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Exam results show working together helping schools to encourage pupils.

Byline: Gareth Evans Education correspondent gareth.evans@walesonline.co.uk

A RADICAL school improvement strategy has shown huge strides made by teenagers in some of South Wales' most deprived communities - but there is a warning more work needs to be done.

Provisional scores for schools across Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff and the Vale of Glamorgan show the strategy targeting pupil attainment is working.

Collectively, the percentage of pupils in the Central South Consortium (CSC) achieving five GCSE passes at grades A*-C including English or Welsh and maths improved by 3.7% to 57.8% this summer - up from 47.8% in 2012.

But a breakdown of the passes - known as Level 2+ scores - by individual school are far more dramatic, with some reporting improvements of nearly 20% in the key benchmark.

While many schools have recorded gradual GCSE rises over time, the sharp spike in this summer's performance is unprecedented.

The rise can be attributed, at least in part, to the Central South Wales Challenge (CSWC) - a school-led improvement programme initiated by the CSC in January last year.

The biggest strategy of its kind ever implemented in Wales, the CSWC involves schools from Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff and the Vale of Glamorgan sharing best practice.

More than 400 maintained schools have been placed into one of 39 School Improvement Groups (Sigs), designed to incorporate schools from different local authorities and at different stages of their development.

Each Sig has nominated its own "convener" head teacher, who liaises with colleagues and helps determine their group's priorities moving forward.

But while the development of Sigs - and schools learning from each other in groups - is considered a longer-term solution, new "pathfinder" partnerships have been designed with more immediate results in mind. Twenty-eight schools that have capacity to improve the most have been paired up with others further along the ladder, to provide a yardstick for change.

It has meant school staff putting aside any inhibitions and head teachers branching out to other parts of South Wales.

But the challenge, which is based on a similar programme first launched in London more than a decade ago, was always going to be judged by its results and this summer's marked GCSE improvement is a significant fillip. In Bridgend, Archbishop McGrath RC High School reported some of the borough's most impressive results - with a Level 2+ improvement of 14.7%.

Maesteg Comprehensive School's active involvement in the CSWC also appears to be paying dividends, with its head teacher Anne Carhart - a member of the challenge strategy group - rewarded with a 6.5% increase.

In the Vale of Glamorgan, Barry Comprehensive defied its high proportion of free school meals (a measure of poverty) to return a marked 12% improvement at Level 2+, while Llantwit Major made similar strides.

One of the biggest success stories was at Tonypandy Community College, in Rhondda Cynon Taff, where results shot up by a staggering 18.7% despite the advent of Estyn's "special measures".

Schools in Merthyr Tyd-fil have made the most improvement in recent years, while Fitzalan and Whitchurch - schools at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum - fared particularly well in Cardiff.

CSC managing director Hannah Woodhouse, who played a key role in the ground-breaking London Challenge, said a lot had been achieved and paid tribute to the co-operation of school leaders across South Wales.

She said: "We're really excited about the provisional results at GCSE and at every Key Stage and the momentum that they bring to our work across the region.

"We now have three years of improvement at every level, taking us to or above the national average, a clear trend demonstrating this region is on the move.

"We are working in a different way with schools in this region and schools are leading the way.

"We are facilitating and brokering school-toschool working at every level and we continue to intervene robustly and rapidly where we need to.

"We are finding that it is schools who have shown they are open to challenge, are embedding sustainable teaching and learning systems and are keen to work with and learn from others, in particular, that have seen some fantastic results.

"In this region our work together has only just started and there are a lot of areas for improvement: we need to focus more on children who are vulnerable and we can go a great deal further to make sure every young person in every school in this region gets what they deserve - a fantastic education."

When asked how much the CSWC had impacted on this summer's GCSE scores, Ms Woodhouse said: "Obviously, these are questions we are asking now across the region and have commissioned an evaluation of our schoolto-school work to understand it more.

"It's always difficult to understand what has led to improvement at a system level and is often a variety of factors, most importantly better leadership of teaching and learning within schools. "However, we know that high-performing school systems have common characteristics including schools working together to drive improvement, learn about what works and challenge each other.

"We are seeing much more of this across Central South through the strategies that the CSWC has brought."

But while the majority of schools in the CSC reportedsignificantprogress, others fell back - including some that have not engaged in the consortium's collaborative work.

Ms Woodhouse added: "Again, we need to understand what happened where improvement wasn't as expected, but the evidence suggests that schools who are not suffi-ciently open to challenge, sharing progress and learning from others, make less progress."

SELECTED SCHOOLS ON THE UP...

School L2+ score 2014 L2+ score 2015 Difference Maesteg Comprehensive, Bridgend 51.1% 57.6% +6.5% Bryntirion Comprehensive, Bridgend 63.8% 73.8% +10% Archbishop McGrath RC High, Bridgend 52% 66.7% +14.7% Llantwit Major, Vale of Glamorgan 65.2% 79.3% +14.1% Stanwell, Vale of Glamorgan 82.1% 86.8% +4.7% Barry Comprehensive, Vale of Glamorgan 37.4% 49.4% +12% Ysgol Gyfun Garth Olwg, RCT 53.7% 62.7% +9% Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive, RCT 52.5% 61.9% +9.4% Mountain Ash Comprehensive, RCT 36.4% 51% +14.6% Tonypandy Community College, RCT 30.5% 49.2% +18.7% Ysgol Gyfun Cymer Rhondda, RCT 53.7% 62.9% +9.2% Bishop Hedley RC High, Merthyr Tydfil 60.4% 64% +3.6% Cyfarthfa High, Merthyr Tydfil 52.1% 57.9% +5.8% Fitzalan High, Cardiff37% 52.1% +15.1% Whitchurch High, Cardiff 59.6% 72.3% +12.7% Radyr Comprehensive, Cardiff 67.8% 77.1% +9.3% Cantonian High, Cardiff 35.8% 43.8% +8% Source: Central South Consortium WHAT EDUCATION CORRESPONDENT GARETH EVANS MAKES OF THE STRATEGY'S RESULTS...

It has been hailed by Education Minister Huw Lewis as a "fundamental change that underpins all else" within Wales' education system.

But successful school-led improvement is easier said than done, and critics will rightly reserve judgement until tangible results filter through.

This summer's GCSE scores are, therefore, a significant commendation for the CSWC and a real positive step in the right direction.

Prior to the consortium's more strategic approach to collaboration, schools in different local authorities will have had little or nothing to do with one another. Head teachers may have caught up once a year at various conferences, but the thought of visiting each other's schools was seldom a possibility.

It is now commonplace and while challenge leaders have yet to convince every school of its worth, there are at least signs that collaborative working is beginning to bear fruit.

Improving teaching and learning will remain top of the agenda as the CSWC enters its second school year of operation, but improved pupil attainment is very much the name of the game.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 3, 2015
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