Points mean prizes in PISA’s education rankings rat race

PISA has the potential to derail much of the reform agenda that has been set in train in Wales recently. We await tomorrow’s results with bated breath, writes Gareth Evans


The long wait for ‘PISA’ results is almost over and Wales’ position in the international rat race will be confirmed tomorrow.


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 relative performance and highlight perceived strengths and areas for improvement. As the de facto benchmarking tool for education systems across the globe, PISA is hugely significant and has fuelled policy development for the best part of 20 years. So too has it spawned a form of policy ‘borrowing’, and a tendency of poor performing nations to mimic the foundations laid by those in PISA’s table toppers.


In Wales, the story of PISA is decidedly ugly.


Scores in reading (477 points), science (485 points) and maths (478 points) – PISA’s three key disciplines – were lower when tests were last sat in 2015 than they were on first entry in 2006. Welsh pupils are below the OECD average in all subject areas, and Wales props up England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the UK rankings.


However, given its undoubted political cachet, it is striking how little PISA has been referred to and spoken about in Wales in the months leading up to this week’s publication. There has been next to no mention of our looming day of reckoning in any of the recent national headteacher conferences, and the education minister has herself steered noticeably clear of priming PISA wheels.


This to me suggests one of two things: that Wales’ PISA scores are no better (or worse) than the last iteration, or that the Welsh Government has matured to a level by which PISA can at last be taken in the round. Win, lose or draw, it would be a welcome change in approach for an administration – among many – that has been guilty of using PISA as justification for whole-system change.


Truth is, there are a wide range of performance measures we can use to test the temperature of Welsh education and our shortcomings (eg. in literacy, numeracy and narrowing the gap) are well known. To some extent, PISA has only served to reinforce that which we knew already. We do not need the OECD to tell us where we are going wrong.


It is hard to predict exactly where in the international ladder Wales will finish in PISA 2018.


Working in our favour is the remedial work undertaken by the Welsh Government in the run up to testing last year, including the appointment of a PISA tsar to rally round participating schools. Getting school leaders to take PISA seriously has, without question, hampered progress in the past.


Working against us is the distraction of curriculum development, and the heavy demands on our teaching profession as we work through what Kirsty Williams describes as ‘the biggest set of education reforms anywhere in the UK for over half a century’. Put simply, there is currently so much noise in the system that schools may well have shifted their attention to other things.


For me, Wales’ points tally is more important than its place in PISA’s league table. The addition of new countries into the mix (there were 79 participating in 2018, compared to just 57 in 2006) makes comparing rankings across cycles extremely difficult – and calls into question the validity of progress over time.


That said, there is no reason why the performance of Welsh pupils alone can’t be charted – and I for one will be looking to see whether Wales can better its scores in any or all of the three headline disciplines. This to me is the real acid test.


Also worthy of scrutiny will be the performance of Wales’ more able and talented learners – an area of weakness identified by the OECD in the last PISA tranche. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if a renewed emphasis on the ‘top end’ – and more support for pupils requiring greater breadth and depth of learning activities – has paid dividends.


Looking further afield, there will likely be significant interest in Scotland’s PISA performance, given Wales has drawn so heavily on the experiences of its Celtic cousins. Scotland’s alarming decline across all three domains (which is considerably more marked than ours) has been linked to the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, which does raise some difficult questions of the Welsh direction of travel.


And so we await publication of tomorrow’s PISA results with nervous apprehension.


There is a huge amount at stake and, at its worst, PISA has the potential (based on prior experience) to derail much of the reform agenda that has been set in train in Wales. Equally, if Wales performs well it will serve as a timely confidence boost for all engaged in Welsh education during a period of great change and professional challenge.


One thing is for sure, after a decade of near-constant churn and criticism, Wales’ education system could do with a shot in the arm.




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Gareth Evans is Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). He blogs at www.welsheducationmatters.wordpress.com

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