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Editorial - Wales now has a second chance to get things right - and show the English how it's done

Since devolution ten years ago it would be fair to say that the editorial staff at London's Financial Times have not really worried themselves with every last detail of education policy in Wales. When journos huddled together in the newsroom, they rarely found themselves discussing the various attributes of Jane Hutt or, more latterly, Leighton Andrews.

It was therefore surprising on Tuesday morning to flick open that esteemed organ and find right there on page two a genuine exclusive about Welsh schools. "League tables help schools to improve," screamed the slightly less-than-sexy headline. The news piece outlined Bristol University research that blamed the well-documented under-performance of Welsh schools on the absence of league tables since they were abandoned in 2001.

This approach to the story was, of course, the opposite of that taken by the media on this side of the Severn, where the stories were perhaps best summed up by this effort from Wales Online: "Welsh schools 'less effective' since league tables abolished."

So what does this tell us about how we improve the often woeful performance of our schools? This discussion will gain even more urgency with publication of the Pisa international performance tables, an event long-feared among members of the Assembly government. They ain't going to be pretty for the principality.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Bristol's report isn't a bit of Wales bashing by the English. Comments such as these from "Memphistopheles" on a Wales Online chatroom don't add to the debate: "As if an English university knows anything about education in Wales ... don't make me laugh ... we don't need any English uni telling us how to educate our children."

So what should we take from the research, if we approach it in a more mature fashion than Memphistopheles? It is interesting that most of the interest groups accept there has been an accountability gap since league tables were first binned. This near-consensus will not, of course, result in the reinstatement of the hated ranking system (a move that would be more or less impossible politically) but it doesn't mean it is not an opportunity. Would it not be fantastic if Welsh schools, teachers, classroom unions and educationalists were to develop a system that avoided the worst elements of the league table system while still allowing for a public accountability that maintains standards? Perhaps even the English would have a proper look.

However, none of this really matters a jot, in truth, because one fundamental problem must be resolved first. Until Welsh schools are funded on an equal footing with their English counterparts, we can read as many research reports as we want, analyse as many Pisa tables as we like, but it will all be little more than a quixotic fix.

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