Gareth Hughes examines today’s PISA results.

December 3rd, 2013

Wales are again the worse performing country in the United Kingdom in educational attainment. PISA results show that 15 year olds in Wales scored 468 points on average, compared with 498 in Scotland 495 in England and 487 in Northern Ireland.

PISA is a test conducted in 65 countries in the world for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years. PISA tests fifteen year olds. The United Kingdom is ranked 26 in the world.

Breaking the scores down Wales is lower than the other UK countries in the three subjects tested.

• As in PISA 2009, mathematics performance in Wales was lower than the rest of the United Kingdom with a score of 468 points compared with 472 in PISA 2009. However, in both England (495) and Scotland (498) there was little change from 2009, where the scores were 493 and 499 respectively. Northern Ireland like Wales showed a decline 487, compared with a score of 492 in PISA 2009.

• Reading performance in Wales was lower than the rest of the United Kingdom, with a score of 480 points compared with 476 in 2009. The score for reading in Scotland was 506 points, slightly higher than that in England (500), and Northern Ireland (498). This compares with scores of 500 in Scotland, 495 in England and 499 in Northern Ireland in PISA 2009.

• Scores for science were 516 in England, 513 in Scotland and 507 in Northern Ireland. Again showing little change from the previous study in 2009, where the scores were 515, 514 and 511 respectively. Wales was lower than the rest with a score of 491 points compared with 496 in PISA 2009.

So what’s the recipe for success? According to PISA the best performers share some key characteristics: a belief in the potential of all their students, strong political will, and the capacity of all stakeholders to make sustained and concerted efforts towards improvement.

After the last results the then Welsh Minister, Leighton Andrews said it was a “wake-up call’ and set Wales the target of getting into the top 20 by they ear 2015. If that target was to be met the current results should show an improvement from 2009. Clearly, this is far from being the case, it seems quite the opposite, Welsh children are going backwards compared with the rest of the UK.

It’s no good the current Education Minister saying that he’s “confident that the measures we’ve put in place since the last set of PISA results are the right way forward for Wales and we won’t be distracted from delivering them. Today’s news simply reinforces our case for the ambitious reforms we have already developed and everyone across the education sector in Wales now needs to play their part.”

The measures they’ve put in place are are based on the Scandinavian systems, but these have been slipping down the rankings. The real success stories are to be found elsewhere. The top places in the rankings are based on the Asian schools system. It’s there where the answers should be looked for.

Many have blamed the woes on devolution and of course Labour in Wales have had 15 years to get things right. But Wales has been ploughing its own educational furrow for some time, the Welsh Office had control of our schools and the curriculum way before 1999. Serious questions have to be asked about the civil servants in Wales and the advice they have been giving Ministers. Are they fit for purpose?

Its not money that is needed as can be seen from the league tables, there are many countries who spend a great deal less that Wales does and get far better results. It’s a new approach that’s needed. Such an approach is unlikely from a group of bureaucrats that are responsible for the current mess.

The truth is that if our children fail in the long run Wales will fail. Results from the adult survey also show that highly skilled adults are twice as likely to be employed and almost three times more likely to earn an above-median salary than poorly skilled adults.

In other words, poor skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs. Highly skilled people are also more likely to volunteer, see themselves as actors rather than as objects of political processes, and are more likely to trust others. Fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus all hinge on the skills of citizens. God help our future citizens if we continue this downward spiral.

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Gareth Hughes is a political commentator. This blog first appeared on Gareth's blog (http://welshpolitics.co.uk/2013/12/dunces-hat-for-wales-again/).

16 Responses to:“Dunce’s hats for Wales, again.”

  1. Geraint Talfan Davies says:

    What does this say about the state of teacher training in Wales? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but it surely needs some investigation. The roots of both failure and improvement may lay in several places but it is in the classroom that both are delivered.

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  2. A hardworking teacher says:

    What an insulting headline!

