging pupils to apply and deepen their skills across the curriculum. In the best cases, this included providing pupils with beneficial opportunities to make choices about how they will apply their skills, for example by choosing different ways to record their findings or planning ways to solve a problem. Where teaching was less effective, however, pupils merely chose from a menu of tasks and these were often at too low a level compared to the ability of pupils. In a few schools, teachers planned learning experiences across the curriculum that built well on the direct teaching of language, literature and mathematics. Many schools placed a beneficial emphasis on outdoor learning across all ages.
In the few schools where teaching was strongest, teachers used assessment for learning techniques well to gauge pupils’ learning and adapt activities. They used questioning effectively to probe pupils’ understanding and prompt their thinking. In these schools, teachers ensured that pupils understood why they were learning a particular topic or skill and how to be successful with their learning. As in previous years, we found that, where teaching was most effective, there are strong working relationships between practitioners and pupils, lessons are fun and engaging, and teachers match learning closely to pupils’ ability.
A minority of schools developed a sensible approach to assessment, which incorporated observations, discussions with pupils and feedback that informed next steps in teaching. However, a majority of schools were unsure about how to develop their assessment processes to align with the Curriculum for Wales.
Schools continued to be at varying points in their planning for the Curriculum for Wales. In many schools, where curriculum development progressed well, leaders and staff considered a range of approaches carefully. They explored in depth how each approach might support the progression of pupils’ knowledge and understanding, as well as their skills development. Often, they used research about curriculum design and evidence from their own enquiries to inform their decision-making. However, by July 2022, a few schools were still at an early stage in their preparations for the implementation of the Curriculum for Wales.
In the strongest schools, staff invested time in deepening their understanding of the learning pupils must develop over time and considered this in the context of their school and its community. This enabled them to plan themes and topics that are relevant to the needs and interests of pupils. Most schools recognised the importance of pupils’ voice in the development of their local curriculum. Gradually, schools reflected on when it is most appropriate for pupils to inform and influence their school curriculum during the planning, trialing and review phases. In the strongest schools, leaders involved all staff, learners, governors, parents and carers thoughtfully in developing their knowledge of the curriculum and in contributing to the design process. This resource provides self-reflection prompts to help school councils and pupil groups to consider how they can work with staff to improve their contribution to what and how they learn.
Overall, primary and secondary schools did not plan well enough in partnership with each other to ensure consistent progression in knowledge and skills across the curriculum. This was especially the case for ICT and Welsh in English-medium schools.
Care, support and guidance
Primary school staff identified that gaps in pupils’ health and well-being increased, and inequalities widened during school closures. In most schools, pupils’ well-being was their priority and they continued to provide strong support for this area. In many cases, particularly in areas of social deprivation, this extended to supporting families by signposting them to other agencies or charities. As a result of the pandemic, nearly all staff developed a better understanding of the needs and circumstances of the families in their school communities. This resulted in improved collaboration and working relationships between the school and home setting.
Cameo: staff and pupil well-being questionnaires
At Ysgol y Llys, Denbighshire, leaders gave pupils and staff the opportunity to share their feelings and concerns through well-being questionnaires. Leaders analysed the results and looked for trends and common themes. Consequently, the school was able to target the specific well-being needs of the pupils and staff and implement the necessary interventions. Now the school has a permanent well-being officer who leads on intervention support and provides the required support for pupils and staff across the school.
Many schools implemented programmes to support pupils’ experiencing emotional stress, and a few introduced activities such as daily exercise in the outdoor environment. In general, providing well-being interventions in schools had a positive impact on reducing pupils’ anxiety.
In many schools, pupil voice groups had increasing opportunities to influence school life. Where this was most effective, there were significant examples of pupils leading change and leaders ensured that pupils from all backgrounds and abilities were represented. In a few schools, pupils’ opportunities to influence what and how they learn continued to be limited.
Although over time most schools have provided extra-curricular activities that enhance pupils’ academic and social skills, many were affected by the restrictions of the pandemic. We saw these begin to re-establish slowly, and by the end of the summer term only a few schools returned to offering a wide range of beneficial and engaging provision.
Most schools prepared well for ALN reform. Nearly all schools received training from their local authority and regional consortium to plan and prepare for the changes. Many additional learning needs co-ordinators worked with colleagues in their school clusters to share information and best practice. Most schools identified pupils needing additional learning provision (ALP) and mapped out the provision needs of other pupils without ALN. Staff in many schools developed an understanding of person-centred practice and talked about how this approach improves annual review meetings for pupils with ALN. Many Welsh-medium schools continued to express concerns about the availability of Welsh language resources to support ALN work.
