Fourth term special 4: Confronting an historical Welsh curse

David Reynolds says Education Minister Leighton Andrews has a mountain to climb

It would be difficult to imagine a more Herculean task than that confronting Education Minister Leighton Andrews in attempting to improve on Wales’ disastrous performance in last year’s PISA tests. The facts are well known. Wales’ performance is well below that of the other ‘home nations’ and on a par with educational lightweight countries such as Greece and Croatia.

His reaction to these facts is also well known. They were presented in his landmark speech in February with its spine chilling phrase of ‘systemic failure’. This was followed by his speech to the IWA in June. Both outlined a 20 point programme of what can only be called national renewal.

Virtually everything that can be done is being done. Welsh policy amounts to the agreed international recipe for systemic educational change. Can we truly improve on the disastrous 2010 showing when PISA 2013 reports, and reach the top 20 of countries internationally by 2016? It is a big ask of our schools. Will it work?


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Firstly, we need to recognise that many of the initiatives are only likely to have effects in the medium term, of say two to three years. Welsh children sitting the PISA tests in November 2012 have already had two of their three years of school experience that will be reflected in their 2012 performance, which predisposes us to do poorly. Direct action about PISA is essential. We need to make sure schools know and teach the new ‘skills based’ approach that PISA tests measure. ‘Playing’ the tests to exclude potentially low scoring children ( around 15 per cent) is axiomatic.

It may be said that this is ‘fiddling the results’. However, most other countries of the world are already ‘fiddling’.  And if schools were to turn their noses up at such blatant ‘gaming’ then they need reminding that they themselves have been ‘gaming’ their predicted GCSE Grade ‘D’ children to achieve ‘C’ grades for a decade.

Secondly, somehow in Wales we also need to rid ourselves of our historical Welsh curses. There is the curse that teachers produce their own teaching practices – whereas virtually every other country on the planet brings to their teachers the evidence on ‘what works’.

And there is the curse that somehow the educational system needs to retain its historic focus upon what can loosely be called a ‘progressive’ educational mission. On the other hand, virtually every other country on the planet, whether socialist or capitalist, has moved on. Interestingly, the loudest applause at the Leighton Andrews June 2011 lecture was reserved for the questioner who wondered whether the educational reforms would drive out the children’s capacity to be inspirational in what they do.  Serendipity favours the mind prepared for it – inspiration likewise happens or not in the paths prepared for it.

Thirdly, the emphasis, as Leighton Andrews is fond of suggesting, needs to shift towards delivery. The Education Department is itself shedding staff and reorganising, but it is unclear if that is generating the lean, mean educational machine that is needed. Perhaps one of Wales’ most sacred taboos – about the employment of private sector companies in State-provided services – needs to be challenged.  And if policies are to be ‘scaled up’ through the winning of hearts and minds, then a much better communications strategy needs to be employed, with perhaps a softer emotional tone.

Paradoxically, it is within Wales itself that the solution to our massive educational problems may lie. That is, in the programmes and national policies used to help the Welsh language. No nation in the world except Wales has successfully used its State education system to rescue a minority language as we have done in Wales. How was it done? Tere was an international search for language programmes that worked – in this case finding immersion techniques from Israeli schools. Dedicated funding was found for Special Programmes and special training on a scale far above that now being attempted.

Mainstreaming of policies about the language through all public sector bodies was put into effect. The concern about the effects of all policies upon the language was a part of the legislative process for all proposed legislation. There was a fierce commitment to the language being a part of our national political discussion, and a concern that language policies ran through all policies about the families and communities of Wales.

How many of these characteristics of Welsh Language policies exist in our educational policies at the moment? Probably none. It would be extraordinarily symbolic if the policy area of greatest success post devolution were the solution and model in the area of greatest policy failure – the educational system.

David Reynolds is Professor of Educational Effectiveness at the University of Southampton and a Policy Adviser to the Welsh Government.

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