    (Report comment)

  3. Non Entity says:

    You wouldn’t let the Police Federation set the criminal justice agenda, so why do we allow the teachers’ unions to dominate the eductation agenda in Wales

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  4. Terry Mackie says:

    Gareth,

    Good sense and well expressed. If you read Thursday’s Western Mail you will see my same sentiments about the civil service. I call for the nuclear option of departmental dissolution in order to get in more intelligent people who can lead and manage effective educational change. The repeated crisis demands new thinking. In a quasi one-party state like Wales the quality of a wise executive is paramount. And these people have failed us miserably. Fourteen years is time enough.

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  5. Dave Stacey says:

    Or would stop for a moment, ask ourselves what PISA measures, and how, and then decide if that’s a suitable yardstick by which we would want to shape our system.
    It’s A measurement. Not THE measurement. If all we want for our young people is to be able to do well at PISA tests we will be selling them a long way short.

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  6. Jon Owen Jones says:

    Yes it is THE international measurement and however flawed it is how we are judged. Of course we could stick two fingers up to the world and create our own Welsh measure, at no doubt we would excel. However inadvertently I think David Stacey has identified a significant part of the problem. That is the lack of transparency, the reluctance to compare and to judge, to reward success and punish failure. I am not referring to the children who endure an underperforming system.Leighton Andrews made some changes in the right direction but was hamstrung by an inability to openly challenge what had gone before.

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  7. Dave says:

    I can’t believe the writer blames the ‘bureaucrats’, who can’t speak for themselves. It is the politicians who are responsible. Labour can’t evade the blame. It’s unhealthy for one party to dominate the political environment in any society, and Wales is paying the price for it today, and will in the future, as long as people continue to vote for this self-serving and complacent party which has been in power for far too long.

    That their failings haven’t been exposed much earlier is partly caused by the lack of an effective press and media to hold them to account in Wales. For example, Wales gets some two minutes of news (other then sport and weather) on BBC1 each breakfast time, whereas government policies in England regularly get a good airing on that channel. It is appalling.

    Devolution cannot be blamed, as Scotland and NI are performing much better. Wales has already reached Third World status in terms of education being ranked 43/65. What an indictment! Carwyn Jones has the effrontery to say he’s not ashamed, and even to blame the opposition parties. How he had the cheek to visit Edinburgh to extol the virtues of the Union, when his party and government have failed Wales so badly defies belief.

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  8. Comeoffit says:

    Oh dear…. If only a couple of hundred of the apathetic majority had bothered to vote no in 1997. There is now no doubt whatsoever that devolution has damaged education in Wales.

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  9. Jeremy says:

    I for one do not think S Korea sending kids to school and then cramming school for 13 hours a day, with a resultant high suicide rate, would be a good model. Education should be about more than producing wage slaves.

    If education standards are to rise then educational values have to be adopted by all parents from the childs early life. How many kids are dumped in front of the television, never taken out, never get bedtime stories, cannot dress themselves. Such attitudes are too common in Wales and a few children like that in a class then pull everyone else back. Teachers will not make up for such deficits.

    Education is a joint undertaking between parents and schools and in the UK, not just Wales, it is how to pass the test that children are being taught, not how to think.

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  10. Tegid Roberts says:

    The PISA website makes interesting reading. If you compare pupil scores for each country against child anxiety and stress levels then quite a few of the highest ranking countries, perhaps rather obviously, also have high child anxiety – this is true for Singapore, Taiwan and Korea. The notable exceptions are Switzerland and Finland with excellent results and low student anxiety and I would say that they are the ones to beat. Interestingly the UK has low student anxiety [perhaps not enough!] and middling performance but France has also middling performance but high student anxiety. I agree that parents must be more engaged and we must not lay all the blame at the door of schools.

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  11. Jon Owen Jones says:

    Yes it is THE international measurement and however flawed it is how we are judged. Of course we could stick two fingers up to the world and create our own Welsh measure, at which we would no doubt excel. However inadvertently I think David Stacey has identified a significant part of the problem. That is the lack of transparency. There is a reluctance to compare and to judge, to reward success and punish failure. I am not referring to the children who endure an underperforming system. Leighton Andrews made some changes in the right direction but was hamstrung by an inability to openly challenge what had gone before.

