51.4% of Primary schools set in our most deprived communities inspected during the three year period of 2011-2013 received overall ETI assessments below good, with all found to be either ‘Satisfactory’ or ‘Inadequate.’
In contrast, just 1 out of 10 schools with Free School Meal % (FSM%) of less than 20% were deemed to be below good.
Similarly, whilst 7 in 10 schools with less than 10% FSM pupils were found to be either ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Very Good’ (the highest two of the six grades used by the ETI), just over a quarter (27.2%) of schools with more than 50% FSM pupils received the same grade.
The figures come from a report which I have produced (ETI Primary Inspection Report) after analysing the ETI findings as contained in primary school-based inspections over a 3-year period (from January 2011 to December 2013.)
The percentage of pupils entitled to Free School Meals exists as the only credible means of assessing the differing socio-economic profile of the pupil intake of a school, and is used by the Department of Education to benchmark performance for primary schools at end of Key Stage level (P4 & P7.)
In total, during the 3 year period, just over 340 primary schools were inspected (excluding Follow-Up inspections), with less than 10% of schools receiving the highest grade of ‘Outstanding’ (32 schools.)
The grade received by the highest number of schools was ‘Very Good,’ the second highest grade (151, or 44%.)
No school was deemed ‘Unsatisfactory’ (the lowest, or sixth grade), but almost 20% of schools were found to be below the grade 3 level of ‘Good’, with 56 being deemed ‘Satisfactory’ (16%) and 11 ‘Inadequate’ (3%).
Whilst a number of controlled sector schools in north and west Belfast received the ‘Inadequate’ grade, Lowwood PS with more than 50% FSM pupils received a Grade 1 (Outstanding), and Currie PS a Grade 2 (Very Good), both also set in north Belfast. Dunmurry PS, a controlled school in south Belfast, also received a Grade 1, illustrating how performance levels varied across and within education sectors. A disproportionately high number of Catholic maintained schools received the ‘Outstanding’ grade with only one maintained school being deemed ‘Inadequate.’
The ETI findings are important because, in stark contrast to the exams-oriented league table format often used to compare the quality of education in the post-primary sector, the use of inspections to contextualize and compare school performance in the primary sector should allow for the ETI to assess value-added, taking into consideration the differing socio-economic backgrounds of the pupils in a school community amongst other factors.
I’ve no reason to doubt this is indeed the case, which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that, even when value added and context is factored in, the judgement of the ETI inspectors remains that the quality of education, and of leadership and management, in the schools serving the most deprived sections of our community is below standard in a disproportionately high number of schools.
The trend of ETI assessments would suggest that it is progressively more difficult for school leaders to secure the better ETI grades as the number and percentage of FSM pupils increases in a school. The reverse is also true: it is significantly easier for school leaders in affluent school settings to avoid the lower ETI grades for their schools than is the case for those in schools with high FSM numbers.
There are two logical explanations for this: Either the quality of school leader deteriorates as the percentage of FSM pupils increases in a school, or there are other significant contributing factors which influence the quality of education and ability of school leaders to shape the ethos and culture of a school.
Let’s imagine that there are two mythical principals, with identical talents, skills and experience, both performing at a level that could be characterized as ‘good.’ Principal A is in a school with 12% FSM pupils, whilst Principal B is leading a school with 59% FSM pupils (both of those figures have been plucked from the sky and bear no relation to schools which may, by coincidence, be similarly profiled.)
The limited ability of the ‘good’ Principal B to impact upon the culture of his/her school will have more significant repercussions that are tangibly visible than is the case for the ‘good’ Principal A quite simply because setting and maintaining the appropriate standards across the key themes of achievement, provision and leadership will require a higher caliber of leader in schools set in more challenging environments.
Yet it is equally clear, from the ETI judgements of a number of primary schools serving our most deprived communities, that this can be achieved with the right leadership, and this is also borne out in post-primary through the vastly contrasting ETI grades and exam performance of pupils in schools of similar demographic profiles.
A robust inspection process is essential to maintain and raise standards across schools, but the extent to which this can be achieved remains a doubt. The Department of Education’s ‘Every School A Good School’ (ESAGS) policy and the school formal intervention processes have sharpened the ETI’s approach, but a renewed and innovative approach to improving the quality of leadership and management and incentivizing the best and brightest of school leaders to work in the areas most in need should be considered. Whilst increasing the funding pot for schools tasked with doing the heaviest of lifting in our education system (ie those serving the most deprived communities) is essential- as recommended by Sir Robert Salisbury in his review of the Common Funding Scheme- what recent history also illustrates is that money alone will not raise standards. Indeed, it is notable that many of the Belfast schools given poor inspection grades were in receipt of additional funding and extra support initiatives dating back many years, including Renewing Communities and Achieving Belfast, as well as the DSC Signature Project initiative.
The poor standard of leadership in some schools has long been identified by the ETI as a central cause contributing to poor performance of schools, and in this sense it is worrying that the ETI’s own research (‘Preparing School Principals to be Effective Leaders’- March 2013) into the efficacy of the school leadership programmes concluded that, from 2009-12, the quality of leadership in primary schools was only Satisfactory or worse in 23% of schools inspected. Other findings included that there was no apparent value-added demonstrated in the effectiveness of school leaders who had graduated from the RTU’s school leadership programme, the Professional Qualification for Headship, or ‘PQH’ (this followed on from an analysis of the 699 schools inspected from September 2006 to June 2012, comparing performance of schools in which principals were or were not PQH graduates.)
In past years, primary school inspections existed in different formats as ‘Short’ and ‘Focused’ inspections. Since the beginning of September 2013, these have been replaced by a single inspection format called ‘Primary’ inspections. For schools receiving inspection grades less than ‘good’, the ETI will often conduct a ‘Follow Up’ inspection after a period of time has passed in order to examine whether or not the areas of concern contributing to the decision to grade the school as below ‘good’ have been adequately dealt with by the school.
All of the new ETI inspection reports provide in a clear, table format the grades in each of the four key criteria: Overall, Achievement and Standards, Provision and Leadership and Management.
ETI inspections culminate with an ‘Overall’ grade assessment being given regarding the standard of education being provided by the school. Whilst there are six grades, in reality the ‘Unsatisfactory’ (or 6th) Grade is very rarely given to a school, meaning that schools will usually be given a grade ranging from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate.’ Although the ETI strictly avoid the practice, it is common for those involved in education to translate these terms into number form in the following way, which also proved useful when collating results from the 343 reports conducted over the 3-year period:
2: Very Good