Another rankings flop may be on the cards for 2012
Wales's "disastrous" performance in the 2009 international Pisa tests was described by education minister Leighton Andrews as a "wake-up call" to a "complacent" education system.
But despite a raft of reforms, leading academics and government advisers have warned that results from the next set of tests are in danger of being even worse.
With the next Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests only 13 months away, a major conference was held in mid-Wales yesterday to discuss what Welsh schools can do to improve.
Speaking to TES before addressing the conference, Professor David Hopkins, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh Government, said more focus was needed on curriculum and teaching strategies. "I worry about the rate of progress and the commitment; there needs to be a degree of urgency about this," he said.
Professor David Reynolds, a fellow policy adviser, said he was also concerned. "At the moment I don't think the system understands enough about the sea change of the Pisa tests and I don't think it has adjusted enough for us to do well next November," he said.
Arranged by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the three-yearly Pisa assessments test 15-year-olds on their reading, science and maths skills.
The 2009 results, which were announced last December, revealed that Wales had performed worse than before, and ranked behind the other UK nations on each measure.
It prompted the education minister to launch a 20-point action plan to improve standards, including instigating a school standards unit, a national reading test, and a school banding system.
Mr Andrews also announced that Pisa assessments would be integrated into school assessment at 15, and that all schools would be asked to work on skills with their Year 8 and 9 pupils, who will face the next round of tests. Wales must aim to be a top 20 Pisa country by the time of the 2015 tests, he said.
The emphasis placed on Pisa has intensified on both sides of the border in recent years. England's education secretary, Michael Gove, has repeatedly cited Pisa results as a reason for his own wide-ranging reforms, and has described the man who oversees the tests, Andreas Schleicher, as the most important man in English education.
But some think the importance of Pisa has been over-emphasised. Rex Phillips, Wales organiser of the NASUWT, has accused educationalists of being "preoccupied" with Pisa, and said it would be a "phenomenal error of judgment" to reorganise the education system around the test.
Professor Hopkins said that was an "old-fashioned, parochial view" not shared by the majority, and said educationalists in Wales should actually be taking Pisa more seriously.
Chris Llewelyn, director of education for the Welsh Local Government Association, which organised the conference, said local government recognises the value of Pisa and the importance of a shared approach.
"If Pisa is going to become a feature of the Welsh education landscape, it's appropriate for everyone involved to know how it works and to be as prepared as possible," he said.
"I think it's in everybody's interests to accept the conclusions that have been derived from the tests and focus on improvement in future."
Yesterday Professor Reynolds urged heads to familiarise their pupils with the test and start developing a skills-based curriculum to support it. He said pupils here are not used to the multiple choice format and the often elaborate questions that the test contains.
"The overlap between our own curriculum and what Pisa is measuring is not perfect," he said. "Our emphasis is on knowledge while Pisa's is on skills. We should be encouraging schools to see that Pisa and a skills-based curriculum is the future and they should be changing more rapidly than they have been."
But despite the fears and cynicism over the use of Pisa as a catalyst for reforms, Professor Reynolds is confident that schools and teachers will support the changes.
"They will get on board because, frankly, they will have to", he said. "We simply can't afford another bad performance."
PISA 2009 RESULTS
Mean scores for reading
Scotland - 500
Northern Ireland - 499
England - 495
OECD average - 493
Wales - 476
Mean scores for mathematics
Scotland - 499
Northern Ireland - 492
England - 493
OECD average - 496
Wales - 472
Mean scores for science
Scotland - 514
Northern Ireland - 511
England - 515
OECD average - 501
Wales - 496