Is Welsh grass greener?

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Wales is turning its back on league tables and the assessment regime.

Should England follow suit?

There is something strange about a self-styled "learning country" that is afraid of new ideas. And the notion of an Assembly that declares itself for maximum openness, but wants to make it tougher for people to learn how schools perform, is positively Orwellian.

Yet these are the paradoxes of Welsh education today. Teaching unions cheer as performance tables and national tests are scrapped. But many headteachers privately despair that their money is top-sliced at county hall before it reaches them, and that they lack the opportunities for diversity and innovation that their English counterparts enjoy.

Even Welsh claims to be developing a ground-breaking baccalaureate disintegrate on close inspection. The dream of a Welsh bac has mutated into a rather less inspiring "overarching certificate for qualifications gained post-16".

Far from offering a trailblazing example, Welsh educational policy is characterised by a regressive reversal driven by those producer interests who prevented reform in both nations for generations.

Ironically, Wales has also made it harder to develop a progressive approach. The absence of national testing at seven since 2001 makes it difficult to develop value-added measures in primary schools or to assess the progress of individual pupils on the same basis.

There will be new tests at 10, following the Daugherty review. But the loss of tests at 11 means secondary schools will be less able to gauge how well pupils are performing when they transfer. Scrapping tests at 14 will scupper any serious 14-19 agenda, since GCSEs will then retain their predominance. Mike Tomlinson's plans, assuming they are more radical than the Welsh bac, would be far more difficult to implement in such circumstances.

Of course, the tests in England could be improved, but keeping tests at seven, 11 and 14 is as crucial to pupil progress as it is to school accountability.

And the publication of their results shouldn't just be a matter for schools. No country can be committed to freedom of information and hide schools' exam data. Through the internet, that information should be easily accessible to every parent, newspaper, researcher and taxpayer. Just because newspapers create league tables is no reason to suppress the facts.

If the problem is lack of context, then publish more information, not less.

English tables now highlight improved schools, point scores and value added. More importantly, this data, combined with new technologies, makes the idea of a genuinely personalised education for every child a realistic goal. It is also what has helped to identify and turn around more than 800 failing schools.

But Wales never bought into many other English reforms. The country remains in a time warp. There are no specialist schools, Excellence in Cities or city academies, leaving parents in cities such as Cardiff and Swansea without the diversity or challenge that is increasingly successful in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The result is that English comprehensives are improving faster and have fewer pupils leaving with no GCSE passes.

The absence of diversity - combined with far less money for capital projects - is reducing Welsh heads' ability to modernise. And since Welsh education authorities still hold on to a fifth of schools' money, heads look enviously at their English counterparts, where large comprehensives decide how to spend around pound;300,000 more each year. No wonder there have been calls for an independent funding commission.

These are the fruits of devolution. Welsh policymakers are certainly free to prefer producer-led education, and to turn their backs on the 21st century's expectations of public services. That is their right. Indeed, I would have no problem with the Welsh Assembly being forced to take even more responsibility for its educational destiny and funding.

But let's not pretend that this is other than a deeply conservative agenda, and one which will make it far harder in the long run for every Welsh pupil to reach his or her potential. English education ministers should steer clear of the Principality's siren voices.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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