Is Welsh grass greener?
Should England follow suit?
Wales wants to be known as a "learning country". Behind this slightly earnestly phrased desire lies a very distinct view of the nature of education, a view reflected in the recent announcement made by Jane Davidson, the minister for education in the Welsh Assembly.
Outlining the radical changes to be made to the way children are to be assessed in Wales, she said she wanted to "move away, during the next four years, from the current testing regime to a system which is more geared to the pupil". And it is this aim that makes the Welsh system better than the English one. For Westminster puts a particular version of public accountability before everything else.
Jane Davidson's plans are based on the recommendations of the assessment review group, headed by Professor Richard Daugherty. This group was commissioned by the Welsh Assembly to look at the effects of current assessment at key stages 2 and 3, Wales already having abandoned testing for seven-year-olds. It found that the present system put teachers under pressure to teach to the test, was not helpful to transfer, narrowed the scope of the curriculum and adversely affected teaching and learning.
These findings will come as no surprise to anyone working in English schools, schools which have the additional burden of league tables, another accountability measure jettisoned by the Welsh. But it is the Daugherty group's solution to the problem, and Davidson's acceptance of its ideas, that is perhaps even more telling about the differences between England and Wales.
Daugherty recommended that 11 and 14-year-olds should be assessed through teacher assessment, while those in Year 5 should take a diagnostic skills test to help them prepare for transfer. From next year the KS2 tests will become non-statutory and will run alongside the new system of teacher assessment, which will come into force in 2007, so that everyone will have time to adjust. KS3 tests will become optional a year later and teacher assessment will be phased in in a similar manner. The tests in Year 5 will be introduced in 20078 giving three years for extensive trialling, and all teachers are to be given additional inset days to enable them to learn how to moderate and standardise pupils' work reliably.
Such an educationally driven timetable contrasts dramatically with the Department for Education and Skills' scheduling. Last year secondary English teachers had to prepare pupils for a new test that was still being trialled well into the year it was due to be taken. So poor was the exam that it was immediately scrapped, but this year's cohort still had to sit the same test before something new, again as yet unseen, can be devised for next year.
But this is not the only difference. The Welsh system relies on the honest desire of the teachers to do well by their pupils. Jane Davidson holds those in education to account by trusting them to exercise their professionalism and this allows her to support a system which prioritises learning. Those in Westminster sacrifice the needs of pupils to political expediency because they don't trust teachers.
That is why Conor Ryan (see right) cannot conceptualise a way of holding teachers to account that does not involve rigid, constraining timed tests and league tables. All accountability measures have to be externally imposed. Any talk about the possibility of innovation created by education action zones, specialist schools, Excellence in Cities and so on has to be set alongside the fact that all schools are judged by the same restrictive score sheet of national curriculum tests. What hope is there for real autonomy, and learning for its own sake, in such a system?
Freed from the shackles of a high-stakes test every few years, Welsh teachers can be innovative in the interests of their pupils. They will be able to assess what the children can actually achieve rather than what they happen to do one Wednesday afternoon in May. And if I were a parent in Wales, far from worrying that teachers were about to retreat into some cosy, complacent, private world, I would be pleased my child was not being examined to destruction. Cymru am byth.
Bethan Marshall is an English education lecturer at King's college, London