Philip Dixon questions whether GCSEs are fit for purpose

December 3rd, 2013

When Huw Lewis unexpectedly found himself catapulted into the role of Minister for Education, following Leighton Andrews’ resignation in June, he could have had little doubt that the new brief would be a tough challenge. He has so far negotiated some of the rocks pretty well. The pace and direction of the consortia plan, forcing the 22 Welsh local authorities to work together more effectively, has if anything increased. An essential review of curriculum has been announced. Moreover, he has gone down well with teachers as someone who doesn’t have the porcupine tendencies of his predecessor. But one spectre is looming over the feast – today’s announcement of the latest PISA data.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It tries to evaluate education systems across the world by assessing 15-year-olds’ competencies in the key subjects of reading, mathematics and science. The programme began in 1997 and over 70 countries now take part. Wales joined the programme in 2006.

Unfortunately not only did we score comparatively badly – we were bottom of the four UK nations – but we have gone backwards subsequently. In his 2011 speech, Teaching Makes a Difference, Leighton Andrews announced his determination that Wales should be in the top 20 nations by 2016. Few believed that was realistic at the time and almost nobody now thinks it remotely possible. Speaking in the Assembly in October First Minister Carwyn Jones said, “I expect to see an improvement in our PISA results in December”. Many think even that more modest aspiration to be a forlorn hope.

PISA provokes several reactions and responses, verging from the lunatic to the eminently sane. Some are simply PISA-deniers, the flat-earthers of our day. They argue we should take no notice as the data is of little or no import. Others believe that PISA is merely a useful stick with which to beat schools and teachers. More credible voices have been raised about the methodology of PISA.

But like it or lump it these statistics do give some sort of temperature test for the health of education systems. Those who accept that PISA tells us that that all is not well with our education system again divide into the lunatic and sane in their remedies for recovery. Some argue that the abandonment of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) and league tables over a decade ago are to blame, conveniently ignoring the fact that England’s PISA performance also gives cause for concern. Others have blamed factors such as the Welsh language (despite the fact that many of the PISA leaders are bilingual nations), the abolition of grammar schools (despite the fact that one of the leaders for years, Finland, has a fully comprehensive system), or the absence of Morris dancing from the curriculum. OK I made that last one up but you get my drift.

Saner analyses have come in the shape of pointing out the chronic underfunding that Welsh education has experienced over the last decade or so, pointing to the £600 per pupil gap in spend between England and Wales. Successive Welsh education Ministers have tried unconvincingly to minimise the impact, but the gap is too large for it be having no detrimental effect at all. Others have emphasised the accountability vacuum that enveloped the system once SATs and League Tables were abolished. Their abolition wasn’t the cause of our current problems, it’s just that nothing was put in their place.

So how do we get out of this morass, especially given the financial constraints that now beset us. Gaming of PISA may produce some short term gains but they will be limited and transient. Most other countries will be trying them too. We also need to plan properly for the fact that the next set of tests will be computer based. Longer term deeper change is necessary. We need to align and inform our system with the values and skills that permeate PISA. Not just because we want to improve our PISA standing but, far more importantly, because by valuing and promoting the sorts of skills that PISA measures we will improve our children’s education, their life chances and our economy.

The launch of the new literacy and numeracy frameworks have been universally welcomed in our schools. The Minister’s announcement of a curriculum review has not come a moment too soon. We will want to keep the principle of GCSEs – no retreat here to the Govian ideal of a two tier exam system. However, we will need to align our curriculum more with the skills that the OECD tells us are essential for the modern world. In this regard we also need to take note of another recent OECD survey of adult skills which showed England and Northern Ireland lagging behind the rest of the world. Wales didn’t take part, which probably spared us another wooded spoon.

The OECD survey also showed no real gain in skills across the generations, which has made me ponder again the role that the current nature of GCSEs has played. It is odd to say the least that year on year GCSE results have improved but that these gains are not mirrored in international surveys. It was painful to watch Tristram Hunt, the new Shadow Education Minister in Westminster, walking into the elephant trap of trying to square that particular circle. The debate about grade inflation is superficial. Perhaps there is something flawed about the content, form, and delivery of current GCSEs which do not promote skills as they should. Too much teaching to the test, too little space in the curriculum for innovation, and an overemphasis on regurgitation has not produced the independent, adaptable learners that we need.

Whatever today’s PISA results, we will need some positive results in 2016. Wales has to show that our comprehensive approach to education works. It’s as blunt as that.

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Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

9 Responses to:“PISA challenge to Welsh education”

  1. Yvonne says:

    Isn’t it just time to admit that we’ve failed. Failed the children, failed Wales and, more importantly, failed the rest of the UK (for it is the rest of the UK that pays the welfare bill our ill-educated kids).

    No wonder England and Scotland are now so keen to see an independent Wales!

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  2. John R Walker says:

    Looks like a somewhat pointless article trying to blame Wales’ education failures on everybody and everything except the teaching profession in advance of what everybody expects to be another round of damning PISA results.

