The Welsh are nudging ahead of the English, without a maze of tests and tables. Wendy Berliner reports
t was a telling moment. Gareth Matthewson, this year's president of the National Association of Head Teachers and a Welshman, had just implied that the English could learn something from the Welsh about education, and particularly testing, when schools minister Stephen Twigg looked heavenward.
Mr Twigg's body language at the association's annual conference could not have been clearer; this was a refrain that he must have heard again and again. It is not hard to imagine the irritation ministers must feel over the apparent ability of the Welsh to do as well or better than the English without the same rigid panoply of targets, tests and league tables which is seen as essential to success in England.
It must be particularly galling because, as recently as five years ago, Welsh children were lagging behind English children on almost all testing and examination indicators. In the 1980s and 1990s, they were being "schooled for failure", to use a phrase coined by The TES.
Perhaps even at the NAHT conference in York, Stephen Twigg knew that, before the month was out, the first major chink in the testing edifice constructed by London-based ministers sceptical of trusting teachers would be visible.
While teachers in England are getting used to the thought of less state control of testing and targets, the Welsh are sitting pretty in a system that abandoned key stage 1 tests 18 months ago, never had primary school league tables, has ditched secondary school ones, never introduced the literacy and numeracy strategy and already allows teachers to come up with their own targets.
And despite the concerns of many that it could all go horribly wrong, including liberal educationists who feel that the testing system we now have is inimical to learning, Welsh children taught by teachers without the lash to their backs have gone the right way up the greasy pole of success.
Instead of being belted into national literacy and numeracy systems, teachers have picked and mixed from the best practice across the border.
This has been supplemented by schemes put together by local education authority advisers who know the schools well and, crucially, these schemes have then been adapted to individual schools.
Last year, 79 per cent of Welsh children achieved at least level 4 in English at age 11 compared with a provisional figure of 75 per cent of children in English schools. In maths and science, the same percentage reached the expected level for their age group in both countries, 73 per cent and 86 per cent respectively.
And that Welsh success is also being produced in a country that has higher levels of social deprivation than England but spends, pro rata, a similar amount of money on education. In theory, results in Wales should be worse.
Professor David Reynolds, a professor of education at Exeter University who lives in Wales and whose children are being educated in Welsh-medium schools, says: "The Welsh system is more effective than the English system because it adds more value. Something very interesting is going on here."
But what? What has this small nation of three million people got that its large neighbour lacks? The answer appears to be multi-faceted and rooted in politics, national attitudes and perhaps geography.
Certainly, Welsh politicians have made a better fist of persuading the teaching profession in Wales that it is trusted. It is hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about the hard-working education minister for Wales, Jane Davidson, a 46-year-old former teacher from England with three teenage children, who is just starting her second term in the job. And it is not that she is soft on targets. "We are not going to compromise on achievement," she says. "We do believe you should have proper assessment and data but the test (for seven-year-olds) was just a snapshot."
Chris Howard, head of Lewis school, a boys' secondary in Pengam, says: "The Government here does trust teachers more. They let us get on with it. We do argue with them constantly about funding and the detail of policies but, essentially, we are pulling in the same direction. We have a strong all-round commitment to comprehensive education and inclusion."
That commitment springs from the largely homogenous nature of schools in Wales. Alastair Campbell's reference to "bog standard" comprehensives would have meant little in Wales where children, by and large, go to their local comprehensive. Hardly any schools in Wales opted to go grant maintained, compared with thousands in England. There are no specialist schools and few children go to fee-paying schools, so a wide range of parents are committed to the system.
These differences may explain why Wales does not have the long tail of schools with very poor results which dogs England.
That is not to say that Wales is steaming ahead on all fronts. A comparison of Welsh and English results over the past six years just published by the Statistical Directorate of the Welsh Assembly shows that while performance between the two countries has been broadly similar at KS1, by key stage 3 Wales is lagging behind in English and maths despite outperforming all English regions in English at key stage 2 and matching maths performance.
GCSE performance has been broadly similar for the same period but has fallen slightly behind England since secondary league tables were abolished in 2001.
But these results are being produced from a more socially deprived country without extra money to compensate, and from a lower historical base.
Professor Reynolds cites the "connectedness" of Wales as a possible reason.
Good practice travels fast in a small country and there is a greater sense of community.
Jane Davidson feels that the size of the country is part of the mix that is helping her deliver results. There are fewer than 200 secondary schools and she has already visited half of them, plus 600 primary schools. She says:
"I can listen to things on the ground and respond to issues."
One of those issues will be a groundswell of opinion from teachers asking her to scrap the KS2 and 3 tests. "We are going to review those," she says.
She is already introducing a new foundation stage to education, which will mean that children will have a play-based curriculum until the age of seven, and planning changes to the 14-19 system which will include the introduction of a Welsh baccalaureate combining academic and vocational qualifications.
The Welsh system is diverging fast from the English route and the early signs are that it is improving faster. Perhaps Stephen Twigg should not have been looking heavenward at York - perhaps westward would have been a better direction.
Leader, 22, Letters, 25