Wednesday, 7 December 2016

PISA: Denial to Anger to Depression

(Pic : E)

Climb into your bath, track your arteries with a razor blade and bring on The Smiths.

It's PISA time and there's nothing the Welsh enjoy more than a good moan, revelling in the doom as we all – once again - rubber neck the slow motion car crash that is the Welsh education syst.... Glyn over at National Left I'm getting a strange sense of deja vu.

As you all know, the OECD's PISA tests in reading, mathematics and science are used to draw comparisons between the performance of 15-year-olds in the world's major economies.

PISA tests – which have an heavy emphasis on problem-solving and application of theories learned in the classroom – are taken every three years with the latest results released yesterday (6th December). There's a more detailed background on PISA's importance from the Assembly Research Service here.

There's been a growing sense from before May's Assembly election and the period after it that the Welsh Government have been softening us up for bad news.

Labour rolled back on promises that we would see improved PISA scores, while current Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), re-emphasised the long-standing need for XYZ (usually a mix of collaboration, curriculum changes and more spending on disadvantaged pupils) to improve matters.

In the end, the managing of expectations was justified....but it's not quite as bad as it seems.

The Results
PISA & Wales 2006-2015

The general report is available here (pdf), and the summary relevant to Wales and the UK is available here (pdf).

I'll get the good news out of the way first.

Welsh performances in mathematics has jumped significantly - up 10 points from 468 in 2012 to 478 in 2015. Although Wales is still ranked bottom of the Home Nations and below the OECD average, the gap has closed with England (493), Northern Ireland (493) and Scotland (491). It's actually our second-best result since Welsh students started taking the tests.

Now the bad news.

In reading, the Welsh score fell by 3 points compared to 2012 from 480 to 477 and remains below the OECD average. This still lags behind England (500), Scotland (493) and Northern Ireland (497) but because the other Home Nations have done worse than expected, the performance gap has closed slightly.

Finally, science – which has traditionally been Wales' strongest area. Welsh scores have fallen by 6 points from 491 to 485, with England (512), Northern Ireland (500) and Scotland (497) all out-performing Wales yet again. The 20-25 point gap hasn't changed much.

Overall, this is another set of disappointing results with one big bright spot on maths; but for once it's the other nations in the UK who have more to worry about – in particular Scotland and, considering the amount of effort that's gone into making their curriculum "more rigerous", England too.

Other key findings:

  • There's no significant difference in performance between boys and girls in science. While girls out-perform boys in reading and boys out-perform girls in maths, the gender gap is narrower in Wales in both cases than the other Home Nations. Boys are marginally more likely to be "top performers" (proficient at the highest levels 5 & 6 in the tests) than girls.
  • Only 4-5% of pupils in Wales are considered "top performers" in reading, maths and science, compared to the UK average of 10-12%.
  • 28% of Welsh pupils expect to have a career where scientific knowledge is a prerequisite, near enough the same as the UK average but higher than the OECD average (24%). However, in Wales more top performers in science (55%) expect to have a career in science than the lowest performers (17%) when compared to the rest of the UK.
  • Headteachers in Wales are significantly less likely (20%) to say shortages in teachers with a science degree impacts delivery of lessons than the rest of the UK (43%).
  • 35% of Welsh pupils said they skipped at least one day of school in the two weeks prior to the PISA tests - the highest percentage in the UK and significantly higher than the OECD average (20%). This is more common in disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools.

International Comparisons

  • In mathematics, the Welsh score (478) places us roughly mid-table alongside Malta (479), Hungary (477), but ahead of the United States (470), Israel (470) and most of eastern Europe.
  • In reading, the Welsh score (477) again places us somewhere in the middle to lower-half alongside Argentina (475), Luxembourg (481) and Lithuania (472).
  • When it comes to science, Wales (485) is just about in the top half of the table in between Russia (487) and Luxembourg (482), but out-performing Italy (481), Iceland (473) and Israel (467).
  • Overall, the tables are dominated by Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, Finland and Canada. Wales is about 10-15 points behind the scores attained by most EU member states.

