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Welsh tables inspire optimism

There may be four countries in the United Kingdom, but as far as education is concerned there are invariably only three: Northern Ireland, Scotland and that unnatural amalgam that must vex the ghost of Owen Glendower - England and Wales. As we reported last week, however, the Government does seem to realise that Wales is a separate country where things are done differently.

This week's publication of the performance tables for Welsh schools and colleges is a tangible reminder of that fact. The Welsh insist on publishing their results when they are good and ready, rather than to coincide with the English data, which emerged three weeks ago. The Welsh tables also include slightly different information, and refer to a qualification that few teachers east of Offa's Dyke have heard of - the Certificate of Education, which helps to motivate low-attaining pupils.

But it is the improvement in GCSE scores that makes interesting reading this year. Wales has a longstanding reputation for investing more importance in schooling than England does. It is the historical home of adult education, and in the pre-Robbins days the Welsh sent proportionally more of their young people to university than the English did. Nevertheless, the Welsh GCSE and A-level results have been markedly inferior to England's for many years.

But this summer the Welsh almost caught up with the English at GCSE. Professor David Reynolds, a Welshman now in exile at Newcastle University, suggests that this may be because the highest-scoring schools have recorded much-improved results while the lower-scoring schools have held steady. As he is chairman of the numeracy task force, his calculations are doubtless correct. But other factors must be partly responsible.

Although pupil-teacher ratios have worsened in Wales, as in England, the morale of Welsh teachers is relatively high. There has been less "naming and shaming" of supposedly failing schools, and the Welsh inspectorate has been much less adversarial than the Office for Standards in Education. Improvements in the unemployment rate have also helped to boost the motivation of pupils. As a Merthyr Tydfil teacher told The TES in February: "For many years the attitude here was: 'What's the point of getting good results? It won't get me a job'."

The revival of Welsh-medium schools does not seem to have hampered progress either. In fact, education research suggests that it may be easier to learn some mathematical concepts in Welsh (for example, "18" is translated as un deg ag wyth, which means one 10 and eight). The enhanced national and cultural pride evident in many Welsh-medium schools may also be reflected in the improved scores.

But the replacement of Wales's eight county councils with 22 unitary authorities could have contributed to the improved results, too. Some heads and local authority managers insist that the new arrangements make it easier to co-operate over school-improvement projects. And now there is the additional promise of a Welsh Assembly which may be able to shape Welsh education according to the principality's needs - rather than Westminster's whims. What is the point of parental choice and competition between schools, for example, when transport considerations virtually dictate which school a rural child must attend?

Equally importantly, there is every reason to be optimistic about the youngest cohort of Welsh teenagers - who comprehensively outscored the English in the key stage 2 maths, science and English tests in 1996. Jeff Jones, education spokesman of the Welsh Local Government Association, may have seemed somewhat boastful last week, when he predicted that the Welsh would soon take the rest of the UK "to the cleaners" because of their "bright, well-educated kids". But his claim is not completely groundless.

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