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Growing gap in achievement is a mark of madness

The past few weeks have seen the publication of yet more data that tell us education in Wales has real problems and that these problems are worsening over time.

The past few weeks have seen the publication of yet more data that tell us education in Wales has real problems and that these problems are worsening over time.

The figures started with those on the achievement of pupils on the key stage assessments at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16. These showed that in the years after devolution in 1999-2000, we have slipped further and further behind England in the results for older pupils. In KS3 English, the gap in the percentage of pupils attaining the expected level was two percentage points and is now eight percentage points; in maths, it was three and is now seven percentage points; in science it was one and is now four.

These results are produced by teacher assessment in Wales and by external testing in England, but given that teacher assessment is usually more generous than externally-set assessment, it is unlikely that this explains the differences. In reality, therefore, the gap in skills is likely to be even bigger.

Of course, it is true our performance at KS1 and 2 has remained slightly better than that of England, and has improved overall at a similar rate.

But it is KS4 - GCSEs and vocational qualifications - that provides the real horror story. There is no comparison given with England in this year's data because "the data are no longer comparable" since Wales and England use different points of measurement.

However, this has been the case for some years and it is interesting that over time the gap between the two countries has been increasing in the proportion attaining the "benchmark" five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or the vocational equivalent. In 200405, the gap was 4.6 percentage points - in 200809, it was almost 13. On the "core subject indicator", which is the proportion of pupils who include English and maths passes within these five or more, a gap of 1.9 percentage points has become one of 2.6 in two years.

There is nothing in these figures to suggest anything other than that our Welsh educational problems are intensifying. The clumsy attempt to "massage" the statistics suggest that the Welsh Assembly Government knows this, too.

The second set of data gives us some of the possible explanations for why things may be so grim. They are the annual local authority budgeted or intended expenditure figures for the financial year 201011 for all the 22 Welsh authorities, released a month after the examination figures for obvious reasons.

The delegation rate - the percentage of expenditure that the local authorities hand over to schools - actually fell, from 75.7 per cent to 74.8 per cent. Interestingly, this year averaging up of the figures was done so that the rate appeared to be 75 per cent.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs. Across the entire educational planet, it has been axiomatic for at least a decade that success comes through giving those on the front line more control of their budgets. With this control comes the capacity to allocate money where it is needed. With it comes empowerment, a feeling of being "in control" and optimism. But in Wales, the amount delegated has fallen - yes, fallen - from 81 per cent in 200203 to the present 74.8 per cent.

That Wales may be the only country in the world where this is happening tells us everything we need to know about the explanation for our continued problems. Is the money being held centrally by local authorities to support increased administrative costs? Is it being used to cross- subsidise new areas of local authority concern such as children's services? Is it simply being used to support general local authority budgets?

We don't know. All we do know is that this situation is educational lunacy. The only surprising thing is that the Assembly government has not ramped up its PR machine to argue that this lunacy is in fact another example of our successfully doing things differently in Wales.

These new statistics tell us that all is not well in Wales, as if we needed them to tell us. They increase the pressure on the School Effectiveness Framework (SEF) to rectify this situation, but it is unclear what kind of programme this is. There was a chance when the SEF was designed three years ago for it to be world leading in its use of the new brain science, in its systematic attempt to help every school learn from its own best professionals and practice, and in its commitment to bring to Welsh professionals the best practice in teaching from around the world. Now, the content appears to be out of date.

Just what do we need to do to stop our slide? At least we have some time now on the beaches to work out what to do.

David Reynolds

Professor of education at the University of Plymouth and emeritus professor of education at the University of Exeter. He lives in South Wales.

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