Owen Hathway calls time on Welsh education’s unhealthy and increasingly meaningless comparisons with England
There are a few constants with the publication of GCSE and A Levels:
‘exams have got easier’ for years where progress has been made or ‘our education system is a disaster’ for years where there isn’t an uplift. We can also count on tweets from someone saying something along the lines of ‘Bill Gates dropped out of school so don’t worry about your results’ (we’ll ignore the fact his school was Harvard and he dropped out to found Microsoft), while stock photos of jumping students holding their results aloft will be in every newspaper.
The other constant, and one which I find increasingly frustrating, is the inevitable comparisons we will have with England. It is almost as if we have got to a stage where our results only matter once they are placed in context with the education system on the other side of the bridge.
It is of course natural to look across the border and compare with our nearest neighbours. This isn’t necessarily an issue exclusive to the world of Welsh education. From Offa’s Dyke being described as the health service’s ‘line between life and death’ to the respective performances of our national football teams at Euro 2016, there don’t appear to be many aspects of Welsh public services or culture that aren’t judged, at least in part, on its English counterpart
The truth is that this approach is simply not healthy. There are appropriate times to make comparisons. Benchmarks, when they are based on reasonable comparisons, can be useful. These even exist in our education system. It is not unfair to question why pupils in England received many hundreds of pounds per head more in funding than those in Welsh schools, for example. However, we have surely now reached the point where a qualifications comparison does not do our pupils, parents, teachers or policies justice.
Of course we are our own worst enemy in this regard. Successive Education Ministers have focused on the attainment gap between England and Wales rather than simply evaluating the Welsh results on their own merits. At the end of 2014, when there was really little or no prompting to do so, the then Education Minister, Huw Lewis, said:
‘The historic gap with England is now down to less than 1% and I promise you this – if we manage to overtake our colleagues across the border next summer, you may well see an Education Minister who is rather the worse for wear the following morning.’
The actual result was that Wales equalled its best ever results at GCSE. Sadly, instead of recognising the importance of that achievement, especially against the backdrop of ever tighter school budgets and the upheaval of major reforms, the story that dominated the day was that Wales did not close the gap on England.
It is perhaps a uniquely Welsh obsession to carry on making these comparisons, underlining our lack of confidence as a devolved nation after centuries of ‘for Wales, see England’. Press and governments in other UK countries, including Northern Ireland, don’t even cast a glance at England’s results, let alone compare themselves in the way we do. Even in jurisdictions where Education is devolved, i.e. Jersey and the Isle of Man, they seem to have more confidence in themselves and provide a commentary on their young people’s achievements without the reflections being framed by what the young people of England have done. We need to develop the same level of confidence and do likewise.
Beyond the political we do see some more rational calls from Welsh Government. Take this view on England and Wales comparisons from the Chief Statistician, for example:
‘Not only are the names and definitions of our performance indicators in England and Wales diverging every year as we each follow different approaches to education policy, but this is also changing the behaviour of school pupils and schools in terms of entry and curriculum changes. As with the year on year changes to our own data, the impact of this cannot be quantified.’
Our education system is increasingly a different beast to that of England. We may have the same name for our GCSEs and A Levels but their content and delivery are contrasting. It is time we started looking more closely at our own results without the need for an English benchmark.
Of course international comparisons are always going to have a place in assessing the way our system works. Of course we will always naturally gravitate towards seeking to see if our education system stands up against that of other parts of the UK. There are lessons to learn from England and Scotland and lessons for Wales to share. However, it can no longer be the limit to our expectations and ambitions and certainly we can no longer allow it to be a misrepresentation of success and failure for Welsh pupils.
Ron Davies said that ‘devolution was a process and not an event.’ Welsh education has undergone a process of staggered and, at times, radical change over the past decade. The foundation of our early years education bear no resemblance to the English approach. Our focus on skills contrasts widely to the knowledge based rote learning that was at the heart of Michael Gove’s agenda. Most importantly our qualifications are increasingly unique, in both their syllabi and their assessment. It may be worth contrasting the merits of each system over time but viewing GCSE and A Level results side by side is not only impractical it is also selling a lie to the public.