Such is the political cachet attached to international comparators, education ministers can live or die by their PISA results. They shine a light on our inadequacies and champion those whose education systems are best-preparing their children for the wants and needs of the 21st Century. And it’s not just reputation at stake – business leaders predict a poor PISA showing will impact on a country’s economic prosperity. Perform badly, they say, and industry is less likely to invest on your shores.
It seems somewhat fickle that so much can ride on one specific performance indicator. But that is the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves. And while the rights and the wrongs of PISA can – and will continue to be – debated, the world’s biggest education survey is here to stay. PISA matters and, no matter how much we convince ourselves otherwise, cannot be ignored.
We should be grateful, therefore, that Wales’ Education Secretary Kirsty Williams stood firm in the face of the inevitable feeding frenzy that followed the publication of the last set of PISA results in December. Having performed poorly in three successive PISA tests, Wales failed to make any significant inroads in the latest tranche and remained bottom of the UK pile. In reading, Welsh teenagers scored 477 points – three points lower than in the 2012 study and 23 points behind England. Performance in science, traditionally Wales’ strongest PISA suit, dropped sharply to 485 points – six less than last time and the lowest on record. Wales’ score in maths was the ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy results day, but a rise of 10 points to 478 was still well below the OECD average and the rest of the home nations.
Put together, it meant Wales stayed in roughly the same position – 40th, 35th and 39th respectively – relative to its inflated number of competitors, albeit all three scores were lower in 2015 (there is a year’s gap between tests and results) than they were in 2006.
PISA was the ultimate test of Ms Williams’ resolve. It would have been easy for a new minister, of a different political persuasion no less, to rip up the work of her predecessors and start again. The fact that she did not was extremely welcome and a show of confidence in both the direction of travel and the wider education system’s ability to deliver on it. Ms Williams’ decision to hold a course and push on with reforms already set in train was justified by the OECD (the organisation responsible for developing PISA) in its recent policy assessment, commissioned by the Welsh Government. The report was broadly positive, noting that “the Welsh approach to school improvement has moved from a piecemeal and short-term policy orientation towards one that is guided by a longer-term vision and is characterised by a process of co-construction with key stakeholders”.
That spirit of co-construction was none more prevalent than at this month’s national education conference in Cardiff, which brought together the vast majority of secondary head teachers from across Wales. A two-day event with a complementary overnight stay may seem a little excessive. But drastic times call for drastic measures. Seldom do you get all secondary school leaders together in one room – that in itself is an advantage of being a small nation – and there were important messages to get across.
Not surprisingly, given the OECD’s publication, PISA was prominent and its brainchild Andreas Schleicher was the event’s star attraction (there were selfies taken, I kid you not). Once described as the “David Beckham of education”, Mr Schleicher presented an impressive analysis of Wales’ strengths and weaknesses relative to other OECD nations. There were, of course, areas causing concern; the underperformance of our more talented and able pupils was a recurring theme.
But it was not all bad news and Mr Schleicher hailed the “amazing momentum” of Wales’ newfound collaborative way of working. He said: “There’s always been change in Wales but much of that in the past used to be driven from the centre, whereas now we can see the engagement of schools… I really think this is an amazing moment for education improvement.” The shifting of power was prevalent throughout. The “reform fatigue” and “overwhelming” of teachers in Wales with new initiatives – highlighted by the OECD in 2014 – is, for now at least, a thing of the past.
Steve Davies, the Welsh Government’s Director of Education, set the scene in his opening address, entitled: “Co-construction and evidence-based policy making: An essential way of life for Welsh education”. Mr Davies spoke of the “new relationship” between key stakeholders and championed the need for “one voice” in policy development moving forward.
It hasn’t always been thus, but the co-operative approach to curriculum reform, new professional standards and teacher training is proof that the tide is turning. The Welsh Government may in fact be minded to consider the concept of the ‘Education Partnership Table’ introduced in Ontario, Canada. Established to permit wider input into policy development, it sees leaders of representative groups in education invited to meetings (the Education Partnership Table) to discuss substantive problems and help contribute to their successful resolution. All providers of publicly-funded education services (particularly those representing pupils, parents and teachers) are brought together periodically to enable everyone in education to understand the perspectives and viewpoints of others. And it works; Ontario’s school standards have improved markedly as a result.
But with co-construction comes increased responsibility. The pressure to improve on domestic and international comparators (the next PISA tests are just 18 months away) is shared. Ms Williams made the point in her opening salvo at the Swalec Stadium, stressing that her disconnect from previous administrations and relatively short time in post had bought the sector valuable breathing space. “I won’t be able to do that after 2018,” she said. “There are only so many times I can get up in the chamber and say there will be jam tomorrow.” Three months after the publication of PISA results, this was Ms Williams’ “Leighton Andrews” moment. It was perhaps inevitable that comparisons would be drawn with the former Education Minister’s 2011 tour de force – an unprecedented and memorable assault on school standards that stunned a gathering of sector leaders into near-submission. Ms Williams was softer in tone and far less prescriptive, but she was no less forthright in her convictions. This was to all intents and purposes a rallying of the troops. The message was clear: if Wales is to vindicate its new self-improving system and collaborative ethos, then it will need to reflect positively in results. There was no target setting (and no mention of Huw Lewis’ woolly ambition of achieving 500 points in reading, maths and science by 2021) – merely an expectation that schools would need to raise their game.
If Wales falls foul of PISA again next year, then Ms Williams and her team will find it difficult to keep the wolves from the door. So the stakes are high but in return for their commitment to the PISA cause, school leaders were dangled a carrot and given the promise of a “fundamental review” of Wales’ accountability system. The onus currently placed on the GCSE Level 2+ (five A*-C grades including English or Welsh and maths) performance indicator is considered a major sticking point. Ms Williams championed an accountability system that is “fair, coherent, proportionate, transparent and based on our shared values for Welsh education”. Warm words that bode well for the future – but categorisation is only a small part of the picture. By implication, the revolution currently underway in Welsh schools will only be assured the requisite time and space if our international standing worms upwards. Schools were warned that the groundswell against what we are trying collectively to achieve will be huge if Wales fails to make its mark on PISA. And if that happens, academisation and the market-driven approach to education favoured across the border becomes more of a possibility.
The challenge has been set and the gauntlet thrown down.
The alternative could be much worse.