Making the most of Wales’ schools crisis

John Osmond reports on Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ ambitions for raising standards in our schools

In a powerful speech today on Wales’ school attainment failings Education Minister Leighton Andrews rounded on his own department, local government and leadership at all levels as being a major cause of poor standards. He listed 20 action points designed to deliver his priorities of improving literacy, numeracy, and tackling the link between poverty and improvement. He pledged to:

  • Establish national literacy and numeracy tests.
  • Introduce a national comparative list to grade attainment across Wales to make the performance of schools more transparent.
  • Ensure that all children entering secondary school have undertaken nationally approved assessments.
  • Require governing bodies to report on their school’s performance
  • Oblige local authorities to spread best practice across schools, especially in terms of leadership.
  • Improve training of teachers, concentrating on their first three years in post
  • Give more attention to discipline in the classroom.

School Leadership and Innovation at Key Stage 3

New IWA research on Welsh pupil attainment at Key Stage 3, ages 11 to 14, will be unveiled at a Cardiff conference on 12 April – for details see here.

The speech was prompted by Wales’s poor performance in the international PISA tables, published at the end of last year, in which Wales slipped back in reading, mathematics and science (to see how I reported on this click here, and for David Reynolds’ commentary, click here). At the time Education Minister Leighton Andrews described the results as evidence of a “systemic failure” in the Welsh education system, a point he reiterated today adding that they were “a wake-up call to a complacent system”:

“These results cannot be excused on the basis of low socio-economic status or the bilingual nature of our nation and education system. They cannot be excused by relative funding levels – Finland has similar per capita spend to Wales on education and yet performs consistently very highly in PISA assessments; Luxembourg spends far more than Wales but their PISA scores are no better than ours in reading and lower in science; New Zealand spends less per capita than we do but significantly outperforms us.”

He declared that for too long Welsh education policy had been designed on the assumption that it was aiming to move Wales from “the good to the great”. He said Wales should aim to be in the top 20 of school systems measured in the PISA scores by 2015 but this would require a realistic assessment of where we are:

“We have to move our system from the not-so-good to the good. We are complacent – complacency kills aspiration. We have not articulated stretching targets, nor have we provided parents with the confidence and expectation that things can and should be better. PISA tells us that we have not stretched our most able pupils. We are failing some of our most talented. We have let people get away with things. Let me be clear – a coasting school is failing its pupils and parents, it’s failing its teachers. “We have to move our system from the not-so-good to the good.”

Andrews’ typically acerbic assessment led straight to the top, with his own Department for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning:

“We have a department which saw several quangos merged with it in 2006. I do not know if those mergers were ever culturally integrated. I do know that a single departmental culture has yet to emerge. My impression as a Minister is of a department that has been culturally and geographically fragmented without a clear focus. There has been a lack of alignment of performance measurement, including qualifications in particular. Implementation of policy has been weak. Policies to support and deliver the curriculum need to be properly embedded. The decision to introduce the Skills Framework on a non-statutory basis is a good example of this weakness. Historically civil servants have been strong on policy design, but less good at policy implementation and embedding.”

Local authorities were given yet another warning from within the Welsh Government that they face structural change following the May Assembly election:

“I have said repeatedly I would not have invented 22 local education authorities. I now believe that the fragmentation of education authorities in the mid-1990s was one of the contributing factors for the downturn in educational performance a decade later, as effective challenge and support was lost in many parts of the system and time, energy and resource was dissipated. As Estyn has reported, strategic management is good or better in only a half of local authorities.”

Andrews also attacked a general political weakness in a system where was a continual search for excuses:

“Instead of learning from best practice there is a continual search for alibis. There has been collusion and groupthink. People say class sizes should be smaller – although the research suggests that this matters only in the early years. People say it’s a matter of funding. Though as Michael Davidson of the OECD pointed out when the PISA results were published, we are amongst the highest spenders in the OECD.”

The search for alibis was a distraction from learning from what worked and simply applying it. Now was the time, Andrews said, for accountability:

“The removal of league tables was intended to stop a distorting competition. It was not a signal that we do not have a view on the performance of the school system. We do. Young people have a right to expect high standards. To what extent are governors really engaged across Wales in driving up performance? To what extent are they essentially dependent on the headteacher for their information? How many headteachers are sharing the family of schools data with their governors? How is that being built in to school development plans? To what extent are local authorities empowering governors to understand and use data? Is the current system for headteacher review adequate? Is there effective alignment between governors’ appraisal and real improvements in performance? Do we need to align head teacher performance management with the local authority improvement role? We need to take the best practice from the local authorities which have a forensic approach to performance.”

Andrews said he was determined to bring change to the Welsh education system. He quoted a recent McKinsey report on How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better’, which noted that the impetus to start school system reforms resulted from one of three things:

The outcome of a political or economic crisis, the impact of a high- profile, critical report on the system’s performance, or the energy and input of a new political or strategic leader.

“Well, at least two of those three factors apply to Wales,” the Minister observed. “Never waste a crisis.”

The full text of Leighton Andrews speech can be found here. A video of the speech is available here.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

4 thoughts on “Making the most of Wales’ schools crisis

  1. The Mckinsey report which is on the web also pointed out that successful education systems throughout the world recruited teachers from the top third of graduates. Singapore,for example, which came second in the PISA table for maths accepts only students on teacher training programmes from the top 30% of their academic cohort. No one can disagree with the contents of a speech that should have been made years ago. Taxpayers as well as parents have the right to know what is going on in the schools of Wales. The speech is an indictment not just of a system which in Leighton Andrews words is suffering from ‘systemic failure’. It is also an indictment of a civic culture that has developed since devolution in which politicians have become too close to the vested interests and as a result have failed to challenge those vested interests in so many areas of public policy.

  2. A timely and helpful item.

    Can someone check the IWA KS3 conference date: it is in my diary for 1 March 2011.

  3. Mr Andrews mentions leadership as a significant factor in improving performance, yet many schools in Wales, when attempting to appoint a head, fail to attract more than a tiny handful of applicants. Some attract none. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a correlation between the fall in the number of applicants for headship and the fall in standards in Wales.

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