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Let's take stock on the future of excellence

In The Learning Country (2001), a series of pointers were provided on the redirection of education in Wales following devolution. Two of these were commitment to international benchmarking and the need to reform 14-19 education and training.

The salience of both of these policy positions was brought into stark relief by the publication last week of the Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa) results. The decision of the Assembly government to participate for the first time in the 2006 Pisa survey began the process. Given that many of the policies that it believes will produce a world-class education system in Wales are yet in their infancy, that was a brave but necessary decision.

The Pisa surveys are based on tests of reading, maths and science taken by a sample of 15 year-olds, with an emphasis on the application in everyday situations. The outcomes for our 15-year-olds in 2006 are now known and they are disappointing for everyone involved. But what they do provide is a baseline.

The 2006 survey results for our 15-year-olds confirm concerns that have become evident over the past five years. Many young people in secondary schools are not making the progress we could reasonably expect of them. To take one indicator, nearly 70 per cent of the cohort of pupils who began their school career in 1995 attained the target level of performance in English (or Welsh), maths and science by the time they were 11 in 2001. But by 2006, when they were 16, only 40 per cent of those pupils were achieving the target level of performance. This indicates that many youngsters are becoming disengaged during secondary education.

We believe that if our pupils are to succeed, they need the learning capacity provided by achievement in the basic skills of literacy and a secondary curriculum that engages and motivates. It would appear that neither of these things is currently fully in place.

We must not be short-termist in our response to this first set of results from Pisa. The Flying Start and the foundation phase policies reflect international evidence on how best to establish in the early years of education the learning capacity and motivation for learning that can last for life. These policies are in their infancy and we will not begin to see their outcomes in what 15-year-olds achieve until about 2020. At the same time, we must accelerate the reforms of 14-19 education and training to ensure that our current generation of students are offered an appropriate curriculum.

What is now required is courage and critical reflection. It is nonsense, as some commentators suggested, to blame the Assembly government's education policies, almost all of which were still at the pilot stage in 2006, for this set of Pisa results.

Politicians need courage to stick with the policies that are already being introduced, particularly those for the early years and for 14-19. If anything, these should be stepped up and accelerated rather than their implementation being slowed. Critical reflection is needed over what additional actions are required. We believe that there is a particular need to look again at our 7-14 curriculum.

We also think that new approaches to improving levels of literacy - particularly targeted at our most disadvantaged pupils and at boys - merit serious consideration. If it is also the case, as the Pisa results suggest, that our highest-achieving students are not performing at the levels of their peers in other countries, then we need to establish why this is and what we must do about it?

Finally, within the developing School Effectiveness Framework for Wales, we believe it is critical that emphasis is placed on quality teachers and teaching, as these are among the strongest characteristics of high-performing countries such as Finland.

Professor David Egan is from the Cardiff School of Education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff. He has co-written this piece with fellow academic Richard Daugherty, Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberystwyth's school of education.

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