Agenda item

Agenda item


To receive information regarding the performance of Denbighshire schools in the 2018 external examinations (copy attached).


10.05 – 10.50 a.m.



The Lead Member for Education, Children and Young People introduced the joint report by the Principal Education Manager and GwE Secondary Lead (previously circulated) which presented the Committee with the verified information on the performance of Denbighshire’s secondary school pupils at Key Stage 4 (KS4)  and post 16 examinations in the summer of 2018. 


Following the Committee’s consideration of the provisional examination results at its November 2018 meeting the Chair had written to the Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales registering members’ concerns on the significant increase in threshold to attain a ‘C’ grade in the summer 2018 GCSE examinations, particularly in relation to the English examination, and its detrimental impact on students.  A copy of the letter of response received from the Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales was shared with the Committee.  In his letter the Chief Executive stated that similar concerns had been raised by GwE and as a result a review of grading’s had been instigated.  This review had concluded that “the grade boundary had been moved appropriately” and therefore no further action was required.  Members were advised by the Lead Member that Education officers and Education portfolio holders received a similar response from the Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales, consequently a meeting had been convened for mid-February between North Wales Directors of Education, Education portfolio holders, GwE and Qualifications Wales’ Chief Executive to discuss future external examination grading’s with a view to ensuring that future students would not suffer such volatility in grade boundaries.  Education practitioners were resigned to the fact that Qualifications Wales would not instigate a further review of the 2018 grading’s, therefore they were determined that future examinations should not be subject to such significant volatility in grade boundaries.   The Lead Member agreed with Committee members’ views that there was no recognition from Qualifications Wales of the impact of its decision to apply such a considerable increase in the ‘C’ grade boundary on the lives and career prospects of a significant number of individual students. 


The Head of Education and Children’s Services, the Principal Education Manager and GwE’s Secondary Lead for Denbighshire:

·         emphasised both officers and elected members’ disappointment that the verified results for 2018 had not changed despite their collective and concerted effort across the region in discussing the above concerns with representatives from Qualifications Wales, Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC), Welsh Government (WG) etc. (a copy of a letter from the WG’s Cabinet Secretary for Education to the Lead Member had been circulated to Committee members for information).  Whilst WJEC representatives had met with Education officials, EAS officers and portfolio holders in the South East Wales region (the EAS region) to discuss similar concerns the challenge was being led by North Wales education leaders (the GwE region);

·         advised that, due to their concerns, they were currently examining the provisions of the Qualifications Wales Act 2015 in relation to the WJEC’s monopoly over external examinations in Wales, to see whether the county’s schools could enter students for some examinations administered by other reputable examination boards.  It was acknowledged that Welsh-medium examinations would only be administered by the WJEC; and

·         confirmed that if the ‘C’ grade boundary for the English examination in the summer of 2018 would have been set at the same level as the previous year a further 107 pupils in Denbighshire’s schools, and 700 across North Wales, would have attained a grade ‘C’


Responding to members’ questions the Lead Member, Education and GwE officers:

·         confirmed that the gap in performance between boys and girls had generally increased in 2018, with more girls gaining Level 2 inclusive than boys.  Year on year comparison at present was not that meaningful due to changes in grade boundaries and the number of subjects entered for examination;

·         advised that WJEC examinations were graded form ‘A’ to ‘E’ whilst English Examination Boards’ examinations were graded numerically.  Nevertheless headteachers had a moral duty to select the best examinations for their pupils, hence the reason why the Service was examining the provisions of the 2015 Act to explore whether the county’s pupils could sit exams administered by other Examination Boards.  They were of the view that pressure needed to be exerted on the WJEC to set examinations that met students’ needs;

·         confirmed that there was a UK-wide agreement in place specifying that English and Mathematics examinations would take place on the same day and at the same time throughout the UK, therefore dual entry for these subjects was not possible;

·         advised that currently there was a significant level of uncertainty in the county’s secondary schools as a result of last summer’s grade boundary increases.  It had shaken Departmental Heads and teachers’ confidence in their abilities to deliver for their students.  Whilst Education Service officers had every confidence in their abilities their trust and confidence in the WJEC and Qualifications Wales had been severely dented.  Education officials were now seeking assurances for the future, particularly in view of the imminent changes to the Science examination, and further reforms to the curriculum;

·         confirmed that every teacher was aware of what the Council and GwE were doing to support them in light of the disappointment encountered with some of the 2018 GCSE results.  All headteachers were working hard to support disappointed staff and pupils and making every effort to increase their confidence levels, whilst GwE were arranging training events specifically to support them going forward; 

·         confirmed that GwE’s concerns mirrored those of the Council’s Education Service staff, they were firmly of the view that grade boundaries should not be subject to the level of volatility experienced in 2018.  GwE tracked the performance of pupils across the region, presently the performance of 677 pupils in Denbighshire were being tracked and monitored against those in other local authority areas;

·         advised that whilst the WG had given the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification a high profile not all students viewed it as a high priority as not all universities recognised it as a qualification, therefore some students would rather study 3 or 4 ‘A’ Levels with a view to securing entry to the university of their choice;

·         confirmed that the Authority now had a greater understanding of the holistic needs of free school meal (FSM) pupils.  Consequently this had resulted in a significant improvement in the L2 inclusive performance against this indicator in 2018;

