Results 2016: Judge us on our own merits

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. 

Owen Hathway is Policy Officer for NUT Cymru.

20 thoughts on “Results 2016: Judge us on our own merits

  1. The historic gap with England is now down to less than 1%

    A refreshing change for the media to let someone admit there is an historic gap in our education level compared to England. Of course we all know there has always been a gap between education in Wales and education in England but for political ends some people want to sweep that fact under the carpet and some even try to claim that in some mythic age before devolution education in Wales was superior to education in England. Complete poppycock of course but some people and parties, such as the UKIP in the EU referendum, knowingly lie to voters to achieve their nationalist goals.

  2. English and Welsh students largely share the same employment market and the same market in higher education therefor how can you not compare results and share standards?

  3. I agree fully that comparisons between Wales and England are usually misplaced, most commonly ignoring regional variations within England. But we need comparators – dare I say in the rest of Europe – as we do have a worrying tendency towards complacency and self-satisfaction. The object of devolution was to improve our performance, that needs rigorous performance management which needs benchmarks

  4. You can’t be serious Mr. Hathway, or are you?

    Your statement “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”, beggars belief and truly amazed that a NUT Policy Officers seems to be blind and deaf of the tragedy enveloping the Welsh education – More on

    Not long ago, I attended a Wales School Governance conference and had a ‘priviledge’ to hear Prof Donaldson making a case for the ‘Welsh Way’ to education and promoting his approach that the last Education Minister (HL) adopted with no reservations and oblivious to the fact that Prof Donaldson damaged Scottish education through similar measures he sold to Hew Lewis!

    When I asked Prof Donaldson ‘Why the English education model is being ignored and by doing so do we risk damaging our children and their access to English Higher Education’?

    His reply was “I met many people all over Wales involved in Welsh education and no one asked this question before” and as soon as he said it, 90% of the delegates give him a huge standing ovation – The 90% that clapped did not wear the customary simultaneous translation headphones when Welsh was spoken!

    I immediately realised that Welsh School Governance is firmly in the hand of the Y Fro Gymraeg brigade hell bent on destroying Welsh education irrespective of the damage done to our children and especially those from English language 1 homes!

  5. Why do you again say schools in England get more per head when we know the comparison is unsafe and that for example school capital expenditure is treated separately to education by welsh local authorities but not by English academies. A better comparison is pupil teacher ratio. Finally attainment by % of the age group rather than % sitting an exam gives a better comparison between two education systems.

  6. Would Owen Hathaway like to accept the legitimate blame for the decline in Welsh education standards? There is this study for instance:-

    “• There appears to be a real decline in Welsh pupil test scores
    over our period following the abolition of regular testing in
    schools and abolition of school league tables.”

    And of course, before devolution and the caving in to teaching union pressure, Wales WAS performing at a higher level than England in both GCSE and A level.

    It’s pretty well accepted that removing STATS and league tables left Wales with no way to judge whether pupils were improving. Except of course the word of their teachers. Let me think on that a moment, would teachers give outcomes that showed that they were failing or would they give assessments that indicated that they were doing jolly well at their jobs?

  7. This is a truly outrageous article, reeking of intellectual dishonesty. The comments by John Owen Jones and Geraint Talfan Davies are entirely correct but they are too polite. The teachers’ unions in Wales spend all their time trying to ensure that the educational system here is entirely unaccountable for results. They opposed any measurement of school performance and they try to suggest that exam results here are somehow incomparable with those elsewhere. It is a sickening abdication of responsibility and the subordination of the interests of pupils and the public to that of a vested interest.. It will come as a shock to Owen Hathway but many of us think there are more important objectives than a quiet life for teachers and education administrators.. Don’t get me wrong. I think teachers should be paid more, supported better by parents and respected more for what they do. But like any other professionals they should expect to be accountable for their results. Wales can never move ahead when important groups try to duck responsibility in this way.

  8. Many thanks for all the feedback, both here and on twitter.

    To Jon Owen Jones & Geraint Talfan Davies:

    Indeed I am not opposed to comparisons with other nations. I think there are lessons for Wales to learn from England and vice versa. I think we can also compare and learn from international systems. The article is more based on the rush to make comparisons based solely on A Level/GCSE results when they are increasingly different courses and not therefore easily compared.

    I fear the public perhaps continue to believe that the qualifications are exactly the same, something that will be even more problematic in future. Of course there is a very different debate about which nations approach to qualifications is most beneficial.

    To Mike Hedges:

    I make the statement about per pupil spend because it is the figures that the Welsh Government themselves provided until the comparisons were stopped during the past Assembly term. There is no evidence, as far as I am aware, to suggest that the gap the WG itself identified has closed. In regards to pupil:teacher ratios I think that is an interesting argument. Funding of course impacts on schools in many ways but I think you make a fair argument that we should look at those ratios. I believe, although admittedly I haven’t done enough work on this, that the ratios are smaller in England in Wales. Of course in England there is a much higher prevalence of private schools which may skew that. The ratio argument is one reason the NUT supports the WG’s proposals for reducing class sizes.

