Philip Dixon questions whether GCSEs are fit for purpose
When Huw Lewis unexpectedly found himself catapulted into the role of Minister for Education, following Leighton Andrews’ resignation in June, he could have had little doubt that the new brief would be a tough challenge. He has so far negotiated some of the rocks pretty well. The pace and direction of the consortia plan, forcing the 22 Welsh local authorities to work together more effectively, has if anything increased. An essential review of curriculum has been announced. Moreover, he has gone down well with teachers as someone who doesn’t have the porcupine tendencies of his predecessor. But one spectre is looming over the feast – today’s announcement of the latest PISA data.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It tries to evaluate education systems across the world by assessing 15-year-olds’ competencies in the key subjects of reading, mathematics and science. The programme began in 1997 and over 70 countries now take part. Wales joined the programme in 2006.
Unfortunately not only did we score comparatively badly – we were bottom of the four UK nations – but we have gone backwards subsequently. In his 2011 speech, Teaching Makes a Difference, Leighton Andrews announced his determination that Wales should be in the top 20 nations by 2016. Few believed that was realistic at the time and almost nobody now thinks it remotely possible. Speaking in the Assembly in October First Minister Carwyn Jones said, “I expect to see an improvement in our PISA results in December”. Many think even that more modest aspiration to be a forlorn hope.
PISA provokes several reactions and responses, verging from the lunatic to the eminently sane. Some are simply PISA-deniers, the flat-earthers of our day. They argue we should take no notice as the data is of little or no import. Others believe that PISA is merely a useful stick with which to beat schools and teachers. More credible voices have been raised about the methodology of PISA.
But like it or lump it these statistics do give some sort of temperature test for the health of education systems. Those who accept that PISA tells us that that all is not well with our education system again divide into the lunatic and sane in their remedies for recovery. Some argue that the abandonment of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) and league tables over a decade ago are to blame, conveniently ignoring the fact that England’s PISA performance also gives cause for concern. Others have blamed factors such as the Welsh language (despite the fact that many of the PISA leaders are bilingual nations), the abolition of grammar schools (despite the fact that one of the leaders for years, Finland, has a fully comprehensive system), or the absence of Morris dancing from the curriculum. OK I made that last one up but you get my drift.
Saner analyses have come in the shape of pointing out the chronic underfunding that Welsh education has experienced over the last decade or so, pointing to the £600 per pupil gap in spend between England and Wales. Successive Welsh education Ministers have tried unconvincingly to minimise the impact, but the gap is too large for it be having no detrimental effect at all. Others have emphasised the accountability vacuum that enveloped the system once SATs and League Tables were abolished. Their abolition wasn’t the cause of our current problems, it’s just that nothing was put in their place.
So how do we get out of this morass, especially given the financial constraints that now beset us. Gaming of PISA may produce some short term gains but they will be limited and transient. Most other countries will be trying them too. We also need to plan properly for the fact that the next set of tests will be computer based. Longer term deeper change is necessary. We need to align and inform our system with the values and skills that permeate PISA. Not just because we want to improve our PISA standing but, far more importantly, because by valuing and promoting the sorts of skills that PISA measures we will improve our children’s education, their life chances and our economy.
The launch of the new literacy and numeracy frameworks have been universally welcomed in our schools. The Minister’s announcement of a curriculum review has not come a moment too soon. We will want to keep the principle of GCSEs – no retreat here to the Govian ideal of a two tier exam system. However, we will need to align our curriculum more with the skills that the OECD tells us are essential for the modern world. In this regard we also need to take note of another recent OECD survey of adult skills which showed England and Northern Ireland lagging behind the rest of the world. Wales didn’t take part, which probably spared us another wooded spoon.
The OECD survey also showed no real gain in skills across the generations, which has made me ponder again the role that the current nature of GCSEs has played. It is odd to say the least that year on year GCSE results have improved but that these gains are not mirrored in international surveys. It was painful to watch Tristram Hunt, the new Shadow Education Minister in Westminster, walking into the elephant trap of trying to square that particular circle. The debate about grade inflation is superficial. Perhaps there is something flawed about the content, form, and delivery of current GCSEs which do not promote skills as they should. Too much teaching to the test, too little space in the curriculum for innovation, and an overemphasis on regurgitation has not produced the independent, adaptable learners that we need.
Whatever today’s PISA results, we will need some positive results in 2016. Wales has to show that our comprehensive approach to education works. It’s as blunt as that.