The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the findings of the chief inspector's annual report have come as a double whammy for Wales's already beleaguered education system.
Within two months, Pisa revealed that Welsh 15-year-olds are performing significantly worse in reading, maths and science than those in the rest of the UK, and Estyn reported that one in three of our schools is underperforming.
In a landmark speech earlier this month, education minister Leighton Andrews called these two events a "wake-up call to a complacent system" and said classrooms are simply not delivering for pupils.
He said there could be no "alibis or excuses" for poor performance and that the teaching profession needs to recognise the sheer scale of the challenge. "Ours is not a good system aiming to become great. Ours is a fair system aiming to become good," he added.
In what has been described by some as one of the most important political statements since devolution, Mr Andrews summed up the failings of the education system - including those in his own department - and announced an ambitious and prescriptive 20-point action plan to tackle underperformance (see box, opposite).
His goal is for Wales to reach Pisa's top 20 by 2015, which will require all students to improve by about two terms' worth of work. Performance will drive the programme, with a core focus on improving literacy and numeracy.
But although the action plan has been welcomed by most educationalists, serious concerns are now starting to emerge. Some teaching unions have been critical: NASUWT called the action plan "draconian" and said it will "punish teachers", while NUT Cymru said it was full of "vague notions and ideas".
Most controversial was the announcement of a new national system for grading schools. All schools will be graded annually and expected to reach certain floor targets - an absolute standard below which none will be allowed to fall - and to set progress targets so all pupils make one year of educational progress each calendar year.
Some fear this means a return to league tables, scrapped in 2001. However, Mr Andrews insists this is not the case, telling teachers at a conference last week that although it is still possible to construct league tables using the vast amount of school performance data available, the government will not publish the data in that format.
But he warned: "The demand for transparency from parents is not going to go away."
There is also concern over the minister's announcement that he will close failing schools that he considers "irredeemable". Welsh teaching union UCAC said it was difficult to imagine a situation where a failing school could not be turned around, adding that such drastic action would be costly and complicated.
Above all, the profession is concerned that the process will be centrally driven and that reform will be imposed and prescribed in a way not seen in Wales since devolution.
Last week Chris Tweedale, director of the Assembly's school effectiveness group, sought to calm those fears by telling heads and teachers they would have a crucial part to play. "We need to be doing this jointly with you," he said, "to engage with you as leaders of the education system, and we have to listen and learn from what you have to say."
ATL Cymru director Dr Philip Dixon said teachers would be reassured by the announcement and would be willing to work with the government. "There's a profound challenge to the education system in Wales; it's not delivering for young people," he said. "The minister's analysis is spot on and I agree with a lot of the proposed solutions, although our members will have some concerns.
"But I think teachers are up to the challenge and always have been. They are working hard but the system itself is not focused and their efforts are dissipated."
NASUWT Wales organiser Rex Phillips said teachers must be involved all the way through the reform process. "We are willing to work with the minister, but we are not prepared to accept changes without proper consultation," he said. "He can't impose different working practices on teachers by diktat. It has to be done in a supportive, co-operative manner."
Children's commissioner for Wales Keith Towler told TES Cymru that the minister's comments had left some teachers feeling "deflated". "There's a responsibility on the government to get these messages across but I think the tone needs a bit of work," he said. "From my own observations I can see teachers across Wales are doing a remarkable job.
"We need to keep teachers motivated and a bit of recognition about the good work they are doing wouldn't go amiss."
But David Reynolds, professor of educational effectiveness at Southampton University, warned that the "window of opportunity" for reform won't be open for long. "The education system was shamed and wounded by Pisa," he said. "As a result people have accepted most of the minister's 20 points without too much fuss ... But they must have further detail and clarity within the next few months or we will see disinformation, mistrust and fear starting to emerge."
For his part, Mr Andrews is determined that his "formidable agenda" will succeed and has warned there will be "no hiding place for poor performance" in future. Although he is yet to set out the detail of his plans, he is clear about what must be done. "Much of what we need to do will take time and it will be hard," he said. "It will require honesty, leadership and a new approach to accountability. Our young people deserve better."
ANDREWS TAKES CHARGE
LEARNING COUNTRY IS LEFT IN LIMBO
The action plan devised by Leighton Andrews (pictured) has led to questions about where this leaves the Assembly government's original blueprint for education, the groundbreaking 2001 document The Learning Country.
Its "cradle to grave" policies aimed to set the educational agenda for the next decade. Some were an undoubted success, notably the Flying Start initiative, the foundation phase and the Welsh Baccalaureate.
But last month's annual report from Estyn chief inspector Ann Keane confirmed what TES Cymru first reported last summer - that the government failed to achieve many of its ambitious targets set out in the follow-up 2006 document The Learning Country: Vision into Action.
Of the 13 targets relating specifically to schools, two were abandoned (on young people not in employment, education or training and on school buildings) and six others were missed, including class sizes, attendance and classroom assessment.
Some experts have suggested that Mr Andrews' is seeking to distance himself from the approaches of his predecessors Jane Hutt and Jane Davidson, and that his action plan is effectively a tacit acknowledgement that the Learning Country programme was a failure. They take Mr Andrews' comments about hoping to leave office "without having published an education strategy" as evidence of his views.
One analyst told TES Cymru: "He is not far away from having done a complete hatchet job on the Learning Country. He has basically said, 'Look where our previous strategy got us; we failed. Now I'm doing it my way'."
THE 20-POINT PLAN
- A national reading test to ensure fewer pupils fall behind their reading age.
- Robust and consistent KS2 teacher assessments.
- National school grading system with floor targets.
- Closure of failing schools judged "irredeemable" by minister.
- No school will pass inspection unless it proves governors have discussed key performance data.
Enhancing professional practice
- All heads and teachers to have appropriate literacy and numeracy levels as part of their professional accreditation.
- Possibility of revising ITT to a two-year masters course.
- Reformed performance management for heads and teachers.
- Review of teacher induction.
- CPD focused on system-wide needs including literacy and numeracy.
Leadership and implementation
- New standards unit.
- No new initiatives approved unless they help drive performance improvement.
- More federations of schools under a single head.
- Statutory training for governors.
- Statutory guidance for school improvement.
- Local authorities expected to work in consortia or face financial penalties.
Learning, teaching and curriculum
- Foundation phase will not be allowed to lead to a reduction in literacy.
- National numeracy plan by 201213 academic year.
- Pisa assessments integrated into school assessment at age 15.
- Refocus activity on tackling truancy and poor behaviour.