No comeback until our corner stops hitting us

4th March 2011 at 00:00

The teaching profession in Wales has grown used to being vilified. We are like a punch-drunk boxer, reeling from one blow after another. First there were the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, which suggested Wales had fallen further down the league table of nations, particularly in literacy and numeracy. Then came key stage 4 results that appeared to show an ever-widening gap between the achievements of pupils in England and Wales.

Finally, HM chief inspector Ann Keane's report on the progress of education over the last six years told us that standards were not high enough in almost one-third of Welsh schools. The report was widely interpreted in the media (including The TES) as a damning indictment of the Welsh education system.

Apparently education minister Leighton Andrews is incandescent with rage at the slow progress being made by schools and has produced his 20-point response. This is ironic when schools in Wales are following the policies put in place by the Assembly government and have to live within its funding limitations. If blame is to be allotted, surely first and foremost it should be laid at the feet of the politicians. If they truly believe in the path that education has taken here over the last 10 years, they should be coming out fighting, describing the benefits of the Welsh model. Instead they seem to have meekly accepted that we are down and virtually counted out. I, for one, don't accept that analysis.

For a start, I believe Pisa is a red herring. Quite how it is deemed possible for a test to compare accurately the achievements of young people across so many very different countries I have no idea. My school has been part of the Pisa programme on both occasions that Welsh schools have been involved. Why? Purely for the trifling amount of money (#163;1,500) that it brings with it (that's how desperate we are for funds). My pupils were not prepared in any extra way for these tests. It would surprise me if some other countries did not coach their young people specially.

In any case, it seems odd that our government - which apparently believes strongly that league tables are not beneficial to improving performance - should pay so much heed to an international league table.

Potentially trickier to dispute is the apparent widening gap in the achievements of young people in Wales and England at KS4. On the common headline performance indicator of the level 2 threshold, this gap has grown from virtually nothing in 2000 to some 9 per cent in 2010. But I believe that what this really demonstrates is that Welsh schools, on average, offer a far more traditional curriculum than English ones. Many English schools have used every trick in the book to enhance their level 2 threshold percentages, including providing far more qualifications of the sort that give young people the equivalent of two or four GCSEs in a single option line.

It would be interesting to see what percentage of young people in Wales achieved Michael Gove's latest piece of nonsense, the "English Baccalaureate", last year. Might it even be that more Welsh than English pupils achieved it?

Of course, the obvious factor in the apparent success of English schools over Welsh ones is the staggering funding gap, which is growing wider every year. Even in my average-sized 11-16 comprehensive school, the current figure would create an amount in excess of #163;500,000 a year.

While schools in England are set to enjoy further (moderate) increases during this period of austerity, in Swansea we have been told to plan for a budget standstill for 201112. The pay freeze for staff does not apply to incremental rises in salary. Consequently my school's wage bill will be about #163;20,000 more next year - so "standstill" actually means "cut".

Meanwhile, the chief inspector's appraisal is that 30 per cent of schools are not reaching the required standards. That's clearly unacceptable - but I would be intrigued to know to what extent the report was influenced by the very results mentioned above.

I don't actually believe that there is a huge amount wrong with our education system. You may argue that of course I would say that, as I have a vested interest as a headteacher. However, I am always looking to improve. Whatever our results, even if they put us at the top of Pisa and rocketed us ahead of England, there will always be teachers and heads who need to improve, pupils who could be doing better, schools that are coasting or underachieving. But in my dealings with many colleagues in Wales I see a restless pursuit of excellence. We are on the right path and it doesn't help our cause when we are attacked by our own side. Fortunately, the colleagues I work with will beat the count, get up off the canvas and start fighting back.

Alan Tootill is headteacher of Penyrheol Comprehensive in Swansea.

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