In most schools, staff made sure that pupils understood and acted with sensitivity to issues of equality and diversity. Schools that had a strong culture of inclusion continued to challenge stereotypical behaviours and explored a range of related issues including, in a very few cases, those facing people who identify as LGBTQ+. In a few schools, pupils did not have enough opportunities to consider issues of equality and diversity.
Most schools monitored pupils’ attendance well and by the end of the summer term had refreshed their systems to challenge low attendance. Many formed strong links with outside agencies to support families who continued to find it difficult to ensure that their child attends school regularly.
In a few schools, issues relating to safeguarding pupils, including staff knowledge of child protection referral processes and site safety, were of concern.
Cameo: pupils create a well-being app
At Pantysgallog Primary School, Merthyr Tydfil, regular physical education sessions and a wide range of extra-curricular sports provide worthwhile opportunities for pupils to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Older pupils are involved in a digital project with a regional rugby team to foster aspirations for leading healthy lifestyles through the creation of an app. This has been created by pupils to demonstrate to their peers a range of activities that promote health and well-being.
In primary schools across Wales, leaders showed continued resilience and creativity as they adapted provision to meet the challenges of the pandemic. In many cases, leaders responded rapidly to changing circumstances to keep the school community safe whilst trying to maintain the quality of teaching and learning. Often these proved to be conflicting priorities. For example, leaders frequently found themselves working with staff to make difficult decisions around the layout of classes and availability of resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19, knowing that these measures risked limiting opportunities for pupils to develop key learning skills, such as the ability to collaborate with others. Facing these kinds of challenges created a stronger team ethos in many schools as staff pulled together to deliver home learning, deal with issues of staff and pupil absence, and keep pupils, staff and the community safe. As COVID-19 restrictions eased, governors in many schools returned to onsite engagement with leaders, staff and pupils.
Research carried out following the initial periods of lockdown indicates that half of all education professionals in the UK felt that their mental health and well-being had declined either considerably or a little. Inspectors noted that leaders in many schools in Wales had responded to this by placing an increased focus on considering and supporting staff well-being.
Cameo: helping staff to understand and support one another
Leaders at Glan Usk Primary in Newport spent time following the first lockdown ‘getting to know their staff again’. They recognised that the priorities of many staff had changed, and their views and attitudes were different because of their experiences during the pandemic. Building on their well-established pupil profiles, leaders worked with colleagues to create staff profiles. These were optional and only shared with other staff and senior leaders. They identified family and caring responsibilities, and personal traits, such as how they like to receive feedback and what motivates them. This allowed leaders to offer more tailored line management processes and to ensure that leaders and staff were sensitive to each other’s needs.
In response to the pandemic and the challenges of curriculum and additional learning needs reform, leaders in many schools sought to strengthen partnerships with other schools, parents, and outside agencies. In the strongest examples, leaders developed very strong partnerships with parents to build considerable trust and a shared belief that staff were doing the right thing for pupils and acting in their best interests. Similarly, leaders focused on developing stronger ties with other schools to support the design of the Curriculum for Wales and to address the requirements of ALN reform. Increasingly, leaders focused professional learning on preparations for these initiatives.
Engagement with research to support the development of pedagogy and the curriculum is now a feature of many primary schools in Wales. Staff in over half of schools conducted in-house inquiries, often based around exploring the 12 pedagogical principles or how to improve pupils’ depth of understanding within the areas of learning and expertise in the Curriculum for Wales. Others worked with higher education institutions, for example as part of the National Professional Enquiry Project (NPEP). In the Chief Inspector’s Annual Report for 2018-2019, we noted concerns over practitioners not focusing sufficiently on the impact that research-driven changes in pedagogy have on outcomes for pupils. It remains important that leaders are clear about the purpose of engaging in and with research and that they have clear processes for measuring the impact of changes to pedagogy and whether they are worth pursuing. By July 2022, a few schools had only just begun to think about their vision for teaching and the curriculum in preparation for the implementation of the Curriculum for Wales from September 2022.
In all schools the pandemic impacted to varying extents on the quality of provision and the progress of pupils. In a few schools, leaders struggled to re-establish self-evaluation processes. This meant that they did not always identify the need to focus on key features of provision, such as elements of teaching and learning and, in particular, the effectiveness of foundation learning. Where self-evaluation was at its strongest, leaders developed a strong culture of trust amongst the leadership team and other staff that created a climate of openness and honesty. In these schools, most members of staff had a role in self-evaluation and school improvement activities, and self-evaluation was an integral part of the school culture. This is a feature of effective schools and, where this culture exits, staff work collegiately to reflect upon and improve their professional practice. This has a highly positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning.