A BBC programme broadcast last week presented a gloomy picture of the Welsh education system. It is important to put the other side of the argument.
The programme It’s an Education produced two pieces of evidence to support its analysis. The first of these was the findings of the most recent PISA study in which Wales came lower than the other UK nations. However, this is not exactly news, given that the results of this study were published two years ago. Furthermore, the PISA scores are not the be all and the end all.
Of course PISA is an important study, and a great deal of work has and is taking place to improve the key skills it measures. However, what pupils actually learn in Welsh schools is much wider than what PISA focuses on, and there are other more valid – and more recent – measures which show a much more optimistic picture.
Last year’s GCSE results in Wales were the best ever with 57.9 per cent of 15 year olds achieving at least five A*-C at GCSE, including English or Welsh and maths. This is an increase of 2.5 percentage points on 2013/14 and 13.6 percentage points higher than when these records began in 2006/7.
People should also bear in mind that there needs to be some caution about comparing education systems on the basis of PISA. The 68 nations involved in the study have vastly different population sizes, cultures and levels of socio-economic disadvantage.
The second piece of evidence put forward by the BBC programme was that under the new colour-coded school categorisation system “only” 30 of the 211 secondaries in Wales have been classified in the top “green” category.
Again, this needs to be set in context. The categorisation system is not designed to be the main indicator of a school’s standards, but to work out whether it needs some support and to what extent. The standards that it is achieving form only one part of the assessment. It is also categorised on its capacity to improve further.
There are many reasons why a school could be in the second “yellow” category and yet also be one of the highest achieving schools in the country; conversely being a “red” school is of itself not a reliable indicator that it is a “poor” school.
The level of support a school requires is negotiated between the relevant regional consortium, local authority and the school and it could reflect a number of specific needs. For example, a school with a new headteacher may feel it appropriate to have a higher level of support as the new leader settles in.
A school with a dip in results that is being addressed, and with good indicators that the results will improve, may also be the subject of more intensive support.
These are not indicators of failure, or of a poor school, they are a reflection of a mature approach that recognises the need for support and works intensively to benefit from it.
The BBC programme also criticised the decision to scrap school league tables in Wales, and highlighted the academy system in England.
However, it is interesting to note that the arguments in England about the validity of their various league tables continue apace, and there are many examples of schools that have been damaged by misunderstanding and misrepresentation of these tables.
On academies, we need to be very clear that they are not in themselves a panacea that would solve all our problems. While there are many good academies, there are also some that are struggling. No system is perfect, and our purpose as school leaders should not be to ape what is going on elsewhere, but to make sure that what we have is as good as it can be.
There is a tremendous amount of work going on in Wales to that end. The Welsh Government and schools are working together to develop a tailor-made curriculum for Welsh children. Based on the recommendations in last year’s Donaldson report, this new curriculum will be rooted in Welsh culture and values while preparing young people for the global challenges of the 21st century.
School leaders in Wales also recently set out a vision with clear aims and objectives for helping our system to continue its journey of improvement. ASCL Cymru’s blueprint, Leading the Way: a blueprint for a self-improving system in Wales, is about providing a world-class education for all our young people.
The picture then is nowhere near as gloomy as the downbeat assessment we saw on the BBC last week. On the contrary. There is tremendous work going on in schools all over Wales right now, and the prospects for the future are bright.