Why Wales' troubles might not be over yet

31st August 2012 at 01:00
Pisa hopes begin to fade after fall in number of top grades

A mixed set of A-level and GCSE results over the past two weeks has prompted a renewed bout of soul-searching in Wales. In a country still reeling from a "disastrous" set of international test results two years ago, a drop in the number of top grades has raised more questions about the state of its education system.

At A level, the percentage of students gaining A* and A grades fell for the third year in a row, from 23.9 per cent last year to 23.6 per cent, the lowest since 2006. At GCSE, the percentage of A* and A grades fell from 19.5 per cent to 19.2 per cent.

Although the overall A-level pass rate was slightly up on last year, the GCSE pass rate was static. Most worryingly, the percentage of pupils gaining A*-C grades at GCSE fell for the first time in more than a decade.

Many educationalists are already asking serious questions about what the results mean, both in terms of what has caused them and whether the reforms currently being pushed through will deliver the required improvements.

David Reynolds, a senior adviser to the Welsh government, suggested that Wales was "reaping the results" of policy decisions made in the early 2000s, including the decision - largely welcomed by teachers - to scrap Sats in favour of teacher-led assessment. This year's GCSE cohort is the first to have never taken a formal Sat test.

"I can't prove it, but my gut feeling is that these pupils have not had enough opportunities to sit formal exams and they therefore haven't got the repertoire of skills needed," said Professor Reynolds. "That doesn't bode well for Pisa."

He also suggested that Wales' failure to develop and build capacity in its teaching workforce in the early 2000s, in the same way as the rest of the UK, may be a factor.

Wales' 15-year-olds are due to sit another round of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests this November, and the Welsh government is hoping for better results than 2009, when Wales performed worse than the other UK nations in every measure - and worse than in 2006.

Philip Dixon, director of teaching union ATL Cymru, said the results did not bode well. "What's happened with GCSEs may be an indication of what could happen with Pisa," he said. "If you have a cohort that's falling behind, it doesn't fill me with confidence that we will improve this time around."

After the last set of results, education minister Leighton Andrews launched a series of wide-ranging reforms to improve what he called a "complacent system", with the ultimate aim of Wales becoming a top 20 country in the 2015 Pisa tests.

Two of his top priorities were improving literacy and numeracy, a message that has been drummed into heads and teachers since. Dr Dixon said it was "puzzling" that this had not shown up in the results despite a "relentless focus". But he urged the Welsh government to stick to its plans and not to change direction.

The Conservative opposition, however, has not been so kind. Shadow education minister Angela Burns said that Mr Andrews must "pull his finger out and tackle the persistent underperformance in key skills in the Welsh education system".

Others have urged caution. Gareth Jones, secretary of heads' union ASCL Cymru, said the results were "confused" and that people should not "rush to make judgements based on one set of results". But he also highlighted the issue of CD borderline pupils in English GCSEs, which have generated criticism in England as well as Wales.

"What has happened this year is not that the exams or standards have been made more rigorous in a way that young people and teachers can prepare for, but that, halfway through the year, it was decided that too many students were going to get a C grade in English and the grade boundaries of the exam were pushed up very substantially," Mr Jones said.

A spokesman for the Welsh government said it was pleased with the results and that it was too soon to expect significant improvements. "We have always been clear that it is in the 2015 Pisa tests that we expect to see improvements and that it would be ambitious to expect large changes by 2012.

"The minister is putting in place the measures to raise standards and performance in Wales, but it is still early days."

Paper problem

Wales' education minister, Leighton Andrews, has raised concerns with England's exams regulator Ofqual about the methodology used in the English language GCSE.

Wales has not approved the new combined English GCSE now taken in many schools in England, but had to agree a compromise with Ofqual in relation to exam board WJEC's English language paper, which is sat on both sides of the border.

Mr Andrews said this meant the results of England and Wales could no longer be compared. Further meetings with Ofqual are planned for the autumn.

Last month, Mr Andrews and his Northern Ireland counterpart John O'Dowd sent a joint letter to education secretary Michael Gove, complaining of a lack of consultation over GCSE and A-level reforms.

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