Gareth Evans considers the impact of education’s world rankings and warns that failure to improve could have serious consequences for Wales’ curriculum reform
In a little under six months, some 3,500 teenagers in Wales will sit the biggest test of the nation’s education system.
Conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the knowledge and core skills of 15-year-olds as they near the end of their compulsory education.
It uses a representative sample of pupils from more than 70 countries to gauge how different education systems are performing against one another.
As such, unlike more traditional external exams, PISA provides a measure by which countries across the world can be judged.
On the face of it, there is very little actual benefit for those putting pen to paper (or, more recently, finger to keyboard) in the classroom.
And that is one of its great challenges. For if pupils do not see the value in PISA tests, and the fruits of their labours go unrecognised, how can they possibly be motivated to play a full and active part?
The reality, of course, is that PISA matters to us all; pupils, teachers, parents and society at large are all set to gain if Wales performs well on the international stage. One only has to look at our recent history in the study.
A steady stream of negative publicity dating back almost a decade has hit the sector hard; teacher morale has suffered and Wales is considered UK education’s poor relation.
There was more bad news the last time PISA results were published in December 2016 (a year after tests were sat).
In reading, Welsh teenagers scored 477 points – three points lower than in the previous study and 23 points behind England.
Performance in science, traditionally Wales’ strongest PISA suit, dropped sharply to 485 points – the lowest on record.
Wales’ score in maths was the ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy results day, but a rise of 10 points to 478 was still well below the OECD average and the rest of the home nations.
Mercifully, PISA did not thwart the wide range of reforms already set in train and Education Secretary Kirsty Williams navigated a way through the inevitable political storm.
But one wonders how much longer the Welsh Government can batten down the hatches.
What happens if Wales fails to improve – for the fourth tranche in succession – the next time PISA results are published in December 2019?
Ms Williams was presented with the exact same question at a recent seminar hosted by Yr Athrofa, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s Institute of Education.
“I can only keep promising jam tomorrow for so long,” she replied.
“If we believe in the system that we have at the moment, then we have to demonstrate to the public; to parents; [and] to employers that our system works.
“Otherwise, it’s going to be nigh on impossible politically to maintain the status quo.
“If we value the system that we’ve got, we have to make it work.”
There was no tiptoeing around the issue and Ms Williams’ response was remarkably candid.
Her message came through loud and clear – improve in PISA, or else…
The alternative, of course, is a system far more punitive in its approach; one that claws back autonomy from the profession and is driven top-down from the centre.
You need not look far to find a system with such characteristics.
The Prime Minister’s recent speech to the Welsh Conservative spring conference, during which she championed the impact of free schools and academies, was a reminder of what could lay in wait.
There are only so many times you can keep the wolf from the door, and the revolution currently underway in Welsh schools will only be assured the requisite time and space if our international standing worms upwards.
In my opinion, PISA is the single biggest threat to Successful Futures (shorthand for our new national curriculum) and we need to ready ourselves for the challenges ahead.
If Wales fails to improve on its PISA standing next year, the groundswell against what we are trying collectively to achieve will be huge.
Notwithstanding Ms Williams’ commitment to the cause, education policy is notoriously short-term and another poor showing could significantly derail three years of hard graft.
So what can we do to arrest our decline and mitigate the risk to Wales’ revolutionary curriculum reform?
Well, in the short-term, relatively little.
Systemic change takes time and it will be many years before current policy developments feed their way into PISA scores.
Chile is a useful yardstick in this regard – considered one of PISA’s best-ever improvers, it took them nearly 10 years to bridge the type of standards gap facing Wales.
Ironically, Successful Futures will have had no impact on next year’s PISA outcomes whatsoever; instead, what we are likely to see is the product of a now outdated education system.
But that is not to say we are doomed to fail.
One would expect restorative measures from the Leighton Andrews era, most notably around literacy and numeracy, to have begun filtering through.
And, with PISA tests almost in sight, we can be savvy and prepare those taking part to hit the ground running.
The difficulty in the past has been encouraging meaningful participation; traditionally, too many schools have not seen the benefit of their involvement.
The perception of PISA as a useful benchmarking tool is extremely variable across the country and large swathes of the teaching profession remain unconvinced by its true value.
We haven’t communicated clearly enough why PISA matters and why improving on our international ranking is so important.
In previous years, officials have held small-scale PISA conferences (I recall attending one in Mid-Wales with a noticeably small and select group of stakeholders) and the Welsh Government has sent out past papers and information guides to schools.
But these things are meaningless if headteachers are not minded to engage in the first place.
From what I gather, the tide is beginning to turn and the Welsh Government is doing everything in its power to ensure pupils perform to the best of their abilities.
Schools are being visited on an individual basis, a series of engagement meetings have taken place across the country and headteachers are supporting each other to kick-start our international campaign.
To my mind, preparing teenagers for PISA is no different to preparing them for GCSEs – they are, after all, two measures of Year 11 pupils’ achievement measured just six months apart.
Teachers cannot sit the exams for them, but they can help give pupils the best possible chance of success.
In countries like South Korea it is not uncommon for children to be clapped into their exams as if representing their nation on the rugby field.
I’m not saying we consider draping our PISA participants in Welsh jerseys, but we can at least make learners feel comfortable and at ease.
For example, preparing bowls of fruit, refreshments and a thorough briefing as to what the tests entail is not an unrealistic expectation and I am reliably informed that organisers in Wales are already vetting school IT suites in preparation for PISA’s computer-based assessment.
PISA can’t be seen as an unnecessary distraction; if it is, and teachers do not buy into international comparators, then what chance have our pupils got in making the grade?
Seen by many as yet another measure by which to beat schools, PISA has been criticised for triggering knee-jerk system-change, its reliance on standardised testing and dubious methods of administration.
Truth is, no form of accountability is perfect and there will always be flaws. For me, the fact that more than 70 of the world’s foremost economies choose to invest their time and money so readily in PISA gives the survey considerable credence.
Rowing back from it now would risk greater reputational damage than that associated with poor performance.
The genie is out of the bottle and the continued participation of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland means Wales has no option than to stay the course.
In my view, PISA tests the knowledge and skills that are essential in modern society – it is not a bolt-on or added burden and should reflect the teaching and learning going on in our schools on a daily basis.
But the cyclical nature of education means new initiatives take time to bed in. In that respect, PISA is a means to an end – and stemming the tide buys us time.
The stakes are high and Ms Williams will need justification for continuing on the path laid before us.
That is assuming she is still in post when the outcome of this year’s tests is made public – it is perhaps no coincidence that no Welsh education minister has ever seen successive PISA results through.
I sincerely hope Ms Williams bucks that trend and PISA 2018 gives us the boost recent developments deserve.
The last thing Wales’ education system needs is another change of direction.
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