Is Welsh education in a poor state?

Phil Parry examines the state of education in Wales following University league tables release.

Why is education in Wales so poor?

In the week when another league table shows no Welsh universities near the top in Britain, and school performance in Wales, we are warned, may be heading for another disaster in international results, it seems right to pose this question.


Phil Parry’s monthly sketch

This is the first in a new series of monthly sketches on Wales, by Phil Parry. In the series he will be casting his eye over recent news.


For the long term future of Wales it matters more than the state of our health service. In The Guardian ranking of British universities – which research has shown concerns potential students a lot as they choose where to go – no Welsh university was in the top 25.

The highest were Cardiff at number 26 followed by Swansea at number 58. Some have fallen fast. In the case of Aberystwyth it was a full 18 points on last year to number 106. This follows the Complete University Guide (CUG) which showed more drops – Aberystwyth, for example, had dropped by 17 points from number 70.

There were bright spots. The relatively new Glyndwr university based in Wrexham rose 44 places from 108, and they have only been a university for six years. But the future does not look bright.

Schools in Wales do not fare any better than our universities. Improvements will apparently ‘take time’ according to Anne Keane, the head of the education watchdog Estyn (this is after 15 years of devolution). She has warned not to expect too much from next year’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results could come too soon, she said.

The PISA tables are issued by a group of developed nations – the Organisation

for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – and compare Welsh school children with others around the world in the key subjects of maths, English and science. They are widely-used by experts to examine the performance of a country’s education system.But Wales have not done well. In past years we have ranked below all other parts of the UK.

Ms Keane said she would be relieved to see Wales rise to attain a middling position. “I would be happy to see Wales moving towards the OECD average,” she said. But this surely shows a poverty of ambition. There is a long history of superb educational standards in Wales and our teachers have been exported all over the world. Can we really only aspire to be average?

My own schooling in Monmouth cannot be recommended as an example to follow. Monmouth was then a direct-grant grammar school. As it was an all-boys institution and I went to one of the last all-boy primary schools in Wales (this was the 70s) I thought girls were a completely alien species when I first met them at university!

As teenagers, we were only allowed to fraternise with the opposite sex from the girls’ school up the road once a year at the sixth form dance. Actually I tell a lie – there were rehearsals for the sixth form dance in the school hall and girls were allowed to attend for that.

We were taught ‘the waltz’ by the French master and his wife – a Mr Copestake. At the final lesson he announced that we would be taught a ‘modern dance’ known as ‘the twist’. For this we had to pretend we were drying our backs with a towel and as we did so, crouch down towards the floor and back up again. Needless to say this ungainly manoeuvre was not entirely attractive to the opposite sex, but because this was the only time when we could (officially) meet girls these sessions were extremely well-attended. Thankfully, in this respect at least, things have moved on.

The creation of job opportunities for young people in Wales, not educational attainment, was singled out by the First minister, Carwyn Jones, as one of his administration’s greatest achievements as he announced this year’s ‘Programme for Government’ report.Yet the two are intimately linked.

Launching his report he told the media: “The people of Wales are right to have high expectations of the services that they receive”. But what about education? Can we be happy when the highest placed Welsh university in Britain is 26th? Or that our schools should aspire to move to an average position?

Surely we can do better than that.

Phil Parry is the Editor of Wales Eye.

5 thoughts on “Is Welsh education in a poor state?

  1. “I would be happy to see Wales moving towards the OECD average,” said Anne Keane. But this surely shows a poverty of ambition. There is a long history of superb educational standards in Wales and our teachers have been exported all over the world. Can we really only aspire to be average asks Phil Parry.

    Presumably Mr Parry would like to see Wales in the top ten and who in Wales wouldn’t. I’m not sure how you would plan for that but if Ms Keane and her colleagues can get us to average in a reasonably short time I’ll settle for that as a stepping stone back to the former glories.

  2. I am a mother of 3 young children in the education system at the moment. I’m lucky enough to live in an affluent part of Wales where armies of mothers are sending their kids to Kumon maths and the like because they won’t risk leaving it to the schools. I currently can’t afford to do that but spend hours doing extra at home to make sure they are getting an education I believe in. Teaching used to be a profession. We need to pay teachers more to raise standards. I was a relatively high achiever who would in many ways love to teach but was unwilling to put up with poor pay and poor discipline so chose a different career (my grandmother and mother were teachers). The poverty of ambition referred to in the article above is rife in Wales. Until somehow Wales manages a strong private sector economy, what have our children got to aim for? A mediocre job in the public sector managed by someone who has been in their job too long as they have nowhere else to go. Unless and until people experience the affluence of the south east of England, we in Wales don’t even know how badly off we are. We don’t know what to aim for. It’s not good enough but surely can be changed. Can we not find a way to use the intellects of older, retired people to help our children or are they already too busy still working or providing childcare? We really need to get this right. A poor education system tarnishes the whole country, makes even our most ambitious and clever children feel inferior and is an enormous barrier to inward investment of decent jobs – the message being we are good enough for call centres but not much else.

  3. “There was a time when,” is a familiar refrain among those of us of a certain age, but the phrase has a certain poignancy when a secondary and university education in Wales was reckoned as an asset rather than a failing grade. What happened? The demotion of the University of Wales to second league status? Comprehensives? The list is probably a long one.

    In recent years I have studied what happened in a certain part of Wales during the late 19th century. There seemed to be a stronger degree of public engagement in educational matters for a start. Community leaders spoke up about local needs and wants, such as technical schools, and disagreed when they got a grammar school. There was a strong interest in universities and training colleges in Wales for Wales. At the turn of the 20th century, a slate quarryman could encourage his daughters to become elementary school teachers, even when he was laid off.

    I am not advocating a return to the “good old days,” merely observing that there are lessons to be learned from the past, and that core elements of governance with strong local engagement in community issues seem to have slipped by the wayside in Wales to the long term detriment of the educational system.

  4. One problem is that teachers in Wales as a group are defeatist. They face real problems in some areas of unsocialized, inadequately fed and nurtured kids and they don’t believe in their hearts they can do much for them, except keep order. If they are right, we are sunk. The first task is to raise the morale and expectations of teachers. Second task is to give them freedom but hold them accountable for results.

  5. Depends on which league tables you read and how you interpret them.
    Swansea University has just picked up the “University of the year” award from What University, and the second best student union in the UK. This builds on several awards last year and an excellent report from its QAA visit. It is well on target to meet its “top 30 by 2020 ” aspiration. Its recruitment figures for last year were excellent and are looking good for this year. Its research income is booming. Its international partnerships are growing, as are its partnerships with big business. And the Bay Campus project – the biggest in Europe – is set to open in September 2016.
    What we need is more money (arguments too complicated to go into here), redirection into Wales of the WG money that currently goes with welsh students into England, and more publicity given to our achievements instead of the negative reports that the media seem to prefer.

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