We neglect the clever at our peril

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Wales should follow the example of successful countries which put the most able - and the sciences - first

For those who work in education and those who started school again this week, it must be as hard as ever to make sense of what the annual shenanigans in August actually mean.

There are the statistics, the rows, the claims and counter-claims about standards, and the over-generalisations about what it all adds up to. We shouldn't repeat that here, but what are the main trends in Wales in terms of achievement?

First, there are hints again that our system is not delivering for the most able students. Those dreadful Pisa results, published in 2007, which showed us trailing behind the other home nations, were largely accounted for by our poor performance at the top of the achievement range, rather than the bottom, which has historically been regarded as our great failing.

At A-level, the proportion of A grades in Wales is 24.1 per cent, compared with 25.9 per cent for the UK as a whole. At GCSE, A*s dropped slightly to 6.1 per cent, whereas in the UK overall it rose to 6.8 per cent.

What is going on? Perhaps schools in Wales have responded to the age-old criticism of failure at the bottom end of the ability range by focusing their efforts there. Perhaps our basic skills agenda costs us by comparison with those parts of Britain with an emphasis on the gifted and talented. Perhaps other parts of Britain have those "super schools" and "pushy parents". But put A-level, GCSE and Pisa together and there is clearly something going.

Then we come to individual subjects. Maths A-level entries went up in both the UK and Wales to a similar, substantial degree. But the three sciences again showed up poorly for the second year in a row - the entries in physics, chemistry and biology all went up in the UK as a whole, but in Wales biology and physics A-level entries went down. Again, when we diverge so markedly from England for the second year in succession, something is happening that is worthy of our attention.

Modern foreign languages also showed up poorly at A-level in Wales - entries were down in French, German and Spanish, from already low levels.

At GCSE, the picture is similar. UK-wide there were sharp rises in entries for the three sciences: chemistry up 29.4 per cent, biology up 35.3 per cent, and physics up 29.1 per cent. In Wales, we flatlined on all three.

But there are some positives. The Welsh baccalaureate does appear to be settling into a "made in Wales" product offering effective outcomes at minimal cost. The numbers entered were up substantially - and the proportion completing it was up, too - a great achievement as the bac moves out of the somewhat rarefied circle of schools and colleges that began offering it.

Interestingly, England's Department for Children, Schools and Families has reneged on Tony Blair's pledge that each one of its 150 local authorities would have at least one school offering the international baccalaureate, presumably because it views its diplomas as its own educational future. Besides, such is the antagonism between English and Welsh policymakers that England would not want to follow a Welsh route if it could avoid it.

But the Welsh bac added "core" is only perhaps three or four hours of extra study a week, which may add greatly to young people's development and growth across their whole sixth-form years. It may be like the added ingredient that makes cement cease to be a watery mess and become a strong, solid substance. England may come to regret that it did not follow a bac route.

So, what are we to make of it all? Forget the headlines about "standards" - they are simply political posturing, an opportunity for rent-a-quote politicians or media commentators to peddle their various prejudices. The things that should really worry us in Wales are in the detail - the multiple hints now that things are not right for the able child in Welsh schools, and, even more importantly, the awful performance in sciences.

Every country that has developed or is developing into a modern industrial society - from Taiwan to China, to the Eastern European "Tigers" - has done two things: maximised the talents of its able pupils first, and, second, ensured that science and technology are the lifeblood of its schools since these subjects are directly involved in the wealth creation necessary for building a nation.

Judging by these figures, we in Wales are going in precisely the opposite direction. In any society that has aspirations for itself, a performance such as ours in science would generate attention, and action. I predict that we will do nothing.

David Reynolds, Professor of education at the University of Plymouth and emeritus professor of education at the University of Exeter. He lives in south Wales.

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