Why is education in Wales so poor?
In the week when another league table shows no Welsh universities near the top in Britain, and school performance in Wales, we are warned, may be heading for another disaster in international results, it seems right to pose this question.
Phil Parry’s monthly sketch
This is the first in a new series of monthly sketches on Wales, by Phil Parry. In the series he will be casting his eye over recent news.
For the long term future of Wales it matters more than the state of our health service. In The Guardian ranking of British universities – which research has shown concerns potential students a lot as they choose where to go – no Welsh university was in the top 25.
The highest were Cardiff at number 26 followed by Swansea at number 58. Some have fallen fast. In the case of Aberystwyth it was a full 18 points on last year to number 106. This follows the Complete University Guide (CUG) which showed more drops – Aberystwyth, for example, had dropped by 17 points from number 70.
There were bright spots. The relatively new Glyndwr university based in Wrexham rose 44 places from 108, and they have only been a university for six years. But the future does not look bright.
Schools in Wales do not fare any better than our universities. Improvements will apparently ‘take time’ according to Anne Keane, the head of the education watchdog Estyn (this is after 15 years of devolution). She has warned not to expect too much from next year’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results could come too soon, she said.
The PISA tables are issued by a group of developed nations – the Organisation
for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – and compare Welsh school children with others around the world in the key subjects of maths, English and science. They are widely-used by experts to examine the performance of a country’s education system.But Wales have not done well. In past years we have ranked below all other parts of the UK.
Ms Keane said she would be relieved to see Wales rise to attain a middling position. “I would be happy to see Wales moving towards the OECD average,” she said. But this surely shows a poverty of ambition. There is a long history of superb educational standards in Wales and our teachers have been exported all over the world. Can we really only aspire to be average?
My own schooling in Monmouth cannot be recommended as an example to follow. Monmouth was then a direct-grant grammar school. As it was an all-boys institution and I went to one of the last all-boy primary schools in Wales (this was the 70s) I thought girls were a completely alien species when I first met them at university!
As teenagers, we were only allowed to fraternise with the opposite sex from the girls’ school up the road once a year at the sixth form dance. Actually I tell a lie – there were rehearsals for the sixth form dance in the school hall and girls were allowed to attend for that.
We were taught ‘the waltz’ by the French master and his wife – a Mr Copestake. At the final lesson he announced that we would be taught a ‘modern dance’ known as ‘the twist’. For this we had to pretend we were drying our backs with a towel and as we did so, crouch down towards the floor and back up again. Needless to say this ungainly manoeuvre was not entirely attractive to the opposite sex, but because this was the only time when we could (officially) meet girls these sessions were extremely well-attended. Thankfully, in this respect at least, things have moved on.
The creation of job opportunities for young people in Wales, not educational attainment, was singled out by the First minister, Carwyn Jones, as one of his administration’s greatest achievements as he announced this year’s ‘Programme for Government’ report.Yet the two are intimately linked.
Launching his report he told the media: “The people of Wales are right to have high expectations of the services that they receive”. But what about education? Can we be happy when the highest placed Welsh university in Britain is 26th? Or that our schools should aspire to move to an average position?
Surely we can do better than that.