Estyn says reading and writing standards of children in Wales must improve

Wales' schools inspection service has raised concerns about literacy levels, and says exam results are not improving as quickly as other parts of the UK.

Estyn's annual report found 40% of pupils arrive at secondary school with reading ages below their actual age.

But the foundation phase, for the under-sevens, won praise.

Estyn said there was a lot to be done to improve education generally, while the Welsh government said it showed where the sector must "raise its game".

Estyn's chief inspector Ann Keane said her organisation was concerned about the standard of reading and writing "in a significant minority of primary schools".

Her report said 20% of pupils arrived at secondary school with a reading age below nine years and six months - generally considered the level of functional literacy.

Estyn warned those children do not always catch up.

The best schools have a systematic approach to literacy in all subjects, but more commonly, improving literacy was not a central part of designing the curriculum, it found.

The report adds:

  • More than a quarter of primary school inspection reports said literacy needs to improve, particularly writing skills. There is not enough direct teaching of reading and writing in a minority of schools.
  • Standards of well-being are high. Nearly all pupils who responded to a survey said they felt safe in school.
  • There has been a "significant drop" in the proportion of excellent or outstanding teaching.
  • Performance in four out of five primary schools and two-thirds of secondary schools is good, but a quarter needed follow-up visits and 5% caused "serious concern".
  • Exams and teacher-assessment results are improving, "but not as quickly as in other home countries".
  • Primary schools do not identify more able and talented pupils adequately or offer enough to challenge and stretch them.
  • Children receiving free school meals do not do as well as they should in around 30% of schools.

Children were benefiting from outdoor lessons under the foundation phase, the report says. Boys in particular gained from being allowed to run, jump, explore and experiment.

'Areas of concern'

Despite the positive findings on children's well-being and the foundation phase, "there remains much to be done to improve education more generally in Wales".

Even where a school is judged to be good overall, there are often lessons or departments where the quality of teaching is poor.

Ms Keane welcomed improvements, but said there were still "several areas of concern," pointing to reading and writing skills and the "uneven quality of teaching and leadership".

She said: "We have seen a drop in the proportion of 'excellent' or 'outstanding' teaching by comparison with the last cycle of inspections.

"Schools need to do more to adapt their materials and teaching styles to meet the needs of learners of all abilities.

"Most classes are 'mixed ability' so it's very important to plan different approaches with different groups of pupils in these classes and to track the progress of individual pupils carefully."

The Welsh government said Education Minister Leighton Andrews had been absolutely clear that standards and performance in Wales, particularly in literacy in numeracy, needed to improve across the board.

A spokesperson said his 20-point plan would put in place a range of positive measures to achieve this.

'Root and branch review'

"We know that there is a lot of good practice that exists in education, and if we are to improve that needs to be shared at every level," said the spokesperson.

"Consistency and high performance are essential in ensuring our young people benefit from the best standards of education in Wales."

The spokesperson added: "We thank Estyn for their annual report which identifies where we have been successful and where the education sector in Wales needs to raise its game.

"It's crucial if you're to improve you need to know how you are performing. We are strong believers that accountability is at the heart of improvement - it's certainly our message to the sector.

"We will now take time to consider the report in full and will provide our response in due course."

Conservative Angela Burns said: "We already know Wales is at the bottom of the UK league table for literacy and numeracy and this report is worrying in its continued criticism of these areas.

"I welcome the conclusion that many schools are performing well however, and it is these that the minister should be using and learning from."

Plaid Cymru's Simon Thomas called for a "root and branch" review of the education system.

"Instead of asking why a child is failing, we need to ask why the teaching method is failing the child," he said.

"Where this is happening we need to look at alternative teaching methods and that is why Plaid is proposing the introduction of techniques such as synthetic phonics."

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