Tough lesson for 'The Learning Country'

7th January 2011 at 00:00

Only a few months ago, Carwyn Jones took to the world stage in his concluding address of the triumphant Ryder Cup to market Wales globally. He spoke with concise eloquence: "We in Wales see ourselves as an old country, a historic country, a cultural country, but we are also an ambitious country, a country that is open for business, a go-ahead country, a can-do country and now a Ryder Cup country."

The First Minister, rightly flushed with Wales's biggest international success, summed up brilliantly the challenge that faces our emerging nation at the crossroads of globalisation. Can we remain true to ourselves as we go forward as a new nation into increasingly competitive world markets?

Regrettably, the Pisa survey of 2009, comparing 15-year-olds from 65 countries, presents international evidence that will haunt the First Minister and his coalition Government. The results reveal that our educational vision since 1999 has been in the main backward-looking, negative and derelict of its duty to the poor and the vulnerable. The Pisa stats are inarguable and the trends are depressing. Our global Pisa position has deteriorated badly overall, with maths taking a real tumble. We not only remain bottom of the UK league, but we are doing even worse than in 2006. Are we really surprised? The 2010 summer assessments had already confirmed that at 14, 16 and 18-years-old, our students are losing ground compared with the rest of the UK. We in Wales are in trouble.

In answer to Mr Jones, far from being go-ahead, Pisa shows we are going backwards in comparison with the UK, Europe and the world in the three key areas of literacy, numeracy and science; our national reputation is not can-do but rather "we don't do that in Wales". For 10 years we have prided ourselves on getting rid of Sats, league tables, prescription charges and almost any other vaguely English-sounding practice (in the name of 'distinctiveness'). It's not for nothing that we are now mocked by the other UK nations as "the land of the free".

Good curriculum innovations such as the Foundation Phase and the Welsh Bac have been undermined by systemic failure, as now made refreshingly clear by the minister. The devolution vision of "The Learning Country" is shot to pieces as a strategy for improving our schools. Pisa's unpalatable truth is that we in Wales are living in "The Slow Learning Country". Leighton Andrews has thrown down the gauntlet for "honesty, leadership and a new approach to accountability". A rapid re-evaluation of the present vision and strategy should be first on his to-do list. I hope Mr Jones can find the courage to include in such a stocktake the sacred cow of the bilingualism-at-all-costs policy.

It's astonishing apathy that no rigorous review of "The Learning Country" has been undertaken so far in Wales. We have failed miserably on secondary national indicators for pupil learning, as Pisa now lays bare. Those unacceptable sequential outcomes for our 15-year-olds raise serious questions about the reliability of our key stage 1 and 2 teacher assessments. Our revenue resources for schools are a matter of national disgrace for a UK nation and our school building stock is tragically unreconstructed."The Learning Country" is a failure because it had too many innovations and initiatives; it failed to set priorities and so its implementation planning became unwieldy and lacked crucial details of spend and deadline. Sadly, 14-19 reform is a terrible example of such dither and slippage. After 12 years of review, debate, consultation and options, the arguments have still not been settled with many local authorities, schools and their governors. Moreover, "The Learning Country" totally misunderstood the real challenge of inclusion in Wales, which is to raise the expectations of all pupils and remove the main school-based barriers to the success of the most disadvantaged.

Special educational needs and disability are but small parts across this wide spectrum. The main policy focus should be on average and lower-ability pupils. I have no doubt that the traditional school structures I have seen in far too many Welsh schools are getting the same bad results as ever in core subjects for these 25 per cent of our learners, and that goes a long way towards explaining our national results. We are 20 years behind in inclusion and combating social disadvantage.

It's not just that Wales is slow and soft and that we are losing ground and position. What I really find alarming and embarrassing is that in "The Learning Country" we set ourselves up to fail by pitching absurd expectations.

After the Pisa reality check, Mr Andrews may be on the right track if he can persuade the First Minister to give him support to instill a brutally honest mindset in policy-making and delivery monitoring when dealing with local authorities and unions. Change has got to come from the top if Wales is to prosper.

Terry Mackie is an education consultant and a former head of school improvement for Newport City Council.

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