PISA – Don’t Panic!

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ViewsDecember 4th, 2013

Here we go again – the triennial dose of self-flagellation and sound-bite policy-making as the PISA results show, unsurprisingly, that Wales’s educational performance is not up to scratch.  ‘Worst in UK‘, ‘alarming decline‘ and ‘dunce’s hat‘ are just a few of the jibes that have been thrown at Wales’s education Ministers, education system and teachers and – let’s be honest – our children too.

Now, the PISA results are very interesting and useful but how is it that what suddenly matters in education policy is not the well-being of our children, the needs of our economy or the expertise of our teachers, but an international test that nobody had heard of until a few years ago?    Is it our rugby mind-set that means that we worry that Wales hasn’t beaten France and Italy at Maths, while not appearing to care much that children entitled to Free School Meals are less than half  as likely to get 5 GCSEs at grades A-C including English and Maths as children from better-off homes? It seems to me that the ‘poverty gap’ on our own door-step matters a great deal more than whether or not than Hungary got nine more ‘points’ in Maths than Wales.

I am absolutely not saying that policy-makers should ignore the PISA results or pretend everything is fine and dandy in the education system – it patently isn’t.  But we need to think in a much more nuanced and informed way about both the meaning of the results (they are not, for example, the only international tests) and avoid a knee-jerk policy responses.  Nick Pearce and Jonathan Clifton, over at IPPR’s blog, make a strong case for looking behind the headlines and focusing on some of the bigger, if perhaps uncomfortable conclusions. Selective schools? Don’t work says PISA. Freedom from central controll? Yes, says PISA. More money? Maybe, is the conclusion.

There is a growing body of firm evidence of ‘what works’ in driving up standards. The Education Endowment Foundation has developed a wonderful tool-kit that should sit on the desk of every Minister, educationalist and politician in Wales.  What’s most effective is constructive feedback and ensuring pupils learn how to learn. On the other hand, making children repeat a year of schooling and ability grouping have a negative effect. School uniform and the physical environment make no proven difference whatsoever.

The last thing Wales’s children need is a round of half-baked, knee-jerk reforms, rushed in in the hope that somehow the latest ideas will be the magic wand that will mean Wales joins the PISA super-league.  The difficult truth is that improving attainment will be a long, hard slog which depends on teachers’ classroom skills and senior management leadership skills, operating in a flexible, non-selective system.  Not the stuff of sound-bites but a damn sight more effective.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation

7 Responses

  1. David Egan says:

    This is the single best response I have seen over the last 24 hours to the ‘PISA panic’ in Wales. We should not be in ‘PISA denial’ but the outcomes of the test are being massively over-interpreted by the media and some commentators. Like all tests and data, PISA is far from perfect and more and more academic experts in this field are pointing to its limitations.
    PISA confirms for Wales what we already know: there is significant low achievement in our education system and most of this is associated with the effects of poverty. How do we address this? By learning from the countries that do well in PISA and that have created far more equitable outcomes in their education system than we have in Wales.
    What does this require? A whole society response that includes schools and teachers ( doing the things that Victoria Winkler highlights) but also our families and communities.
    As Huw Lewis has recognised this will take time and will need considerable leadership from Welsh Government and others in the education system.
    The trite and over-simplistic responses of some commentators yesterday will get us nowhere. They are simply part of the problem and can be no part of the solution.

  2. Michael Donnelly says:


    I also think policy responses can sometimes be too school centric – missing the wider societal issues where inequalities tend to arise from.

  3. Jack Edwards says:

    Just to be picky, but I think you mean triennial not tri-annual. This mistake amused me somewhat in an article concerning educational skills.

    I think you’re being far too forgiving of the education system in Wales. Business suffers due to a lack of skills, and we’re feeding the poverty trap by not educating our children properly. You say poverty causes lower achievement rates among children, I would argue that poor skills exacerbates poverty.

    I would also be interested in the PISA results for Welsh-medium pupils. I think this would play an important role in developing the education system.

  4. victoriawinckler says:

    Definitely not being forgiving – “I am absolutely not saying .. everything is fine and dandy in the education system – it patently isn’t.” And yes you are right about the poverty – skills – poverty cycle.

    Thanks for spotting the spell-checker mis-correction – this and a couple of other typos now corrected.

  5. Gethin says:

    It’s a bit unfair to claim that poltiicians “not appearing to care much” that children entitled to Free School Meals are less than half as likely to get 5 GCSEs at grades A-C including English and Maths as children from better-off homes, considering that Leighton Andrews made it clear that tackling the link between poverty and attainment was one of his three priorites for education, Huw Lewis gave a speech on it a few weeks ago and Kirsty Williams has made the pupil deprivation grant the centrepeice of her leadership.

    In either case the two are neither mutually exclusive nor two spearate issues but part of the same thing.

  6. dewi jones says:

    There are question marks regarding PISA’s reliability and certainly many of the reactions have been overly simplistic. However, the relative performance of pupils in Wales compared to other countries in the UK, where cultural norms and the approach to PISA has been broadly similar,is a concern.

    Yes the “iron link” between deprivation and low attainment is reflected in the recent PISA findings and the current minister, Huw Lewis, is to be applauded for making the mitigation of the effects of poverty on attainment equal to his continuing prioritisation of basic skills (literacy and numeracy). Clearly we are not powerless to respond.

    As David Egan indicates we need a multi-layered response and there is certainly no “magic bullet”. We need continuing strong leadership at national level – with clear goals and a consistent approach. This would include, inter alia, national frameworks (e.g.for literacy and numeracy), a strenghtening of systems of accountability (for LA’s and schools) with a strong focus on data analysis, a steer to LA’s to better align resources in proportion to need (using the index of deprivation rather than FSM’s within LMS formulas?). One can continue with this list of tactical and strategic responses, many of which are already in play, but perhaps more significantly and certainly for a stronger and longer term effect we need to examine how we can develop the education system in Wales’ CAPACITY to improve. This is where improved CPD for teachers, PLC’s, integrated response to pupils from families in distress, the engagement of parents in support of pupils’learning – particularly in deprived communities, CfS, etc come into play. We are a small country with fabulous teachers, well meaning and well informed policy makers. Can we not draw up a plan for the next five years with ascribed responsibilities that will deliver significant improvement? Of course we can. Ymlaen Cymru!

  7. Russell Todd says:

    In respect of improving attainment of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds it is interesting to see that the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit (to which Victoria refers) is encouraged to be drawn on by Communities First and schools for the evidence-based practice they propose to undertake with the Pupil Deprivation match fund grant

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