PISA results will spark transformation

John Osmond listens to a mixture of homily and humility delivered by the Welsh Government’s Permanent Secretary

The Welsh Government’s robust response to the poor PISA education attainment published last December will prove a transformational moment in the first 20 years of devolution, predicted Permanent Secretary Gill Morgan last night.

In a lecture  on Devolved Public Services – Making a Difference, delivered at the University of Glamorgan’s College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, she said social class still had the biggest impact on education attainment which represented a major challenge for all governments. The OECD survey, which compares skills attainment in literacy, numeracy and science across the developed world revealed that Wales was slipping behind the rest of the UK and performing worse than three years ago.

Special reports on education policy next week

On Monday David Reynolds, Professor of Education at Southampton University and a Welsh Government Adviser, says the Welsh Education Department needs to change along with the rest of the system. On Tuesday Teifion Griffiths, former headteacher of St Teilo’s Comprehensive School in Cardiff, argues that centralised micro-management is behind the school failings highlighted in the latest Pisa results.

In a series of speeches since Education Minister Leighton Andrews has said the results reflect a systemic failure and are a wake-up call for the Welsh education system. Urging schools to ensure there is a major improvement by the time the next PISA report is published in 2015, he is putting in place a raft of measures designed to shine a light on their relative performance.

Last night the Permanent Secretary conceded that the Government’s refusal to publish school league tables comparing performance across the sector made transparency in scoring excellence difficult. “We don’t have contestability,” she said. “We have to do it ourselves.”

She agreed that Leighton Andrews description of the education service as a “fair system trying to become good” applied across the range of public service delivery in Wales. “We don’t have a failing public service in Wales,” she said. “We’re just not good enough.”

She said a Yes vote in the referendum on more powers would free up her department to become more innovative and adventurous in policy-making. At present legislation promoted by the Welsh Government was contingent on negotiations with London departments. “It constrains our thinking,” she said.

Although the civil service working for the Welsh Government had grown significantly in numbers, from 2,500 in 1999 to 5,950 today, she acknowledged that the numbers directly involved in policy creation had not increased to the same extent in proportionate terms. Instead the amount of effort devoted to directly supporting and delivering services had grown. She said her department would be by about a 1,00o through voluntary redundancies in the coming year and as a result the balance of activity would shift.

She provided a candid analysis of what she regarded to be Wales’ relative strengths and weaknesses.  Our strengths were:

  • Common purpose and mutuality – “We have a powerful value system and a strong sense of place”.
  • Scale and closeness – “We can get people in a room, in London they don’t know where the room is”.
  • A national partnership between organisations.
  • Coterminosity between organisations delivering services.
  • Engagement of the workforce.

However, these should be set against a set of weaknesses:

  • Complacency – “We’re self referential and tend to think the same”.
  • Lack of challenge – “We don’t understand that a critique helps you improve. On the other hand we’re good at criticism.”
  • Poor innovation.
  • Lack of diversity.
  • Lack of scrutiny.
  • Low citizen engagement.

There was a capacity problem, too. We were short of leaders, cross-cutting strategies, and were slow in bringing to bear the appropriate skills and expertise to drive innovation and change.

There was a hint that following the election there would more shake-up in the organisational structures of service delivery, especially perhaps the 22 local authorities, but Gill Morgan provided no specifics. Instead she confined herself to what appeared an aphorism, “No mergers take away boundaries,” she said. “They just internalise them.”

In another side she asked, “Why do permanent secretaries like genetic engineering? They’re looking for sticks that look like carrots.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Also within Politics and Policy