Last week witnessed the media circus that each year surrounds the publication of the A-level results. There was the usual debate in both Wales and England over whether the exams are easier now. Should we dispense with them and replace them with a baccalaureate system? Is it selective English grammar schools and independents that are fuelling the rise? All this was predictable, rather stale and, frankly, unenlightening. But closer inspection of the figures in Wales, not in generality, provides fascinating insights on the nation's progress.
First, the percentage of A grades in Wales increased by 0.2 per cent but by 1.2 per cent in the UK as a whole. Likewise, the UK pass rate increased by slightly more than in Wales. And the total entry for all awarding bodies decreased in Wales by 1.3 per cent while staying static in the UK as a whole.
What is going on? Is this a consequence of the gradual introduction of the Welsh baccalaureate? Or is the gap in performance that has opened up between England and Wales in the percentage passing five or more GCSEs beginning to show at age 18? Poorer funding levels in Wales and the absence of initiatives to improve teaching skills are possible explanations. And, of course, Wales perhaps happily does not have the exam achievement factories of the English grammar, specialist comprehensive and independent schools.
The pattern of subject results is also interesting for us in Wales. Mathematics entries went up markedly in both Wales and the UK overall. But in Wales, physics and chemistry entries went down slightly by comparison with overall rises for these subjects in the UK.
Our performance in modern foreign languages was also particularly disappointing the percentage gaining an A grade was down in Wales in all three languages, with German down a staggering 10 per cent from 36.4 per cent to 26.2 per cent. The overall pass rate also dropped for German and Spanish. But for the UK as a whole, A grades actually went up in French and Spanish, with only a slight drop in German, and Spanish and German were in the "top 10" most popular subjects.
What is going on? Given that all pupils who sat the A-levels in Wales would by now have had a bilingual experience of learning English and Welsh together that is denied to virtually everyone else in the UK, one would have expected our language performance to be on an improving trajectory.
Is the problem that the rather less than enthusiastic response to Welsh taught as a second language hinders achievement in other languages andor puts pupils off studying them? Have we particular Welsh difficulties in getting good, well-qualified language teachers? We need to know.
Overall, the UK is showing distinct movement towards the study of those subjects that business leaders and governments regard as essential to future economic well-being sciences, maths and modern foreign languages. But in Wales it is difficult to see the same pattern emerging, which reduces our chances of improving gross national product per head.
Certainly, it is true that there are competencies required for wealth production other than the study of those subjects that are used directly in industry and commerce. And there are other attributes of pupils their creativity, their capacity to relate to others and their enterprise, to name but three that are implicated in wealth generation. But, based on figures such as these, we need to start asking what extra we can do to improve the situation in Wales.
David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Plymouth, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, and lives in South Wales