Five Stages of Grief

Here's what previous education ministers have had to say following the release of PISA results.

Denial - Jane Hutt (2007):
"The real benefits of the PISA assessments will come not from the headline figures and league table rankings, but from the detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses and what more we can learn from the best and most effective practice internationally."

Anger - Leighton Andrews (2010):
"These results are disappointing. They show an unacceptable fall in our overall performance - everyone involved in the education sector in Wales should be alarmed. There can be no alibis and no excuses. Countries with less money spent on education than Wales have done better than Wales. Schools, local authorities, and ourselves as government need to look honestly at these results and accept responsibility for them."

Bargaining - Huw Lewis (2013):
"Everybody working in and around the Welsh education sector needs to take a long hard look in the mirror this week. The PISA results are stark and the message is very clear, we must improve educational attainment and standards right across the board. I expect to see the impact of our reforms reflected in the next set of results. They're ambitious and I believe they will have a lasting, sustainable and positive effect on education in Wales."

Depression - Kirsty Williams (2016):
"We can all agree we are not yet where we want to be. While we have seen a 10 point lift in our maths score, the results for science are disappointing. Last month I invited the OECD to look at how we are doing in Wales; their advice to me was unambiguous: Stay the course, be brave, you are doing the right things. The easy thing to do would be rip up the plan and start again. But we owe it to our pupils, parents and the profession to do what is right."

Maybe in 2019 Wales will finally reach Acceptance.

PISA – useful tool as it is – isn't the be all and end all when it comes to measuring educational attainment, and its wider economic impact is negligible with very little correlation between good PISA scores and a strong economy.

For example, a large part of South Korea – which consistently ranks near the top in PISA – has a GVA per capita very similar to Wales, while Welsh workers are about 25% more productive than those in Shanghai. PISA isn't a qualification either so has no bearing on employment prospects or a factor in determining that pupils are being "abandoned".

That said, there are no more excuses and Wales should be doing better than we are.

Where next?

Despite the marked improvement in maths, the portents of doom from our media – even Wales Online graciously managed to drop advertising-masquerading-as-news about a bar in Cardiff to cover this – are as pronounced as previous years.

We can't see beyond the British Bubble and realise this is about 70+ nations and stateless nations. Everything comes down to England, when Wales is decidedly mid to upper-mid table both globally and at a European level, not at "the bottom" of anything. We really need to be looking at the likes of Estonia, Finland and the Republic of Ireland for a fair benchmark.

Government AMs have gone through the usual platitudes of saying how disappointed they are and that things will improve, while opposition AMs are screaming for "something to be done" without actually saying what.

Based on Kirsty Williams' reaction, there's a realisation that it's perhaps better to let reforms filter through than take knee-jerk action, but I'm fully expecting the Education Secretary to still come under pressure from certain quarters. There's no such thing as long-term thinking in Wales, particularly when we feel "embarrassed" in front of the English, when they're more concerned about being embarrassed in front of the Chinese.

Some of those reforms – the introduction of numeracy tests and the start of separate numeracy and mathematics GCSEs - may well have contributed in part to the improvement we've seen in maths. Our reading and maths scores have remained relatively stable since 2006; it's our science scores that are dragging us down  - as you can see from the graph earlier. Science rarely gets a look in when it comes to discussions on Welsh education, it's all about literacy and numeracy.

However, one of the key lessons which the OECD themselves say nations should take on board, is that the best performing nations value and respect teachers. It's not about class sizes. It's not about selective schools. It's not about bilingualism. It's not about how much money you spend per pupil.

As much as I don't want to let Labour off the hook for their failure, for the next PISA cycle - and ahead of the eventual introduction of the new National Curriculum - let's try something really radical: do nothing.


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