Geraint Talfan Davies looks at how Wales compares with English regions on top grade A-levels

August 16th, 2013

The Welsh enthusiasm for self-flagellation knows no bounds, and it is always re-fuelled by statistical comparisons between Wales and England. No-one can be complacent about the consistent four-year decline in the number of Welsh pupils achieving the highest grades at A-level, but we do need to examine these statistics  rather more closely if we are not to become suicidal.

Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, only three regions managed to improve their A/A* scores in 2013: the north east of England (0.4%), Yorkshire and Humberside (0.5%) and the East Midlands (0.2%). Amongst the rest, Wales, at (-0.7%) showed the third highest decline, behind Northern Ireland (-1.2%) and the West Midlands (-0.8%). The South East of England, at (-0.6%) was only just behind Wales. England as a whole showed a decline of -0.3%. This table puts Wales in the middle of the pack – for top grades – rather than at the bottom.

The table shows that, in terms of percentage changes, there is no pattern this year, with two of the three regions registering an improvement being northern regions.

  
Improvement at A/A*

%

Yorks & Humber

0.5

North East

0.4

E Midlands

0.2

Deterioration at A/A*
N Ireland

-1.2

W Midlands

-0.8

Wales

-0.7

South East

-0.6

Eastern

-0.3

London

-0.2

North West

-0.1

South West

-0.1

Where there is a pattern is in the absolute percentage of total A-level entrants achieving the highest grade – A*. This shows a very clear north-south divide, with only three regions – all in the south east – achieving a higher share of A* grades than their share of total entrants. I have not been able to identify the equivalent Welsh figures.

English Regions

% Entrants

% of all A*

North East

4

3

North West

13

11

Yorks&Humb

9

8

W Midlands

10

9

E Midlands

8

7

South West

10

10

Eastern

12

13

South East

19

22

London

16

18

These changes – all, except Northern Ireland, being less than one per cent – may be simply random variations, although the consistent drop in the Welsh figure over four years suggests something more significant.

The drop in the attainment of the very highest grades across most of England, Wales and Northern Ireland could also be accounted for by the changing mix of subjects taken, with a sharp drop of 11-16 per cent in those taking A-levels in communication studies, physical education, general studies, and increases in subjects such as economics, chemistry, further mathematics and physics.

There has been much comment in recent years on the way in which boys and girls tend to go for different subject areas – boys constituting the majority of entrants in physics and computing, mathematics and economics, and girls in the majority in languages, including English and Welsh, art and design and communication studies. The number of entrants for A-level Welsh has declined by 12.5 per cent, a very substantial drop, and less than 20 per cent of entrants were boys – an even more pronounced gender imbalance than for English.

All this suggests that we need some more consistent analysis of educational results not only by nation, but by nation and regions.  We need it not to make excuses but to get a clear perspective that a simple comparison of Wales with England as a whole does not provide. The Welsh Education Minister, Huw Lewis, was right to say we need to ‘drill down’.

 

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Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

3 Responses to:“Simple A-grade comparisons do not tell the full story”

  1. Celticus says:

    Oh dear, not again, please! Why another insular approach which, frankly, is getting us nowhere? Not even a comparison with Scotland.

    We’re competing with the rest of Europe (you know, free movement of goods, services and labour) and the world. That’s the playing field. OK, unlike Llais y Sais, you include NI. Anglo-centricity – they have their own separate national curriculum, after all – is one of the main things dragging us down. Disappointingly, this article classifies us as a mere region.

    We have enough other EU citizens working here for useful comparisons between their skills, aptitudes and job prospects with those of Welsh citizens. That would do more to help raise our standards. Our sportspeople are topping European league tables. We need an educational outlook which starts with the same ambition. As Gwyn Alf Williams said of our servile, imperial personification, “Dame Wales, get off me back!”

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  2. Geraint Talfan Davies says:

    Oh dear, Celticus, not again. A too common tactic among some in Wales of wanting to look abroad so that we can avoid seeing what is under our nose. I’m all for seeing what Denmark, Finland, Scotland or Australia might have to offer us by way of good practice, but I’m afraid that Welsh parents worrying about their own childrens’ education and prospects for university education, need to know how their children are doing in comparison with their main competitors for university places – children in the rest of the UK. There are sufficient similarities between England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for valid and valuable comparisons to be made. We will do ourselves no favours by pretending that the rest of the UK does not exist.

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  3. Celticus says:

    I’m really surprised at the response. I’m sorry, but it confirms my deep concern at the insularity of the discourse. I don’t see the rest of Europe as “abroad”. In 2013, how accurate is it to contend that “children in the rest of the UK” are Welsh children’s “main competitors for university places”? To which UK territory or individual university does that apply? Their competitors for places here are increasingly global, as they are in the jobs market. That is primarily European. After all, what’s this daily hysteria about “foreign” workers? They are our fellow European citizens. What a richer life Europe and the world offer. That includes England, of course, as long as it remains in the EU and endorses other international treaties.

    If our children were educated like they are in Ireland – and not like “the rest of the UK” – they would be much more competitive everywhere. Many sub-state European nations are more relevant too.

    Let’s be blunt, it is the residual UK – more accurately England & Wales – educational culture and practice which promotes constrictive insularity, e.g. monolingualism. Another example: examine the A and AS level syllabus in Politics & Government. The WJEC one is merely a minor variant of the English one. Yet some schools here insist on using the latter!

    A ‘regionalist’ approach will merely add to the crisis. It will reinforce the internal colonialism of the residual state of England & Wales (post Scottish independence, 2014 or later). Whether readers are moral or ideological Welsh nationalists or not, there is overwhelming evidence that “practical (Welsh) nationalism” offers a greater prospect for 21st Century Wales. More than ever, England is not “the full story”.

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