Education Special 1: Picking ourselves up off the PISA floor

David Reynolds says the Welsh Education Department needs to change

National educational conferences in Wales are like Cardiff buses – for a long time you have none and then suddenly two come along at once. Responding to the calamitous PISA results released in December 2010, we have now had the conference of 2 February, where the Minister, Leighton Andrews, laid out his stall of policy changes. This was followed by the conference of 14 February – perhaps appropriately on the day of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – when the professionals were consulted about what they thought of the massive changes afoot.

Unsurprisingly, the first conference was a somewhat subdued event. In fairness to them, it was attended by a group of people who gave every indication of being shamed by our poor Welsh performance. Approximately 200 of the nation’s educational professionals listened quietly to what was probably the most damning indictment of an educational system ever uttered by a British politician in modern times.


Teifion Griffiths, former head teacher of St Teilos Comprehensive School in Cardiff, argues that centralised micro-management is behind the school failings highlighted in the latest PISA results.

Leighton Andrews’ speech was powerful, rational and persuasive in its demands for ‘supply side’ reform. He demanded more quality control of schools, more provision of good practice through the School Effectiveness Framework and more testing of pupils’ achievements. There were few questions, little dissent and the mood music of the audience afterwards was positive.  This was a group of professionals who seemed willing to change. They also seemed as if their professional self confidence had been shot.

One might have expected – after two weeks of time – for professionals to see the flaws, chew the fat and generally rediscover the authentic spirit of Welsh educational producerism – that the attendees at the second conference would be more critical of what they were being required to do,  but not a bit of it.

Aside from a brief spat about whether the new grading of schools into groups will really bring the return of league tables – of course it won’t any more than the present collection of examination results data has generated that – Welsh professional opinion appears quiescent.

It may be that Welsh professionals do not believe it will all really happen to them and that Leighton Andrews’ 20 new policy announcements will atrophy. As long as he remains Minister this is one hundred to one against.

It is more likely that the professionals believe that so many policies have emerged from the Welsh Government’s Education Department in the past which have never been implemented that they believe this is another collection that won’ be either. The Education Department ‘does’ policies – it has not ‘done’ their implementation. It has not been equipped to monitor their implementation. It has customarily regarded implementation and day-to-day management as the responsibility of its local authority partners.

From both conferences the absence of outright opposition to what is happening probably also reflects the perception that it is not necessary to oppose. Many believe that there will still be hiding places, where the light of national need is not shone. They think there are the still pools where professionals can hide from the currents produced by the demand for performance that now ebbs and flows around the planet. Probably professionals believe – in the memorable phrase of the late, great Steve Marshall who headed the Education Department for two years – that they will still be able to get away with standing by the photocopier, as everything goes on as usual around them.

It may be that what Leighton Andrews has – courageously – announced is necessary but not sufficient for Wales to move off the PISA floor. It may be that what is needed now is the equivalent of the 20 new policies for the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills itself. He acknowledges that it has not been fit for purpose, although it is changing. It may bring fewer headlines but to get the system right it may be necessary to get the Department right, given that the system in Wales needs to be driven because it cannot drive itself at the moment. But what would doing this entail?

David Reynolds is Professor of Educational Effectiveness at the University of Southampton and Senior Policy Adviser to the Welsh Government’s Education Department.

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