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Thursday, March 21, 2024

Wake-up call for Welsh Education

There is a new First Minister in the Welsh Senedd and it looks like his first test will be how prepared he is to change direction in a major policy area where his government is failing badly.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has published a damning report which concludes that education policy in Wales faces major challenges including low outcomes across a range of measures and high levels of inequality.

Amongst their conclusions are that PISA scores declined by more in Wales than in most other countries in 2022, with scores declining by about 20 points (equivalent to about 20% of a standard deviation, which is a big decline). This brought scores in Wales to their lowest ever level, significantly below the average across OECD countries and significantly below those seen across the rest of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland also saw declines in PISA scores in 2022, whilst scores were relatively stable in England.

They say that these lower scores cannot be explained by higher levels of poverty. In PISA, disadvantaged children in England score about 30 points higher, on average, than disadvantaged children in Wales. This is a large gap and equivalent to about 30% of a standard deviation. Even more remarkably, the performance of disadvantaged children in England is either above or similar to the average for all children in Wales. These differences extend to GCSE results.

Furthermore, the differences in educational performance between England and Wales are unlikely to be explained by differences in resources and spending. Spending per pupil is similar in the two countries, in terms of current levels, recent cuts and recent trends over time. And there are worse post-16 educational outcomes in Wales, with a higher share of young people not in education, employment or training than in the rest of the UK.

They conclude that the explanation for lower educational performance is much more likely to reflect longstanding differences in policy and approach, such as lower levels of external accountability and less use of data.

This is a highly critical report on two decades of failure in education policy Wales and cannot be easily ignored. THe IFS make some significant recommendations that policymakers and educators in Wales pause, and in some cases rethink, past and ongoing reforms in the following areas:

* The new Curriculum for Wales should place greater emphasis on specific knowledge.

* Reforms to GCSEs should be delayed to give proper time to consider their effects on long-term outcomes, teacher workload and inequalities.

* More data on pupil skill levels and the degree of inequality in attainment are needed and should be published regularly.

* A move towards school report cards, alongside existing school inspections, could be an effective way to provide greater information for parents without a return to league tables.

This report should be at the top of the new First Minister's in-tray. The least we can expect is that he takes the recommendations seriously and implements them.
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