Comment | What Next After PISA?

Education expert Gareth Evans reflects on the implications of the PISA results for Wales and where we can look for inspiration.

As any good educationalist will tell you, there is always room for improvement.

And the same can certainly be said of Wales’ standing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. Conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA tests the knowledge and core skills of 15-year-olds as they near the end of their compulsory education. It uses a representative sample of students from more than 70 countries to gauge how different education systems are performing against one another in three core subjects.

The latest tranche of results, published earlier this month, were another disappointment for those associated with Welsh education. Having performed poorly in three successive PISA tests, Wales failed to make any significant inroads and remained bottom of the UK pile. In reading, Welsh teenagers scored 477 points – three points lower than in the 2012 study and 23 points behind England. Performance in science, traditionally Wales’ strongest PISA suit, dropped sharply to 485 points – six less than last time and the lowest on record. Wales’ score in maths was the ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy results day, but a rise of 10 points to 478 was still well below the OECD average and the rest of the home nations.

Put together, it meant Wales stayed in roughly the same position – 40th, 35th and 39th respectively – relative to its inflated number of competitors, albeit all three scores were lower in 2015 (there is a year’s gap between tests and results) than they were in 2006. Ordinarily, little or no movement could have given rise to what critics call “PISA panic” and a frenzied assault on school standards (and, invariably, quality of teaching).

But the vast majority within the Welsh education fraternity were far more measured in their response. Why?

Because Wales’ PISA rankings were not unexpected and to have predicted wholesale change in such a short space of time would have been naïve in the extreme. Our precarious position in the lower half of education’s world rankings has been many years in the making and we must be mindful of overhauling a schools system that is already suffering the effects of what the OECD describes as “reform fatigue”. Historically, the Welsh Government’s tendency to lurch from one policy to the next has muddied the water and diluted the impact of some of its more promising education initiatives.

What we need now is a clarity of vision and a relentless focus on delivery. The fact that Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has ruled out “knee-jerk reactions” and so far resisted the temptation to rip up and start again is to be welcomed.

It is worth remembering that former Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ response to PISA – his prescriptive “20 point plan” – is still working its way through the system five years down the line and to reset what has been started would do far more harm than good.

Instead, the Welsh Government must narrow down its priorities into a coherent and achievable improvement plan that the wider education workforce can rally behind. A revised education strategy is due for publication in January but if Ms Williams stays true to her belief that stability is required, it will represent more a tweaking than an overhaul of existing plans.

Perversely, the current health of education in Scotland might be of more pressing concern given the Welsh Government’s unashamed admiration for the direction of travel being pursued north of the border. Scotland’s alarming decline across all PISA measures went largely unreported in Wales, but its significance will not have gone unnoticed in the corridors of power.

Against its own 2012 ratings, Scotland fell 13 points in reading, seven points in maths and 16 points in science. Viewed over a longer period, Scotland’s OECD rank in reading has gone from sixth in 2000 to 23rd in 2015. In maths, Scotland has gone from ninth in 2003 to 24th in 2015 and in science Scotland is now 19th, compared to 10th in 2006. Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney said the results made for uncomfortable reading and attention quickly turned to Scotland’s fledgling Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which was implemented in 2010. The country’s curriculum changes were supposed to improve basic standards and empower teachers, but CfE has been plagued by claims of unnecessary bureaucracy, increased teacher workload and confusion about its aims. Indeed, Mr Swinney has himself warned that many teachers in Scotland “feel they may be on a bit of a mystery tour” and greater clarity is needed. He said:

“What we have probably done is gone from a very prescriptive curriculum to one that is correctly positioned and anchored around the importance of professional leadership and judgement, but what we still require is young people to demonstrate tangible, measurable progress, and I don’t think it is clear enough what that looks like and that is where clarity is required in both primary and secondary.”

Earlier this month, it was revealed that more than 20,000 pages of online guidance had been produced to support the roll-out of CfE – fuelling widespread concerns that teachers in Scotland are being weighed down by mountains of paperwork. It has since been suggested that from the innocuous four “capacities” expected of pupils engaged with CfE has sprung “a fearsome hydra: no matter how hard you try to cut it down to its essentials, this beast has grown ever bigger and more daunting”.

All of this matters, of course, because Wales has chosen to use CfE as a blueprint for its own curriculum reform (the headline descriptors and terminology are almost identical). So what can we do to give ourselves the best possible chance of success?

The OECD made a number of revealing observations with regards to CfE in its 2015 review of Scotland’s education system. It noted:

“CfE’s scope still needs clarification: sometimes it is understood as a wide-ranging set of reforms whereas it would be better if it were interpreted more strictly as curriculum and related assessment and pedagogy.

“There needs clarification of how the four capacities relate to the extensive experiences and outcomes. Clarification would help to build forward momentum and a clear narrative.”

It added:

“There is widespread engagement with CfE and acceptance of its principles by teachers. Yet implementation is proceeding at varying speeds. The review calls for a strengthened ‘middle’­­ operating through networks and collaboratives among schools, and in and across local authorities.

“As the local authorities are integral to such a development, there needs to be complementary action to address the gaps between the high and low-performing authorities.”

In Wales, Professor Graham Donaldson’s plans to “liberate” schools and give teachers more freedom to structure what they teach to suit the needs of their own pupils have been largely welcomed. His blueprint for reform has been described by ministers as “a truly transformational programme of work” and an “historic step forward in Welsh education history”. But there is still confusion as to what Wales’ much-heralded new curriculum will actually look like and the OECD’s review of Scotland’s education system should make essential reading for policymakers.

Whatever materialises, there must be an expectation that all pupils will be given a basic entitlement of knowledge and understanding that will carry with them into their adult lives. And perhaps most importantly of all, there must be a guiding framework – however malleable – by which to retain an element of uniformity.

It was during a recent education debate in Cardiff that Mr Andrews declared in no uncertain terms that he would not have sought to shake-up Wales’ national curriculum, had he still held responsibility. But the die has been cast and it is vital that we learn the lessons of curriculum reform in Scotland.­ By using CfE as a model, we can at least iron out the mistakes of our predecessors as much as we can look to replicate and build on their successes.­­­­

In the meantime, it may be worth looking to our friends across the Irish Sea for inspiration with regards to reading. The Republic of Ireland climbed from ninth to fifth in what is arguably the most important PISA domain, without which pupils would struggle to access and engage with all other subject areas. There is no lesson in which language is not important and PISA requires a level of literacy that is commensurate with the age of the pupil sitting the test.

Questions require powers of evaluation and the ability to communicate answers clearly – and while PISA is by no means flawless, it does assess the skills a good education should provide.

There is little doubt that positive change will take time and there is a long road ahead, but there is no reason why we can’t call upon others to help show us the way.


Gareth Evans is Executive Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa (Institute of Education), University of Wales Trinity Saint David.  His book, A Class Apart: Learning the Lessons of Education in Post-Devolution Wales, was published in 2015 by Welsh Academic Press.