Darren Millar is the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesman for education and Assembly Member for Clwyd West.
A report published by the OECD on Tuesday placed Wales in the bottom half of the global education league table and reconfirmed its status as the worst education system in the UK – an accolade it has now held for a decade.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – which measures the aptitude of 15-year-old children from 72 countries in maths, science and reading – is a highly respected triennial snapshot of education systems around the world.
But in recent times the publication of the PISA results has been greeted with some trepidation here in Wales, due to lacklustre performance which has placed our education system on a par with uncomfortable bedfellows such as Hungary and Lithuania.
Historically, Wales has performed below the OECD average on the PISA measure and results have consistently limped behind our counterparts in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
There had been rumblings for many weeks that Wales was set to repeat this failure. Indeed, the Labour-led Welsh Government had gone to great lengths to manage the public’s expectations and downplay the importance of PISA altogether.
There was little surprise when, yet again, poor results were published this week. What was particularly concerning is that the figures revealed our performance was even worse than when Wales first submitted to the PISA assessments back in 2006.
Among other damning findings, the OECD also revealed that Welsh reading scores were on a par with Hungary and Lithuania; that Welsh pupils were three times less likely than their English equivalents to be high achievers in the three tests; and that a third of Welsh learners were considered to be poor performers.
The figures mark a decade of failure by successive Welsh Labour-led Governments, which have failed to deliver improvement for a generation of pupils who deserve much better.
A sustained decline in science skills was a particular point of frustration, given that the latest assessment had placed unprecedented weight on how well pupils responded to science-based problems. More than ever before Wales’ inadequacy in this area was exposed.
Questions posed to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and the First Minister elicited little more than a litany of excuses and yet more hollow promises, but there was precious little by way of a clear action plan to address shortcomings.
A recurring refrain is that progress has been hampered by reforms to the school system which have taken time to ‘bed in’. The feebleness of this defence is thrown into sharp relief when you consider that Poland, which had similar results to Wales in 2000, was able to turn out around performance within a decade and maintained yet another set of healthy results this week.
Welsh Government reforms, currently underway, are similar to those which have already been introduced in Scotland. Yet when we consider that Scotland’s PISA performance has also been deteriorating, it is clear that these don’t offer the solution to our woes.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the Welsh Government needs to scrap the curriculum reforms that are already underway. But these reforms alone are not going to secure the significant improvement that Wales needs to make if our PISA results are going to move up the league tables in future.
Looking ahead to the next round of assessments in 2018, Wales needs a clear roadmap for improvement. That roadmap must be ambitious, include clear and measurable targets, and timescales for delivery so that Assembly Members and others can hold the Welsh Government to account.
Minister should also explore the idea of introducing annual mock PISA-style examinations so that pupils are more familiar with the problem-solving nature of these tests; yes, I said tests! Testing is a dirty word in some education circles, but regular standardised testing is an essential tool in measuring progress. Familiarity with testing helps pupils to overcome being phased by such tests when they really matter.
Despite the naysaying of many, PISA rankings do matter. Entrepreneurs, employers and investors pay attention to them and no one should underestimate the enormity of underperforming in these fundamental areas. Reading, maths and science are subjects which, if grasped well, provide knowledge and skills for a lifetime, helping young people to take control of their lives, to find fulfilling and lucrative work.
If Wales cannot cultivate an education system which competes with world’s very best then we cannot hope to compete with the world’s best economies. Future generations are looking to the Welsh Government for answers – the wellbeing and prosperity of our citizens depends on a strong and decisive response.