The paper sets out the main characteristics of the school system in Wales since 1999 when responsibility for education was devolved to the newly-created National Assembly for Wales. It moves on to consider the advances made in student attainment during this period, some of which can be ascribed to progress in learning and teaching pedagogy, leadership development and good practice in the field of school effectiveness. It suggests, however, that these improvements have reached a plateau and that without major systemic reform, embracing changes in pedagogy, leadership and school effectiveness, the aspirations of the Assembly Government to develop a world-class education system in Wales will be difficult to achieve. The paper sets out the main features of the tri-level reform movement which is now beginning in Wales and which seeks to transform the school system over the next three to five years.
The schools system in Wales has a number of predominant characteristics. Firstly, for the size of the country Wales has a large number of schools. A population of nearly three million is served by 1,606 primary, 43 special and 227 secondary schools. The fact that the student population is set to fall from the current 479,023 to 437,800 by 2013 points to considerable spare capacity within the system. Based on September 2004 figures there is currently a gross number of 82,931 places unfilled in schools. The general decline in the birth rate is, therefore, exacerbating a situation where already Wales has a large number of small schools, serving both great swathes of rural Wales where population density is low and the postindustrial SouthWales valleys where a decline in population has occurred in an area where the iron and coal industries once reigned supreme.
Contrasting with this picture of demographic flux is another prominent feature of Wales' education system and that is the relative homogeneity of the actual school system (National Assembly for Wales, 2006a, b). With a fee-paying sector covering only two per cent of the school population, the overwhelming majority of students attend a local community comprehensive primary or secondary school. In some parts of Wales, mostly the north and south west parts of the country, that school will teach through the medium of the Welsh language as the natural first language of the young people who pass through the school gates. In other parts of Wales there is a limited availability of schools where Welsh is the medium of instruction, but where the overwhelming majority of the students are not natural Welsh-speakers in the sense that they do not come from a Welsh-speaking home. These 'Welsh-medium schools' as they are known, are still community based and non-selective, but for many students they are not the 'local' school and attending them will involve longer journeys than if they attended their local school.
Together the 'natural' and 'Welsh-medium' schools comprise 29% of the primary and 24% of the secondary schools in Wales. The demand for places in 'Welsh-medium' schools has increased enormously over the last 20 years and currently this trend shows no signs of abating (Williams, 2003).
All the schools where Welsh is the language of instruction have a mixed-sex intake, the predominance of which type of provision is another widespread feature of schooling in Wales. There are but three communities in Wales--two in the valleys of south east Wales and one in the Vale of Glamorgan--where single-sex secondary schools have survived due to parental and community resistance to them being transformed from the grammar schools that they once were to coeducational comprehensives. Their continuing existence may be seen as something of an anachronism.
The final piece of the Welsh schools jigsaw is provided by faith education. Altogether about 13% of primary and 7% of secondary students attend either Roman Catholic or Church in Wales schools. …