    To Glasnot UK:

    Your comment seems more focused on an anti-Welsh language policy. I’m not really sure how that fits in to a debate on comparisons but there we go. It is a debate for another time. What I will say is that I am not sure how you make the leap from my comment that you have quoted to that point?

    To R.Tredwyn:

    I’m sorry you find the article “truly outrageous.” I appreciate people may have different views but I can honestly say I didn’t anticipate outraging anyone!

    For clarity, although I’m not certain how the piece gave a differing view, neither I nor the NUT, and for that matter any teaching union to the best of my knowledge, is opposed to accountability. Education is a public service, of course it should be accountable. I think it is naturally incumbent on a teaching union to argue the merits and purpose of any accountability approach. How and why it is done is integral to what we learn from that and how we can develop better approaches. That doesn’t mean you are opposed to accountability. I’m pretty positive this piece guarding against potentially misleading and increasingly meaningless comparisons with England on A Level and GCSE results day doesn’t mean that Welsh results should not be scrutinized and accounted for.

  9. Thank you for your reply Mr. Hathway, but if you can’t see the link of Welsh language imposition and it’s damaging effect on Welsh education, do feel sorry for the NUT members your organisation is there to protect.

    Many Welsh LEA’s now have ‘target lists’ – Listing each primary school without or with low numbers of teachers able to deliver ‘The Welsh Language Curriculum’ that will be replaced with the’superior or better qualified’ teachers as soon as they retire or leave.

    Selecting teachers on the grounds of competence is considered counter-productive to those in charge of the Welsh Education Policy – Think about it!

  10. Hi Glasnost UK. It is more that I can’t see the link between a debate on the Welsh language and my assertion that the Welsh and English qualifications are increasingly different and therefore can’t be directly compared, which is the premise behind the specific quote from the article that you have quoted. In fact I would argue that having that bilingual dynamic only proves the point I make.

    I disagree with your views on the impact of the Welsh language on education but there is a debate to be had there, it is just a very different debate to the one proposed in this blogpost.

  11. Quick note: are we comparing like for like? Entirely separate education systems, curricula and marking criteria. A-levels share a name only these days. Perhaps it is that that should also change.
    Few compare A-levels to Highers for instance.

  12. Having systematically and quite stupidly destroyed continuity of education with England it does almost make sense to destroy any pretence that the two can be compared on a like-for-like basis. So all we need to know now is how much worse education is in Wales than in England and in other competitive countries and about the only measure we have left is PISA – warts and all.

    In a world where ambitious parents will move across town and pay a house price-premium to get their kids into a better school it shouldn’t take a genius to work out that Wales in general, and the failed compulsory WM education LEAs in particular, will no longer be on most skilled parents’ destination list. This is the basis for the skilled recruitment problems so often alluded to so the economy and frontline services (including education…) continue to decline while fools in the education industry in Wales pat each other on the back about how clever they have been to do education the Welsh way – the failed way…

  13. Morning Mr. Hathway, Do realise that we’ll never agree on the issues discussed but for the sake of Welsh children and Welsh education try not to shut down a debate with the empty rhetoric – Anti Welsh / Off Topic – Neither stands up to objective scrutiny and it seems to me that NUT CYMRU unreservedly supports the Welsh Government’s Social Engineering agenda.

    What’s wrong with the Freedom of Linguistic Choice that is being denied to parents in many parts of Wales and spreading out at an alarming rate whilst the education standards are plummeting? Being Different is not a problem if the aim is to create excellence in Wesh education, but in this case, the ‘difference’ that you celebrate is aimed at hiding FAILURE!

