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PISA report shows Welsh pupils slide down the global education league tables

December 17, 2010
a warning for educators

A new OECD education report shows UK pupils falling behind in the global tables, and pins the blame on Welsh students, writes guest blogger Richard Welbirg.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys 15-year-old pupils every three years, testing their ability to “address real-life challenges” in the areas of reading, maths and science, so removing any possibility of teaching to the test.

PISA Facts

  • 65 countries surveyed
  • Half a million children tested
  • Started 2000
  • Wales first surveyed 2006
  • 132 Welsh schools tested in 2009

The 2009 report, published on December 7 this year, showed the UK stagnate or decline in all three areas, and perform much worse than the 2000 cohort.

The Economist says the disappointing results are “almost entirely to do with poor performance in Wales.”

Dashed Hopes

After a disappointing performance in the 2006 survey, politicians had hoped 2009 would show the devolved government’s policies taking hold.

“Sadly, that is not the case,” said Leighton Andrews, Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning.

“The 2009 figures paint an even more disappointing picture of our performance and progress.”

  • Wales scored well below the OECD average and the rest of the UK in reading and maths
  • England, Scotland and Northern Ireland scored significantly higher in science
  • Wales’ mean score in all three areas was less than in 2006.
  • Wales’ ranking among the 65 countries fell in each area.
Welsh PISA Scores 2006 & 2009

Wales declined in all three disciplines

Unsurprisingly, the opposition were quick to attack the coalition’s policies.

“Labour-Plaid’s overly-centralised and bureaucratic management of schools is letting down a generation of pupils, parents and teachers,” claimed Conservative Shadow Education Minister Paul Davies.

Leighton Andrew’s statement admitted the PISA results were a blow for education policy: “Our young people deserve better but I am confident that I can rely on the whole sector to support the actions necessary to bring about sustained, positive change.”

The honesty of Mr Andrews’ statements is “a bold political strategy,” says Sally Power, Professor of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.

“But he also shifts much of the responsibility onto the teaching system.”

The Learning Country?

Published in 2001, The Learning Country (TLC) document defined a 10-year comprehensive philosophy for education and lifelong learning.

Since then, the Welsh curriculum has moved away from the test-oriented strategy used elsewhere in the UK, toward a holistic strategy rooted in the (perhaps vague) idea of Welsh citizenship.

Mal Davies, headteacher at Willows High School in Cardiff, points out that the devolved education policy draws on the Finnish education system, which has delivered consistent results (this year the country is second for reading, mean score 536).

“We have moved away from teaching to the test, to a curriculum for preparing versatile, adaptive children not scared of new knowledge,” said Mr Davies.

What’s the problem?

In November, researchers from Bristol University claimed the decision to abolish league tables in 2001 had led to a decline in secondary school performance in Wales.

The study found the average English student would outperform their Welsh counterpart by two GCSE grades, growing to three in the poorest-performing quartile of schools.

Prof. Sally Power: Why have we declined?

With similar PISA results to Latvia and Lithuania, at far greater cost, some parties have argued that inefficiency is a de facto outcome of a bilingual education system.

Dr Phillip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru, believes Scotland’s improved performance is proof devolution itself is not to blame, but its inarguable that Welsh language education imposes additional costs on the system.

Welsh politicians have shown no inclination to address this particular minefield.

Professor David Egan was the Assembly’s special adviser for education during the last round of PISA assessments. He said: “In essence if we want to explain the PISA outcomes, a large part of that will lie in the insidious effect which poverty continues to have on our nation and its people, particularly our children.

Money is undoubtedly a factor. A child in Wales receives £527 per year less than their English equivalent, and the country has disproportionate number of rural schools that are too small to be cost-effective.

There is no single explanation, and a complex cocktail of unripe policies and socio-economic factors are to blame. “We need more research!” says Prof. Power.

Clouds on the Horizon

PISA recommendations:

  • raise the status of teachers by making it harder to become one
  • publish schools results
  • give the best schools more independence

Paul Davies says the Welsh Conservatives would fund schools directly from the Assembly purse, “to allow parents and head-teachers to run schools as they see fit –because they know what they need”.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews

Education Minister Leighton Andrews

He estimates direct funding would cut 4% from the schools budget: £102 million. That could be reinvested, but Mr Davies makes no promises.

Mr Andrews has also not ruled out direct funding for schools, and his department would welcome after November’s budget imposed swingeing cuts.

From a front-line perspective, Mal Davies urges caution: “These programs are still very young and they take time to grow through a system. It would be a great folly to change the strategy now”.

Blaming TLC policies is misleading when its first ‘subjects’ are still at Key Stage 2. It may be ten years until we see meaningful results.

But politicians are fair-weather creatures, and the PISA report has put the cat among the Assembly pigeons. The once-strong relationship between government and educators is strained, and the authority of TLC is in doubt.

Mr Davies summed up the new landscape: “I’m confident we are on the right track, but not that politicians have the courage to see these strategies to fruition.”

Prof. Sally Power: the end of a special relationship

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