·         confirmed that the Council was aware of the high rate of short-term exclusions in the County’s secondary schools (illustrated in Appendix 3 to the report).  The Authority worked closely with all schools to monitor the situation, offer appropriate intervention services, and ensure that the policy was applied in a consistent manner across all schools.  Officers were confident that schools were applying the policy correctly and as a result knew the whereabouts of each pupil during the school day.  A significant number of pupils excluded from the county’s schools on a short-term basis were identified as having special or additional needs.  The short-term exclusion period provided time for appropriate support and intervention to be secured to support the pupil’s education going forward.  Appropriate use of short-term exclusions was aimed at reducing the number of permanent exclusions through the provision of appropriate intervention services at a very early stage.  The county’s low number of permanent exclusions seemed to indicate that this approach was effective;

·         reassured members that the Council emphasised to schools that exclusion data needed to accurately record the reasons why a pupil was being excluded in order that appropriate intervention support was put in place.  A number of those excluded had significant behavioural problems.  Work was currently underway to explore the possibility of accessing TRAC funding to establish on-site support provision for excluded pupils;

·         informed members that school exclusion data was collated on a monthly basis and available to all schools for comparison purposes;

·         emphasised that the profiles of schools were changing,.  Whilst acknowledging that short-term exclusion rates were too high very complex issues usually led to the decision to exclude;

·         advised that it was important that school behavioural policies and data were correct, and that no illegal exclusions were occurring.  The WG was currently looking at standardising exclusion policies across Wales;

·         advised that there was generally a correlation between attendance/absenteeism figures (detailed in Appendix 4 to the report) and FSM figures.   Blessed Edward Jones High School had the highest number of FSM pupils in North Wales due to the fact that a high proportion of its pupils lived in high deprivation areas.  Despite high levels of support from the Council’s Education Service there had been significant leadership issues at the school, of which the Diocese was aware, which had resulted in absenteeism and performance not being challenged and addressed.  Its main feeder school Ysgol Mair, did not suffer similar problems, therefore it was hoped that the new all through school, Christ the Word, which would replace both Ysgol Mair and Blessed Edward Jones High School in September 2019 would address the problems at the current secondary school and demonstrate continued improvement throughout.  The recent appointment of a Headteacher for the new school, who would probably take up the post around Easter, should help deliver the expected improvements.  Education Service staff were confident that all aspects of performance and school life would improve once the new school opened, as this had taken place at Rhyl High School following the delivery of the new school.  Both schools served an area of high deprivation and had experienced similar problems;

·         reassured the Committee that as both Education and Children’s Services were served by the same Head of Service both services’ work integrated well.  Consequently officers from both services knew exactly which children and families required their intervention and support;

·         advised that the roles and responsibilities of school governors were very wide and confirmed that they had concerns that not all governors at present had the skills to undertake the role.  The Council had very limited powers in respect of school governing bodies despite the fact that the Governing Body was ultimately responsible for running the school and challenging performance etc.  Under the School Standards Framework the local education authority’s (LEA) intervention powers were limited.  The LEA had no powers in relation to the Chair of the Governing Body, its powers were limited to the LEA representatives on a Governing Body.  Denbighshire had a School Governors Association, which met on a quarterly basis, but attendance levels at its meeting was not very high.  Nevertheless there were some excellent school governors on school governing bodies who did provide effective, constructive challenge.  WG had indicated its desire to review school governing bodies, but the proposals were not forthcoming.  Directors of Education felt that any such review should be radical;

·         explained the difference between setting local targets, which was undertaken by the schools at a local level, and pupil tracking which was undertaken at a county and regional level;

·         advised that Prestatyn High School had adopted a similar approach to the one used by Ysgol Brynhyfryd in recent years with a view to improving performance.  This system which included strong, robust leadership, effective challenge and continual tracking of pupil performance had proved extremely effective at Ysgol Brynhyfryd and despite the different FSM profile of Prestatyn High School officers were confident that similar improvements would be achieved;

·         confirmed that pupils’ performance in GCSE Welsh as a first language remained consistently high, with on average more pupils sitting the first language Welsh examination in the county than anywhere else in Wales;

·         advised that although some vocational type courses were delivered in the county’s schools which enabled pupils to gain vocational qualifications, these courses were no longer delivered to the same extent as some years ago due to the requirement for schools to focus on more academic subjects.  Generally, vocational courses benefited from being delivered at a further education establishment due to the availability of the required specialist equipment to deliver the courses. It was confirmed that the Council had very strong relationships with the local further education colleges in relation to delivering vocational education;


The Chair during his summing-up congratulated schools on their very good performance overall in the 2018 external examinations, drawing particular attention to the number of secondary school pupils’ achievements in being awarded a ‘distinction’ in vocational examinations.  He also reiterated his disappointment with Qualifications Wales and other organisations’ responses to the concerns raised in relation to the significant increase in the ‘C’ grade threshold for English and other summer 2018 GCSE examinations.  The Chair also agreed to discuss with the Scrutiny Chairs and Vice-Chairs Group whether matters relating to the management of school governing bodies merited being considered by Scrutiny in the near future.


Prior to the conclusion of the discussion the Catholic Church’s Co-opted Education Scrutiny member requested that her gratitude to Denbighshire County Council officers for their assistance in delivering the Christ the Word School project and to appoint the new Headteacher be recorded.


The Committee:


Resolved: - subject to the above observations –

(i)           to acknowledge the performance of the County’s schools in the 2018 external examinations and to congratulate the pupils on their achievement;

(ii)          to receive and agree the areas for improvement as outlined in the report;

(iii)         that the Chair on behalf of the Committee write again to the Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales emphasising members’ continuing concerns relating to the significant increase in the ‘C’ grade threshold for the summer 2018 GCSE examinations and its consequential impact on pupils, their potential career prospects, Education Service and school staff, and schools in general; and

(iv)        that a copy of the above letter be sent to all North Wales Assembly Members, and the local press and media.


Supporting documents:


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