In a challenging landscape for Welsh schools, Finola Wilson warns about rising evidence that pupils’ literacy levels in Wales are falling.
Next week, Wales’ education system will be put under the spotlight once again when a key set of international test results are published.
The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, organised by the OECD, measure the ability of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science.
Wales has traditionally performed poorly compared to the other UK nations in PISA, and with just a week to go until the 2022 test results are published, there is concern among some educationalists about what awaits.
The signs are not positive. Last week, the Welsh Government published a report on patterns in attainment in reading and numeracy, using national-level data from personalised assessments of pupils in years 2-9.
The pupils whose attainment results are in the Welsh Government report, and in next week’s PISA results, are not just data sets, they are real children and young people with real lives.
Its findings were stark. It showed that reading standards had fallen since the pandemic, with English reading the equivalent of four months behind results from 2021-22 and Welsh reading 11 months behind.
The Welsh Government said the report ‘shows clearly the negative impact of the pandemic on attainment in reading and numeracy’, something which it said is ‘not unique to Wales’.
While this might be true, it’s not right to blame it all on the impact of Covid-19. Or the impact of poverty for that matter, something the Welsh Government also has a track record of doing.
At some point we have to start being honest about the problems facing education in Wales. We need to be talking about this in a much more open, honest and realistic way.
Because right now we have one narrative being discussed at Welsh Government level and in the media, but we know that heads and teachers in schools are experiencing quite a different reality.
We must remember above all that the pupils whose attainment results are in the Welsh Government report, and in next week’s PISA results, are not just data sets, they are real children and young people with real lives.
If their reading is months behind where it should be now, and nothing is done about it, then it’s going to have an impact on the rest of their lives.
Another warning about where Wales could be headed comes from Scotland, where a new report found one in three children are struggling to read in schools. One anonymous teacher even warned that many pupils are leaving secondary school ‘functionally illiterate’.
This should be ringing serious alarm bells in Cardiff Bay. After all, Curriculum for Wales, which is currently being rolled out across all schools in Wales, is heavily influenced by Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which was implemented in 2010.
If a third of Scottish pupils are struggling to read after a decade of curriculum innovation, what impact will our own innovation have?
For its part, the Welsh Government has said it ‘recognises the challenges facing our schools’ and it pledged to ‘continue to use every lever we have to support them’.
We wait and see what PISA has in store for Wales and what lessons the Welsh Government learns from the results.
So far, this amounts to an ‘updated toolkit to help with teaching reading and oracy’ and a ‘mathematics and numeracy plan before the end of the year’. Hardly inspiring stuff.
We don’t need another plan to ‘fix’ the situation. We’ve had enough of those. What we do need is for our political leaders to make the long-term, difficult decisions that will actually make a difference to schools in Wales.
This should start with an intense focus on reading across the entire curriculum. We should also be implementing the use of Systematic Synthetic Phonics teaching across all schools as standard. Our politicians should be setting aside party politics in favour of doing the right thing for the children of Wales. After all, reading is at the foundation of everything in education, and our approach to it is in urgent need of change.
We wait and see what PISA has in store for Wales and what lessons the Welsh Government learns from the results. It’s time for some honesty and fresh thinking, and not just falling back on the same tired old narratives.