From dumb to dumber in our schools

David Reynolds queries what has gone wrong with the Welsh education system and what we can do about it

For about a month we had heard it on the grapevine – PISA results for Wales were going to be awful. No figures of course were ever given – the OECD which runs PISA would have been incensed if there was any leak. But what we heard was just the stories from those who had seen the figures, that things weren’t very good.

Now we know what everyone was talking about. The PISA results are poor – very poor – for Wales. In only three years, we have sunk even further beneath the OECD average score across all the countries involved, and fallen away from the other ‘home nations’ of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a system which has 80 per cent of its pupils in secondary modern schools and has much higher levels of social disadvantage, but still outperforms Wales. And remember that Wales was the nation that had love of education engrained in its collective heart.

Of course, the difficulty with these international surveys is that we don’t know what exactly explains why some countries do better than others. It could be their culture, their economic situation, their educational system or their social systems that are responsible. But if one has the kind of rapid decline that Wales is showing in its results – from bad to worse, or what might be called from dumb to dumber – then it is clearly the educational system that is involved, since these other non educational influences would have remained relatively the same between 2006 and 2009.

Leighton Andrews, the Education Minister, issued a combative and feisty statement that shows he means business. He must be irritated at having to pick up the legacy of two Education Ministers who may have been – to put it tactfully – not entirely strategic in their thinking. But what has gone wrong, and what can be done to put things right?

Firstly, local authorities have been holding back increased amounts of money from their schools and delegating less. We are the only country in the world to be doing this to my knowledge. This affects schools’ morale, their available funding and the chances of them developing and innovating. This must stop. And the funding gap of over £500 per pupil per year between Wales and England means that by the time Welsh schools have paid their teachers (on the same pay scales as England) there is little money left over for innovation or change.

Secondly, Wales has not been able – because of its reluctance to become actively involved in the development of its teaching professionals – to move its teachers on to the next level. We have had none of the English Strategies for teacher development. And certainly we have not ‘rolled out’ many home-grown development programmes to our teachers.  In Wales critics call the provision of knowledge about ‘what works’ a prescription or imposition on schools. Other countries call it making good practice available through continuing professional development, since they do not believe in waiting for years for the reinvention of the wheel.

Thirdly, we need to understand ourselves better. The problem is not that we do not know how to educate children in Wales – we do. There are exemplary local authorities. There are world class schools. There are outstanding teachers and Departmental Heads. The problem is that we do not reliably deliver to all children what we deliver routinely to some. The problem is that we are not benchmarking against our best.

Educationally Wales is not a nation. It is made up of multiple nations. There are 22 highly varied local authorities. There are fissures between north, south and mid Wales. Schools are not connected to each other. How can we ensure systemic reliability in a context of fragmented delivery mechanisms?

The first PISA results published in December 2007 came as a huge shock to the educational system. Ditto the results this week. This is about national pride. But it is about more even than that – it is about Welsh pupils’ life chances.  One doubts whether our political system will give our educational system any more time if it does not put its house in order before the next PISA in December 2013.

David Reynolds will be speaking at the IWA’s conference on School Leadership and Innovation at Key Stage 3 in Cardiff on 1 March 2011. Click here for details.

Professor David Reynolds, is Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth.

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