New research tackles systemic school failure

John Osmond says a new IWA project is a timely response to yesterday’s PISA results

Yesterday’s international PISA pupil attainment results, showing that Wales has lost ground yet again, and substantially, serves to underline the importance of an IWA research project that has been underway over the past year. See the BBC Wales website here for a report on the PISA results. Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ commentary on the results is here.

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

Our research has been examining school leadership and innovation in Wales at Key Stage 3, that is amongst young people aged 11 to 14. The results will be unveiled at a conference we are organising in Cardiff on 12 April 2011 – for full details see here.

Over the past decade successive statistical analyses, confirmed yet again by yesterday’s results, have confirmed that a basic educational challenge facing Wales is the relatively poor performance of our children in the early years of secondary school. This feeds into the worrying number of children leaving school with inadequate, and in 10 per cent of cases, no qualifications at all. These are the people often  referred to as NEET – not in education employment or training. The IWA’s recent report on this phenomenon is here.

We have no excuse in Wales for this state of affairs. Education is an area fully devolved. We have the means to tackle the problem, but the difficulty is knowing precisely where and how to intervene. In his statement yesterday Leighton Andrews could not have been more direct or emphatic. He said the schools of Wales were “simply not delivering well enough”. This he described as “a systemic failure”:

“These results are disappointing. They show an unacceptable fall in our overall performance – everyone involved in the education sector in Wales should be alarmed. There can be no alibis and no excuses. Countries with less money spent on education than Wales have done better than Wales. Schools, local authorities, and ourselves as government need to look honestly at these results and accept responsibility for them. If we are to secure a successful educational future for Wales we cannot tolerate complacency in the classroom. These results have made it clear that schools in Wales are simply not delivering well enough for students at all levels of ability. This can only be described as a systemic failure; we all share responsibility for this and we must equally share in the difficult task of turning things around.”

At the IWA we have undertaken a statistical analysis of the attainment of pupils aged 11 to 14 across all of Wales’ 227 secondary schools. We have placed the findings against the socio-economic background of the schools, as shown by the uptake of free school meals amongst their children, and also by an examination of recent Estyn reports.

On the basis of this research we have selected six secondary schools across the country that in one way or another are performing counter-intuitively to what we might have expected. Most of them have been performing better than we would have thought. Others have had relatively poor results in the past but have improved exceptionally in recent times.

We have visited all of these schools and spoken in depth to the children, the teachers, the governors and, of course the headteachers. What we have been looking for is the special ingredients that some schools can bring to their overall culture of learning, and whether there are lessons that can be learned across the whole of the Welsh school system.

What has been surprising from the results of the research so far is the contrasting nature of some of the approaches adopted in the schools. There is evidence, too, that some of the more innovative techniques are spreading from one school to another, indicating that there should be greater potential for this in future.

I believe this research is among the most important projects that the IWA has undertaken in its history. In Wales our most important asset is our people, certainly so far as the economic and cultural success as a nation is concerned. It is obvious that we need to up our game. Hopefully this research will give our educators a few signposts.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

2 thoughts on “New research tackles systemic school failure

  1. I agree that this is a crucial piece of research – there’s nothing more important for long term growth in the Welsh economy than school education. Is there scope for you to publish your statistical analysis on pupil attainment now, in advance of the March conference, in order to make an interim contribution to the debate?

  2. Given the urgency of this issue, is there any possibility that you could bring the date of publication forward?

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