    No surprise at all that the PISA results are indeed damning:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-25196974

    The question remains – when is the collective failure running education in Wales going to investigate the known negative effects of the eliffant in the classroom? Which is compulsory Welsh and increasing Welshification of the syllabus at all levels…

    And when is Jon Jones going to be unbanned from this forum so he can continue to make his evidence known that WM schools tend to under-perform EM schools by several percentage points when compared on a like-for-like basis?

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  3. J M COOKE says:

    Never mind about the poor Welsh PISA result.
    I am sure that the Welsh Labour Government can have a vote and upgrade the Welsh results ten place

    Now you wonder Why Welsh state school are letting every pupil down

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  4. Gwyn says:

    I’ve just been on the PISA site and I found Wales’ figures.

    The figures, as given, tell us almost nothing but PISA seems to have gathered a great deal of data.

    What I would like to know is:-
    1. what language(s) were the tests conducted in (in Wales)?
    2. is there a breakdown of type of school, authority etc?
    3. what are the ranges of best and worst in Wales by type or region?

    Alas this doesn’t seem to be available.

    You might like to know that France (495) and the UK (494) are virtually the same score (France slightly leading) but they were talking yeasterday, on France 2, about the poor performance of their education system and the need to reform it. Also the USA (481) is below the UK and Florida is below Wales.

    Yvonne! Wales is not far behind England. Just remember they’re supposed to have all these fantastic, expensive private schools. What would their score be like if they took their Etons etc out? Worse than us maybe?

    Effectively the PISA scores mark the past 10 years and show a comparitive backward trend. Compared to Finland our teaching methods are “modern”. I just wonder if this is part of the problem?

    Certainly the education system has been saying that we need to get class sizes down to 25 per teacher as a maximum for 50yrs or more, yet councils seem to calculate on the basis of 30 or more. Adding Teaching Assistants to over-sized classes only gives the teacher more work to do (30+ children & 1 TA to oversee).

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  5. aahjnnot says:

    You say, “Saner analyses have come in the shape of pointing out the chronic underfunding that Welsh education has experienced over the last decade or so.” But the PISA analysis itself tells us (Volume IV, page 40), that “among those countries whose cumulative expenditure per student is more then USD 50,000, the relationship between spending per student and performance is no longer apparent.”

    Sober analysis tells us that the funding gap between schools in Wales and England cannot explain the underperformance of Welsh schools, regardless of how well demands for extra cash might play out among Philip Dixon’s members.

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  6. Bob Jones says:

    Yvonne is, of course, absolutely correct. We have to remove all Welsh language teaching from our schools as a matter of the utmost urgency. Otherwise, how can we expect children in Newport to be able to understand Science and Technology.

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  7. Terry Mackie says:

    Philip,

    I do not know if the following is proof of sanity but it is based on first-hand experience. Further concentration on curriculum reviews (that’s so last decade) and qualifications reform (this decade’s red herring) will not help to address the malign consequences of the false political values and obsolete cultural norms that got us into this terrible slough of despond. Forget GCSE tweaking, forego curriculum tinkering, focus on how to make more classrooms in Wales places where highly effective teaching is standard delivery. That’s where the improvement will come from, will be self-generating and will spread through whole schools.

    Dylan Wiliam puts it plainly: the most effective teacher does the job as well as the average one in 50 per cent less time. The least effective teacher takes four times as much time to effect the same standard of learning as the most effective. Highly effective teachers operate at the same level of effectiveness for socio-economically deprived children as the generality of pupils. You know this stuff, as I do. So, why digress beyond the golden seam of pedagogy to the dross of curriculum and qualifications? It is starting to come across that your members might not want such a focused lens on teacher effectiveness.

    It is imperative that we work relentlessly on getting more of our teachers performing to a consistently higher standard. That requires better support, new ideas and technology, more funding for teacher training that actually works and, crucially, a performance management system that is precise and aligned to personal promotion. Accountability at every level in our Welsh system is as weak as nuns’ piss. Whole system reform
    is not credible with more rigorous performance management at teacher and classroom level. Andrews dodged that bullet.

    For ten years Davidson and Hutt dreamed of world-classness. We are third division now. They stripped out our resources for Health and Objective One, stirred up anglophobia, ignored great international research for parochial advantage, misdirected the language policy, presided over an inspectorate that was a nothing more than a savaging dead sheep and then handed over the toxic legacy to Andrews. He dithered for more than a year before correctly shifting the focus back onto teaching. But he had no stomach for the real fight (that is with his own monopolistic, identity-addicted party) and took flight ‘to spend more time with his constituency’.

    That is how we got into this mess. I urge you to not make the hole deeper by getting out the JCBs of curriculum and qualifications again. Let’s get back to the people with the shovels, your teachers.

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  8. tredwyn says:

    Bob Jones: dead right. And since English results are mediocre too, let’s also remove all English. There is a good correlation between literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge and teaching in an East Asian language – just look at the PISA table. So let’s teach all Newport kids in single-language Mandarin Chinese schools, the language of tomorrow!

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  9. ben says:

    bob jones- is there any correlation between poor PISA results and the teaching of another language?

    (Report comment)

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