Wales’ PISA results: do they matter?

So what? Bottom of the UK and middle of the OECD PISA ranking. Are our children of Wales less happy than other parts of the UK? Are they less creative. Yes, they should be higher up the English, mathematics and science PISA leagues.

In the affluent areas, the results are, (broadly) counterintuitively, disappointing, compared with those in, largely, poor communities of Wales. If potential could be more reliably measured, I suspect, the Wales profile would reveal more about the socio-economic conditions bearing down on pupils’ achievements than a pupil’s innate abilities. Though aspirations and the expectations in the home and those of friends are amongst the critical influences on post school realistic choices. It is worth remembering that the usefulness of PISA is its assessment of a country’s education system, albeit based on the achievement of pupils in participating schools. It is not a measurement of a pupil’s future achievement per se. Though, of course, it is reasonable to draw certain tentative conclusions of a pupil’s school attainment apropos future career prospects, whatever they may be. Though PISA results suggest a link between ranking and the needs of a modern economy in world wide competitive markets.

The recent Assembly ‘hwb’ initiative designed to prepare high achieving children across Wales with a more realistic chance of being successful in the entrance process of Oxford and Cambridge, provides one model for overcoming or compensating for a ‘shortage’ of an educational achievement culture of a community, economy or home, and hence future career prospects. As it is entering higher education is much more than Oxbridge.

Improvements in the quality and scope of apprenticeship programmes offer great opportunities for pupils who choose this route to higher education and well paid and personally rewarding careers. Apprenticeships at level 3 and 4 within the framework of indentured apprenticeships will lead to an increased status of vocational education and training. There is a caveat though: the apprenticeship should be serious and lead to high competence and mastery in the respective occupation. Anything less is an apprenticeship in name alone, and certainly is absent from an indentured apprenticeship (an indentured apprenticeship is one that has been designed by a respected industry body or company, and involves an employer, apprentice and industry body in a shared contract for the apprentice to be successfully inducted into an occupation ending with the mastery of relevant skills and knowledge).

It is not complacent to acknowledge that there is little travel-work mobility in some of our communities. This is understandable if the achievement norm of the community is limited; or expressing the desirability of high achievement, and being clever, leads to being ostracised by one’s friends.

Many Welsh Assembly departments, working together to help pupils gain apprenticeships, outside their immediate community, but still within a reasonable travel-to-work area, might gradually create a growing critical mass of young people with the confidence to challenge and avail themselves to opportunities that will surprise themselves, their peers and parents, and even many of their former teachers and careers advisors.

PISA is a useful measure of where Welsh pupils’ are in relation to pupils in other OECD countries. The cultural expectations, styles of learning and societal expectations are those that cannot and arguably should not be emulated in the UK. from high ranking PISA countries. The concern for Wales is its poor performance in relation to the three other countries in the UK.

Seeking ways of improving Wales’ PISA ranking will not come from expecting the heavy lifting to be done solely by the Assembly’s education department (It is interesting to note that on the day the PISA results were published the Assembly pushed out the Secretary of State for Education to answer questions put to her by the media). Neither will it come from too much reliance on education systems closer to home, such as the oft quoted Finnish system, or the Swedish model (!) apropos the Foundation programme. Much is expected of lessons learned in Scotland through The Donaldson Report and subsequent curriculum change.

It is ironic that the greatest qualification weakness in ‘modern’ times is the home grown Welsh Baccalaureate; a weakness that must not be mentioned in polite society. Only recently, in a newly built secondary school, there was a designated room with a notice on the door: ‘Baccalaureate room’! So much for an all embracing integrated curriculum framework. Providing incentives to encourage excellent teachers to move to the poor areas of Wales, is likely to produce higher results than moving teaching and curriculum practices from another country to the poor parts of Wales.

Simple solutions and political targets help little. Who remembers the name of the Welsh education minister who said a few years ago that the next set of PISA results should see Wales in the top quartile?

An appropriate curriculum, mediated (not copied) and taught by excellent teachers, in good surroundings with modern teaching technologies, offers a realistic chance of change and improvement in pupils’ achievements. Teacher training institutes providing new teachers with the necessary skills to raise pupils’ achievement across the board, and a rewarding pay structure to attract those who will become excellent teachers, seems a reasonable place to add to reviews, when planning for the future.

An improvement in PISA will come when education improvement is coterminous with improvements in the social and economic conditions across Wales. Pupils in terraced houses should expect the same quality of education to those living in detached houses, and many do.

While there is little new in this essay, it is always timely to review and debate issues that may improve pupils’ achievements in Wales, following PISA results.

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