Welsh education confronts systemic failure

David Reynolds asks who will provide the ‘tough love’ that the Welsh education system needs

The PISA international pupil attainment results for Wales released early last month were every bit as bad as the rumours had suggested. We came at the bottom of the four home nations of the UK. Our performance across the three subjects of Science, Maths and Reading has declined alarmingly since 2007. In Mathematics we now perform similarly to Greece, Lithuania and Russia, and are significantly below that educational hothouse of Latvia.


This is the third of a series of articles we shall be publishing this week looking ahead to the prospects for key Welsh policy areas in 2011. Tomorrow: local government.

New IWA research on Welsh pupil attainment at Key Stage 3, ages 11 to 14, will be unveiled at a Cardiff conference on 1 March – for details see here.

Very sensibly, the Welsh Government condemned the figures and put the blame where it belongs – on the teachers and schools of Wales. Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ phrase about ‘systemic failure’ is the most damning assessment of an educational system that has ever been uttered in the UK, but then the Welsh performance over time is the worst ever seen in the UK in living memory.

In the next three months there has to be the post PISA policy response, particularly concerning how the one Welsh systemic lever of change that we do have – the School Effectiveness Framework – can be maximised in its effects. Much of it was designed to transform a ‘good’ country educationally into a ‘great’ country.  Now it has to move a ‘not very good’ country to become a ‘good’ country in the first place.

The problems are daunting. The end of January will see the customary publication of the English and Welsh expenditure figures for 2009-10, and it is highly likely that they will show the present gap of £527 widening (in England’s favour) to probably about £560. The figure is per pupil per year and provides the educational system of Wales with an alibi. It is an excuse and an ‘out’ to place the blame for failure solely on lower resources, even though it is clear that many countries spending much less than Wales did much better in PISA than we did.

The whole emotional tone about how teachers and schools are handled in Wales is key too. Someone needs to tell the system the truth. We approach extinction as an industrial society if we continue to perform at present educational levels.  Someone has to express the ‘brute sanity’ that the system needs. This is a role which the combative Leighton Andrews has probably reserved for himself! But where does the support that schools need come from? If the Welsh system – like an errant child – needs ‘tough love’, just who will provide the ‘love’?

And Wales’ historic attitude to itself needs to change. We possess in high measure the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in which our excellent people and institutions are systematically rubbished by the others, instead of being understood and emulated. The historic countries of Canada and Australia which used to show the same thing, but with greater national success and self confidence, have greater security to ‘benchmark against their best’. Are we at that stage in Wales yet?  Probably not.

Our problem is not that we do not know how to educate our children in Wales. We do. We have some world class schools, many world class teachers and even a couple of world class local authorities. Our problem is that not everyone is as good as our best, because we do not emulate our best. Solving this problem may need wider cultural change in our country more than in our educational system.

David Reynolds is Professor of Educational Effectiveness at the University of Southampton and he lives in Wales.

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