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.

9 thoughts on “US lessons for Welsh schools

  1. You are quite right in almost everything that you say Gareth but in Wales we will not even make a cursory analysis of the statistics that we have. Look at the recent report on Gwynedd LEA.

    “at key stage 3, performance against the core subject indicator is the best in Wales;”
    “performance at key stage 4 does not compare well to that of similar schools in other authorities across Wales;”

    Estyn quite clearly takes these two statements at face value but how naive is that? In two years pupils in Gwynedd go from the best performance (according to assessment by teachers) at KS3 to a performance in the first external exam that any child in the county has faced which shows those pupils underperforming expected outcomes at the LA’s Free School Meals benchmark. You can trace the gulf in the Welsh statistics on performance against FSMs……significantly superior to expectations to significantly underperforming in TWO YEARS!
    Now I agree that the Numeracy and Literacy benchmark tests was a necessary step forward but what do we parents hear as soon as they are over “The teacher came round and, if we couldn’t do the sums, she told us the answer”.
    We just cannot seem to face up to the teachers in Wales….they didn’t want SATs; OK we trust you to assess. What happens, everyone relaxes, no moderation in place, ESTYN inspection farmed out to private companies who have to keep the schools onside. Would you believe it; teachers inflate outcomes to make themselves look good (its easier than struggling with dumb kids!).

    And (Iknow that many will look forward to me saying this) Welsh Medium and Bi-Lingual schools in Wales are underperforming English Medium schools which are on the same FSM benchmark…particularly in English and Maths but also marginally in Science. Within these WM and Bilingual schools pupils who are eligible for FSMs perform more poorly at GCSE in the core subjects than their respective counterparts in English Medium Secondary schools. Does anyone flag this up and do something about it? Absolutely impossible in Wales! Nothing can be said in public that would stop the great project to make every pupil a failure in more than one language.

  2. Nobody mentions the teacher training. There is enormous pressure not to fail a trainee. Adverse comments from the schools, following teaching practice, were frowned upon. Training organisations measured on pass rate?

  3. “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.”

    Right there is the legacy of devolution and the desire to be different. Not better, just not England.

  4. What utter rot, NCLB has been a total failure, just ask my wife (a teacher) or my father in law who was a area superintendent of a large part of LA, or a parent like myself. The fact is that teachers have become testing machines “and teach to the test”. My wife’s school (elementary) was a “blue ribbon school” in 2008, and then a couple of years later was criticised for problems with literacy.

  5. The other problem with the american model is the presence of wide scale systematic fraud that was conducted at all levels of the education system. This allowed admin staff, teachers, examiners, inspectors and bureaucrats to fiddle the figures of children’s tests to allow them to access bonuses. People who were awarded educational prizes for boosting educational statistics later went on the run from the police to avoid arrest.

    The major problem with welsh education is the belief that schools are the motor for educational change. The truth is far more complicated. If the focus is only going to be on schools, then the amount of change will be minimal. A far greater impact on educational attainment is what is happening to children outside of school. This doesn’t appear anywhere in debate on education in Wales.

    America is slipping down the international rankings in education. The star performer is Finland where there is no private education, comprehensive schooling, no parental choice, no testing, low teacher pay and fewer days in school than the UK. Education is far more complicated than cherry picking ideological compatible policies from other countries. Hopefully soon the debate in Wales may mature, but I am not holding my breath.

  6. I echo what Billy Pilgrim says about Finland, and would suggest this piece as further food for thought:

    The failures of our current systems – not just in education, but in health care and in administration in general – are in no small measure down to the obsession with quantifying things, the inevitable result of the Cult Of The Manager which has done so much to damage organisations and services both public and private in the last three decades.

    It seems that Mr Williams suffers from one strain of ‘The British Disease’; namely, that anything that the Americans do, we should too, irrespective of whether it will work here (or whether, as Mike Cridland asserts, it works there in the first place). Instead, we should be looking for successful policies from around the world, especially from countries of similar size and culture to our own, Finland being just one such.

  7. Mike, thanks for reading and commenting. I do recognise that NCLB has its share of flaws-I should have made this clearer- and I certainly appreciate feedback from someone with direct experience of it. Where I argue NCLB can, in my opinion, be a guide for Welsh education reform however is in establishing a standardised test regime which assesses student progress at regular intervals, and then in creating a linkage between scores in these and penalties for consistent under-performance.

    As it stands, Welsh schools, to a significant extent seem to lack these; the very recent and on-going roll-out of the literacy and numeracy tests being a case in point. I realise that SATS were imperfect, but abolishing them left many schools without clear and regular metrics to assess student progress before the crucial external exams in Year 11, and therefore to conduct early intervention programs if needed. It also effectively meant that secondary school attainment was then measured by students’ performance at KS4 at the earliest; this is simply too late. With results for so many students being as weak as they are, performance should be assessed far earlier, for management changes and necessary reforms to be put in place.

    Out of interest, if I can ask, which areas of the testing requirements do you see as the most problematic?; if they were broadened beyond the focus on Math and Reading do you think the law could work more effectively?

  8. So quantifying knowledge more will lead to more knowledge in students? How?

    And teachers won’t teach to the test? I think your article is well written but fundamentally naive on this aspect. Of course they will. And they often do because school leadership lives and dies by GCSE and A-Level pass rates already.

    More standardised quantifying will simply reveal the extent students are bored and uninspired by a curriculum strangled by teaching to the test. These reforms you think will be imposed when students are failing are more than likely not to happen, happen far too late or not address the coorrect issue.

  9. It is distressing for people in the United States to see our public education system held up as an example for other to follow. Considerable controversy exists regarding whether or not schools in the USA have become overly dependent upon standardized tests. And, increasingly, some financially strapped school systems have begun cutting out important classes in music and art from the daily activitie of children. Charter schools were introduced in an effort to correct the many perceived deficiencies of U.S. public schools.

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