    (Report comment)

  12. tredwyn says:

    Mr Roberts has put his finger on a central point. The countries to emulate are the ones that have kids who are both happy and successful in tests, namely Switzerland and Finland. Moreover parts of Finland are bilingual and all of Switzerland is multilingual so perhaps the anti-Welsh language obsessives will give their tired old tunes a rest. Now of course chidren’s performance is conditioned by parental upbringing and social attitudes, which leave much to be desired in Wales. But it is no use wringing our hands about that. We have to start in the schools, improve teacher training and intake and make our teachers and their unions understand that, like everyone else, they must expect their performance to be measured, as well and as fairly as possible, and they must expect to be held to account for their results. No system thrives for long without accountability and a degree of openness.

    I also agree with Dave. There is a reflex in Wales to blame civil servants. But it’s a bum rap; they are only as good or as bad as their political masters let them be. Welsh failures are political. Welsh politicians have not admitted error or changed course when the evidence warrants it and they have been chicken-hearted in dealing with the efforts of teachers’ unions and other producer interests to remain unaccountable.

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  13. ben says:

    @comeoffit- Why blame devolution? Devolution is only as good as those running it. Blame the donkey not the stable it is in. Labour have run education into the ground not the Welsh devolution settlement. I don’t see people calling for Westminister to be abolished due to the economic mess we’re in. How convenient these problems must be for you as an opponent of Welsh autonomy.

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  14. tim williams says:

    I agree with most of what Gareth says. The countries with the successful education systems now are largely Asian. The challenge however is both that their teachers and pedagogy are more effective and that their communities value education properly. Their kids work harder and their parents support them. Simple really.

    As to Finland and Switzerland also being models for us, while agreeing I feel the need to stress to the Welsh language obsessives amongs us – most of the educational leadership of Wales it seems – that Switzerland for one actually doesn’t encourage bilingualism in education.

    The existence of fairly sharp linguistic boundaries separating corresponding language region
    means that, with the exception of a limited number of municipalities, there is no official
    bilingualism at the local level. Switzerland may be quadrilingual, but to most intents and
    purposes, each point of its territory can be viewed as unilingual. Correspondingly, living in
    ‘German’ Switzerland means living entirely in German

    In each language region, one sole language is designated as official. It is
    incumbent upon the cantons, within their boundaries, to ensure the extent and homogeneity of
    their language territory. In other words, the stability of language boundaries is enshrined in
    federal jurisdiction. One direct result from this provision is that, for example, there is no right
    to French-language education in German-speaking Switzerland, and vice-versa. Cantons are
    of course free to be more lenient, and they usually are, but there is no right of citizens to be
    educated in another national language.

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  15. tim williams says:

    Re Finland, their success looks pretty sui generis. They require all teachers to have a masters degree so clearly that impacts on the quality of teaching. However, teacher autonomy is greatly in advance of the UK and the curriculum is not as centralised.

    As to the language situation there, again of very little relevance to Wales. Indeed, those who want to follow the Finnish approach to bilingualism – as they have a minority now down to about 5% that has Swedish as its mother tongue – need to get up to date. Finns have begun to revolt against mandatory Swedish in schooling and in employment requirements – until recently essential for matriculation and entry to the Finnish civil service – and to question the point of such an emphasis on a declining minority language of little utility in the world market. English is massively on the rise in Finland and parents want their children to speak it fluently rather than Swedish ;and other minorities want their language taught instead (Russian is growing for example). This is sounds familiar and relevant but not ion the way that language revivalists in Wales, posing as educationists, would like.

    I mention all this because it is truly depressing and indeed decadent that at a time when Welsh kids education is clearly not good enough by UK let alone world standards we have a First Minister and a government bent on promoting Welsh medium education for the English speaking majority (now forming 93% of families with children of school age by the way). It’s ridiculous and not a little scandalous.

    I write as a fluent Welsh speaker who learned the language as second language when at secondary school,having received my education on the firm foundations of my mother tongue. I’m not against the welsh language. I’m for truth and facing reality – and for a world class education for Welsh children.

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  16. Dave says:

    Tim Williams:

    “I’m not against the welsh language..”

    Sadly, the tenor of your comment suggests otherwise, you’ve simply left out the ‘but’.

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