EDUCATION FILE: Wales gets worse in maths and science
WITH yet another disappointing set of international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for Wales, experts are calling for a complete turn-around in our nation’s attitude towards low achievement in schools, as education reporter EMMA MACKINTOSH explains.
YEARS of poor attainment in Welsh education cannot be solved by schools alone, a conference in Cross Keys heard last week.
Speeches by Professor David Egan, former special adviser on education to the first minister and cabinet of the Welsh Assembly, and Dr Brett Pugh, former director of education in Newport and now director of school standards in Welsh Government, preceded this week’s disappointing international league table results which ranked the UK 26th amongst its OECD peers for mathematics.
Compared to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales once again ranked the lowest of the UK nations in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)’s own reading, maths and science tests, separate from our own standardised testing and given to around half a million children across the globe every three years.
In fact in maths and science Wales has gotten worse; only reading has improved since the 2009 tests.
Last week’s conference heard that, post-devolution, there is now a discernible Welsh education system separate (and increasingly so) from that of our next-door neighbours, but that it is too early to say whether, in itself, it is underperforming.
According to Professor Egan, who will visit Newport tomorrow to see pioneering work being done at Gaer Infant School, Wales must think of its education system in a holistic way – like its high-achieving superiors in the PISA league table.
“So often the debate on education in Wales is seen as being about schools, when it should be about the system,” he said.
“PISA is an interesting methodology but there are a large number of academics who are now challenging [it].
“There are issues about PISA and its robustness which will get lost [this] week.
“We should take cognisance of PISA but very cautiously, because its robustness is open to question.”
Following 2009’s poor rating for Wales in the PISA tests, then education minister Leighton Andrews set out to raise standards.
Professor Egan said: “We’ve gone through a period where the education minister said we need to aspire to be better and I think that was absolutely necessary. Are we world class? Absolutely no.
“We have a historical legacy of low achievement in Wales, we have a significant element of low achievement locked into our system and a real issue with leadership.”
Wales’ industrial economy being crushed in the 1980s plays a significant role and even now only a quarter of youngsters on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths, and in some areas that figure is 12 per cent or in some secondary schools, single figures.
“Schools are by no means the total solution,” said the professor. “This has to be a whole society journey. Schools can’t do it alone – education can’t compensate for society.
“We’re not going to change until we get a much stronger sense of national purpose, interest and energy around improving our education system.”
Dr Pugh, who introduced the controversial system of banding secondary schools in Wales, a system which it transpired does not allow for no schools to be in the bottom category, seconded the call.
“I agree, it’s a system that’s not performing as well as it should,” he said, admitting that banding had probably served its purpose too.
“It’s very much about an identity as Welsh people. We’ve been through a period in 2010-11 when the last PISA results came out when we were really shocked at the performance of the nation.
“There are holes, but what PISA is about is practical skills. Literacy and numeracy are absolutely important. We went through a huge period of storming, a lot of lectern-banging and stoning and loss of morale. It had to happen because otherwise we would be deluding ourselves.
“Now we have to build in relentless practice about how we have to improve,” he said, adding there is “no point having a big gap” between strategy and what happens in classrooms.
“It’s going to be a long journey. There’s a history in Britain of everything being in two-year sound bites and it doesn’t work with education.
“Our new minister [Huw Lewis AM] sees this as a long journey – that’s a big change. We have to take short-term catch-up but we also have a terrible history of teaching to the test.
“As a nation we’ve got to see ourselves as having a moral purpose in improving [free school meal statistics]. We need to up our expectations by about six to nine months for each age range of pupils.”
In 2013, with a stringent emphasis that schools must improve the way they teach numeracy and literacy in order to raise standards, Welsh Government no longer throws policy over the battlements to schools and expects them to get on with it, said Dr Pugh.
“The storming has gone on, now we have to make sure the teachers know how to introduce these things,” he said of government policy.
Returning to the subject of PISA, he said: “The kids that took these PISA tests, we had barely started to do any training for the teachers. But it should be building up from 2015.”
Comments are closed on this article.