Wales’s Lost Supremacy in Education

All over Wales this week, harried teachers will be contemplating the end of term and a long summer holiday – indeed, for some the term will already be over and the holidays already begun. Wales is full of dedicated teachers, in English and in Welsh-language schools, who do their very best to give their pupils a good education in often difficult circumstances.

It’s not my intention to criticise Wales’s teachers, except possibly to this extent – that some of them, at least, have supported the reforms made to the Welsh education system by Labour and the Liberal Democrats (in the person of current Education Minister, Kirsty Williams). These reforms have been a disaster.

There was a time, not as long ago as all that, when Wales’s education system was a matter of national celebration. When I was doing my ‘O’ levels in the mid 1980s (my school year was the very last one to do ‘O’ levels, before GCSEs were brought in), our teachers proudly told us that the WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee) qualifications were the most stringent in the country and worth much more than their equivalents from the English boards. Go back further and Wales was known for turning out ‘teachers, preachers and policemen’, well-educated and solidly competent people. Further still, back in the days of Griffith Jones Llanddowror in the mid-18th Century, Wales was esteemed as one of the most literate nations – possibly the most literate nation – in the world, thanks to Jones’s circulating schools intended to teach people to read Welsh well so that they could study their Bibles.

What colour are the books this time?

The attack on standards in Welsh education since Labour seized power of the Assembly in 1999 is a scandal on the scale of the Blue Books in 1847 (when Westminster government school inspectors made a full-on assault on the use of the Welsh language in education, leading to the widespread use of the ‘Welsh Not’).

Toby Young of the Spectator

Yet this time it’s not outsiders attacking us, but insiders running the system down as a result of their own doctrinaire agendas.

The Spectator columnist Toby Young is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to education. He’s put his money where his mouth is, being one of the founders of the West London Free School which obtains impressive academic results despite having twice the national average of pupils eligible to receive free school meals. He was recently asked by the Institute of Economic Affairs to contribute a chapter to a book assessing the impact of educational reforms made from the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 through to the present day. His regular “No Sacred Cows” column in last week’s Spectator magazine summarised his conclusions.

An objective measure

Recognising the dangers of relying on hearsay, he takes as his main yardsick the OECD’s PISA (Program of International School Assessment) results, which have sought to make an objective assessment of the capabilities of 15-year-olds in key areas of attainments (reading, maths, and science) across the whole of the developed world. The assessments have been made every three years since 2006. Helpfully (or not, depending on your point of view), the UK is not assessed as one unit but separately as Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What the figures show is stark. Over this period the UK as a whole has declined sharply relative to the rest of the developed world. Yet if you look at the breakdown by country, the conclusions are starker still: schools in England and Northern Ireland have not declined over that period – the whole of the decline in the UK average is accounted for by the plummeting standards in Scotland and, even more so, Wales.

Young writes:

Results from the PISA science tests between 2006 and 2015

“One reason for Scotland’s decline is the introduction of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence in 2010. This replaced Scotland’s traditional, subject-based curriculum with a hotchpotch of cross-curricular themes such as ‘sustainable development’ and has been a disaster. It’s over-bureaucratic, requiring teachers to engage in endless box-ticking exercises; it’s progressive and child-led, which means children from disadvantaged backgrounds fare worse than their peers; and it prioritises teaching children ‘21st-century skills’ rather than knowledge, with the upshot that more children are leaving school without a grasp of the basics.

“Incredibly, the mastermind behind this catastrophe has been hired by the Welsh government to design an almost identical curriculum called, without apparent irony, Successful Futures. This is the latest blunder in what has been a series of missteps by the Labour-controlled Welsh executive, beginning with the scrapping of league tables in 2001. According to a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, that act alone explains a significant portion of the subsequent divergence in GCSE attainment between English and Welsh schoolchildren. In the PISA league tables, Wales is below every other UK region as well as the OECD average.

“My conclusion is that England’s education reforms, driven by a conservative philosophy [note the small ‘c’], have had a generally positive impact, while those in Scotland and Wales, embodying the opposite approach, have been disastrous.”

It’s hard to argue with any of that.

It’s always the poor who suffer most

This matters because if Wales is ever to help its thousands of poor children out of poverty, then providing them with a world-class education that can fit them for decent jobs, whether through academic or vocational routes into the workplace is absolutely essential. It’s widely acknowledged that the excellence of Ireland’s education system was a powerful component of the country’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ turnaround from the 1980s onward.

But rather than tackling the issues at the root of Wales’s declining standards, Kirsty Williams’s reaction has been simply to ignore the evidence.

Politicians who use poverty as an excuse for poor school performance, rather than as a reason to redouble their efforts in the pursuit of excellence, are simply acting as if they hate the poor. I’ve long suspected that this is the real sentiment within the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties – who see poverty as an electoral asset rather than as a scourge to be addressed – and education policy, along with industrial policy and planning, is one of the areas where this becomes most visible.

Maybe the books are blue after all

Another reason why this matters is that Wales is unique within the UK for having widespread bilingual education. This is something which has been hard-won over the decades since Ysgol Glan Clwyd opened – never underestimate Rhyl – in 1956. Study after study after study across the world has proven conclusively that bilingualism is a huge advantage, conferring numerous cognitive advantages on those who are brought up with two (or indeed more) languages. It’s no accident that the top spots in the PISA rankings are habitually occupied by countries – such as Singapore, Estonia, Finland and Slovenia – where multiple languages are in everyday use.

Yet the dismal performance of Wales’s schools gives those who are viscerally opposed to the Welsh language yet another stick with which to beat us. Perhaps the worst example of this in recent times is Katie Hopkins’ hopelessly ill-informed report last September, but the likes of Jacques Protic and Marcus Stead are only too ready to sound off on this subject. There’s every reason why Wales ought to have the best education system in the world – and the strength of the Welsh language is yet another one of those reasons. But by running down our education system to the extent that they have done, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are exposing the language to ridicule and inviting criticism from the ignorant and bigoted at home and abroad. Again, maybe that’s what they really intend.

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