10th December 2010 at 00:00
Pisa has judged and Wales has been found wanting. But a rushed response isn't the answer

We are plummeting again. Our schools have slumped, lurched and nose-dived into mediocrity, according to the latest international rankings, or at least the tabloids' version of them. We are officially "now inferior to Estonia". In fact, the UK as a whole has plateaued rather than tanked (pages 8-9). Leaving aside our inflated 2000 results, when we appear to have mailed a lottery scratch card to Pisa rather than schools data, our performance in 2009 across the UK is broadly similar to that in 2006. But while the UK has flatlined, Wales has plunged.

We are a C country with A* pretensions. And average isn't good enough. If we upped our grades and got to hang around with all the cool countries, our economy could be worth trillions more, says the OECD. It is especially galling because over the last decade we have spent billions on education - only seven countries spend more per pupil than the UK. It is true that our schools excel at extra-curricular activities, are remarkably bully-free and boast of boys who are marginally less illiterate than their international peers, but it doesn't quite compensate for the disappointment at being bested once again by Koreans, Finns and Kiwis.

The Westminster government has gallantly blamed the previous lot. Education secretary Michael Gove declared he was "daunted by the scale of the challenge" but confident that his reforms would allow us to keep pace with the best.

In Wales, Leighton Andrews's response has been typically robust. There can be "no alibis and no excuses" for Welsh rankings, he said, which have fallen in all subjects compared with 2006. Worryingly, performance in maths and reading is now significantly below the OECD average.

No doubt, the results will be used by governments on both sides of the border to drive their own agendas for change. But on the Welsh side, will the school effectiveness framework be enough to reverse the decline?

On a positive note, Pisa believes that poverty does not automatically doom pupils to underachievement. If school resources are distributed fairly, education can significantly moderate disadvantage. In the UK, 24 per cent of disadvantaged students excel in school despite their background. In the best-performing countries it is 40 per cent.

Mr Andrews has called for "a new approach to accountability" in the wake of the Pisa results, but he should note that there appears to be no proof that wider availability of school data necessarily improves performance.

Before the rankings were published, the minister said teachers had been given the education reforms they wanted and that Pisa would judge if they were working. If Mr Andrews now assumes greater control over the education system, who will he blame if Wales is found wanting next time round? Live by Pisa, die by Pisa.


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