US lessons for Welsh schools

Gareth Williams says better teaching and more tests offer a way forward for improving education outcomes

We must tackle the appalling Welsh problem that nearly half of Welsh children leave school without the five core GCSEs, including Maths and English. These are the minimum qualifications needed for young people to compete effectively in the jobs market. If we produce yet another educationally failed generation the potential long-term impact for the Welsh economy will be disastrous.

More effective teachers and teaching lies at the core of the answer. Here the expansion of the educational charity Teach First to underperforming Welsh schools is welcome news. An innovative program which places recent graduates as teachers in challenging schools, it has produced exceptional results in England. The Welsh Government is to be commended for allowing it to expand. This must however be one step in a concerted effort to overhaul the current Welsh education system, which according to international rankings is producing the worst results of any UK region.

Underfunding is undoubtedly another part of the problem. The disparity in per-pupil funding between Wales and England-which is currently more than £600. Welsh schools simply need greater investment to improve performance – investment which would have to be financed by savings in other areas of the budget.

However more funding alone is not the solution. As a report on Welsh Government statistics concluded, increased funding “does not appear to be a key factor in how likely children are to achieve as expected”. Extra funding is essential but it must be matched by increased accountability. The solution cannot be to invest more and simply hope for better results. Increases must be made conditional on schools’ ability to meet certain basic standards.

US education reforms and, in particular, the 2001 Act No Child Left Behind offer a convincing model for how this conditionality of funding could be established. Passed by substantial bipartisan majorities in Congress, the law was one of the primary achievements of President Bush’s first term. It required that publicly funded schools conduct regular standardised testing in mathematics and reading for all students. Schools would be ranked according to student performance in these tests and they would be required to demonstrate that they were making Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores, with specific goals set by individual states.

Schools which failed to demonstrate improvement received warnings and students were permitted to transfer to superior local schools. Severe penalties were imposed for persistent failure, including, as a last resort, school restructuring and staff replacement.

The law also provided clear informational benefits for parents, allowing them to see specifically how their child’s performance compared to state averages. This shining “a spotlight of shame” on consistently failing schools and providing greater funding for schools attempting to improve is something  the Welsh system would do well to replicate. Instead of being permitted to hide behind a barrage of misleading statistics and rankings, failing schools should be forced to withstand intense and deserved public scrutiny.

While mixed, the results indicate the law had clear successes. A Brookings Institution study found that NCLB did “improve the math achievement of elementary students, particularly among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups”. For example, it reduced “the white-Hispanic achievement gap by 19 per cent”.

Reforms such as routine testing are undoubtedly controversial. Objectors note the risk of schools simply “teaching for the test”. Yet the difficulty with too many Welsh schools is not teaching for the test. The reality is that many pupils are not being taught at all. There is an assumption that although almost half fail their core subjects at GCSE level, nevertheless these students still receive some intangible educational benefit which is not reflected in either exam scores or prospects upon leaving school. This is simply not sustainable.

GCSEs or their equivalent will inevitably remain the benchmark external exams. But there should be a series of prior standardised tests – very similar to the recently introduced reading and numeracy exams – to measure intermediate progress and identify difficulties early on. This would permit early intervention programmes such as extra classes in key subjects, rather than simply waiting for failure at 16.

The abolition of SATs exams, however imperfect they were, has deprived schools of a reasonable indicator of earlier ability. Without regular and standardised testing, schools lack a crucial metric to judge a student’s performance prior to external exams.

Opposition to testing often focuses on the understandable concern of sparing teachers excessive paperwork and bureaucracy. However, the flexibility given to teachers cannot excuse consistent class failure. Schools must be held accountable and this has to be measured by their ability to meet reasonable standards. Teachers should have all flexibility necessary to achieve this – provided that they do achieve it. No school has a right to fail its students. Having almost 50 per cent of GCSE applicants fail to gain the most essential qualifications is not an acceptable price for teacher flexibility unfettered by responsibility to pupils, parents and taxpayers or accurate indicators of performance.

Ask a student who leaves school without the five core GCSEs and declining job prospects whether they would have preferred strong qualifications and more conventional teaching, or being taught by the Socratic method and failing their exams. There is no doubt what the answer would be.

The No Child Left Behind initiative was not without flaws. Resulting gains were concentrated in mathematics, while those in reading were less substantial. Much of the strongest progress was seen at the primary level. Repeated waivers have diluted its requirements and there remains a continuing debate over adequate funding levels for schools.

Despite these and other issues, there needs to be a tough and rigorously outcome oriented policy for improving standards in Welsh schools. Reforms which make schools accountable to some objective and impartial standards, combined with increased funding should be part of the mix to address the myriad difficulties of the status quo.

Gareth Williams is studying History and Politics at Oxford University.

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