  14. I must say that I agree fully with the thrust of Mt Hathaway’s arguments. Of course, the unhealthy obsession with comparisons with England is not a problem restricted to the field of education alone, for obvious historical reasons. However, it is not so much the comparisons with England which are harmful, it seems to me that it is the almost complete absence of comparisons with education systems OTHER than England which is the problem. England is obviously very important, given its proximity and economic and social influence in Wales, but as far as education systems are concerned, it would be more helpful to make comparisons with other education systems in Europe which are of a similar size and in a similar position. It is not that this information is unavailable – it is: the EU-funded Eurydice network for example has been doing comparative analysis of European education systems and policies for over 30 years. See
    Unfortunately, this rich source of knowledge and shared understanding has been largely ignored in the UK, even though it is a member. (Actually, the UK has two memberships – Scotland is a Member in its own right.)
    European education systems have different origins and contexts, but they face similar challenges and they can learn a great deal from each other. The same is true beyond Europe of course, as the PISA surveys show. Unfortunately, the UK, with the exception of Scotland, is very insular in this respect. The Welsh obsession with comparisons with England is unhealthy at very least to the degree that it overshadows or even precludes comparisons with similar education systems elsewhere than in the UK.
    As an example of this, I see in the comments above the same old chestnut, utterly ill-informed and profoundly depressing as ever, that compulsory Welsh language education is somehow detrimental to the education of children in Wales. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this contention. Indeed, the evidence from other European countries reveals that, if anything, there is a POSITIVE correlation between language learning, including regional languages, and educational attainment. Learning Basque, Spanish and English from a very early age does not seem to be a problem in another part of Europe, so why should, for example, learning English, Welsh and Spanish be? The answer to that question lies in the fields of politics and history, not pedagogy. (Though, with regard to pedagogy, it is worth recalling that the UK is by far the worst country in Europe when it comes to foreign language teaching and attainment levels.)
    I am painfully aware that there is a sad irony in my words given what happened on 23 June this year. But non-EU countries like Switzerland and Turkey also joined the Eurydice network, so the UK could stay in that at least. Or what about Wales, like Scotland, joining the network as an individual member?

  15. David, I think that you will find that there is actually considerable evidence that Welsh medium schooling at least is depressing overall outcomes in Wales at every Key stage. I know that we have happily gone along over a period of 40 years saying that Welsh medium schools out-perform English medium schools and so it is…just as long as you leave socio-economic status out of the equation. Once you compare groups of schools with the same level of free school meals eligibility you quickly discover that WM schools under-perform in the crucial core subjects.

    In the last few years more evidence has emerged that shows that pupils in WM schools do very well…as long as Welsh is their first language. Pupils who have English for their first language are quite a way behind and under perform their peers in EM schools.

    As to whether Welsh in the curriculum actually works against improving standards; there is no particular reason why it should but in a very crowded school curriculum why bother?

    Lumping all the UK together and saying they are poor at MF language learning is of course a truism, there are degrees of “poor” though and I think that Wales with only 22% of pupils taking a MFL at GCSE can claim to be poorer than England with 48% taking a GCSE in a modern foreign language. Which medium of school is worst for MFL entries? It’s the Welsh medium schools of course!

  16. The BBC has a handy graph this morning:-

    Under pressure from teaching unions the WAG dropped SATs and League tables in 2001, The next 5 years GCSE cohorts would have been schooled under the old regime at primary, in the same way as English pupils. They either out-performed or equalled the GCSE performance of English pupils. Then the new “made in Wales trust the teacher’s judgement” regime kicks in and we fall back in comparison.

    It’s not just me saying this, nor just Bristol University, one study by Estyn and another by an Australian research company found that, left to their own un-moderated devices, teachers in Wales found it easier to “invent” acceptable Key stage levels than improve their teaching performance. What student of human nature would have expected otherwise?

    Hopefully Literature and Numeracy testing and the (actually superior) Welsh league tables for schools can reverse the trend but already I hear secondary school Heads saying that the primary testing is so lax as to be meaningless.

    And here we have Owen Hathway urging us not to try to compare our school results with England. Well we can agree on that; it’s just not possible. Yesterday I received an email from the Statistician in charge of GCSE results in the Northern Ireland government asking ME to forward details of exceptions to the denominator figure for calculating GCSE results in Wales. It does make me wonder whether the separate areas of the UK actually talk to each other.

  17. It’s ironic that two years after the Education statistics department wrote a detailed and reasoned piece about why Wales could no longer compare GCSE results with England that, this year, it is the WG that has rushed to…compare our GCSE results with England.

    In England Michael Gove made a determined effort to address the “dumbing down” of GCSE examination and in particular to stop the “gaming” of outcomes by schools. GCSE “equivalent” exams that were largely assessed by the schools themselves were removed, the “English Bacc” pushed schools towards entering more pupils for hard academic subjects, early entry (a strategy widely used in Wales to “game” results) was discouraged by a “first entry only policy” in England. And, this year, the decision that all those staying in compulsory education in England to age 18 must pass English and Maths has put a large number of pupils into the statistics who have virtually no chance of gaining “A*-A” and a 70% chance of not gaining level 2 (minimum C). So, by my estimate, England have depressed their Level 2 inclusive result by 4.4%. Meanwhile Wales is treading water even with all the advantages. Not great. And now this year’s Literacy and numeracy test results, published yesterday, look decidedly un-encouraging with some LAs actually going backwards!

  18. The National Assembly of Wales Research Service published a blog on GCSE results in Wales. As always, I find the quality of these blogs really very good and I think the Assembly provides a first class service. But perhaps the most interesting thing in the context of the discussion here is that the blog consists mostly of comparisons with England, no mention of Scotland or Northern Ireland let alone anywhere else. This seems to reinforce Mr Hathaway’s argument, I would think?

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