Time to re-think PISA’s place in Welsh education

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There is nothing in education that attracts media headlines quite like ‘PISA’.

Conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the knowledge and core skills of 15-year-olds as they near the end of their compulsory education.

It uses a representative sample of pupils from more than 70 countries to gauge relative performance and highlight perceived strengths and areas for improvement.

As such, unlike more traditional external exams (which tend to be specific to their respective jurisdictions), PISA provides a measure by which countries across the world can be compared.

Not surprisingly, this is an attractive proposition for sector journalists (as well as the political elite) and is the closest thing to an international league table of state schooling.

Yet, despite there being less than six months until the next PISA results are published, there has been precious little mention of them in Wales.

This in itself is curious, given the way in which successive Welsh governments have drawn on PISA to effect change.

Make no mistake, PISA has – at least in part – fuelled education policy in Wales (as it has in many other participating countries) for the best part of a decade.

Why then, so close to publication, has PISA received so little air time?

For me, the answer is simple – curriculum.

Realigning expectations

Kirsty Williams’ tenure as Education Minister has been dominated by a re-imagining of what and how children learn in Welsh classrooms, and development of Professor Graham Donaldson’s Successful Futures has taken precedence over everything else.

In some respects, Wales’ curriculum project has narrowed our focus and provided a cornerstone on which we can rebuild our entire education system.

It has renewed debate around assessment and qualifications, and triggered the introduction of new professional standards and teacher education; the curriculum is the glue that holds our education reform together.

But there are sure to be unintended consequences.

I asked in my last contribution to this blog whether putting all of our eggs into the basket of Successful Futures has meant we have lost sight of other things.

I suggested that a realigning of expectations with regards to other key initiatives was required.

Perhaps the most significant re-calibration relates to PISA, and our medium to long-term prospects of improvement.

Regrettably, I have all but written off Wales’ hopes of a notable PISA revival this time around.

In fact, given the heavy demands of curriculum development, I think we will have done well to stabilise our position in this year’s world rankings.

Notwithstanding the restorative interventions that were put in place by the Welsh Government in the run-up to PISA testing last year (including the appointment of a PISA tsar to rally round participating schools), I fear there has been too much noise in the system to distract those chosen to take part.

The reality, of course, is that those distractions – and the reform agenda currently working its way through Welsh education – will not impact on PISA outcomes for a number of years.

In effect, the PISA results of 2019 will be reflective only of a bygone system dating back several ministers.

Indeed, they are not in any way a reflection on the revamped system we are in the process of creating.

Uncomfortable questions

To recap, the last time PISA results were published in December 2016 (a year after tests were sat) Welsh teenagers scored:

  • 477 points in reading – 16 points below the PISA average
  • 478 points in maths – 12 points below the PISA average
  • 485 points in science – 8 points below the PISA average

Wales’ return was another disappointment, with Kirsty Williams conceding that ‘we are not yet where we want to be’.

But given that it will be another three PISAs before pupils educated through new curriculum arrangements sit the tests (in 2027), it may be that we have to wait a little while longer for marked improvement.

This raises a series of uncomfortable questions.

For example, one must ask if it is acceptable that after five PISA tranches, and countless political promises, the goalposts can be shifted yet again.

Is it right that having waited 12 years for an upsurge in PISA performance, we might now have to resign ourselves to a further decade of patience?

Paradoxically, what we definitely do not need – regardless of what happens in December – is yet another change in direction.

The Welsh Government’s tendency to lurch from one policy to the next (very often, in response to PISA) has been prescribed by the OECD as breeding ‘reform fatigue’ – a condition from which all in education have suffered.

Instead, we need to be wary of knee-jerk reactions and, assuming there is broad commitment to the reform agenda set in train, remain true to our set course.

The temptation to tinker, and prove to the electorate that action is being taken to address our PISA struggles, must be resisted.

That is not to say PISA doesn’t matter and we should not dismiss the OECD’s assessment of our pupils’ knowledge and skills, regardless of how difficult it is to digest.

But it is not the be-all and end-all and there are a wide range of performance measures we can use to test the temperature of Welsh education.

Measured response

Wales’ education system has matured to a level at which it knows well its deficiencies – and there are actions in place to tackle them.

Perhaps, then, it is time to re-think PISA and its place within our reform agenda.

There is certainly an argument that says there is too much emphasis on international testing, and PISA alone should not dictate what happens in Welsh schools.

A healthy debate on our future involvement in and aspirations for PISA, would be no bad thing.

We cannot return to the same old arguments every three years and a more measured response is required moving forward.

We must be resolute, not reactionary – and resist the inevitable calls for an about-turn.

Take, for example, results published in 2010; described as a shock to what former Education Minister Leighton Andrews coined a ‘complacent system’, they triggered a radical overhaul of government policy.

But this year’s scores should come as no surprise, and Kirsty Williams must do as she did last time and fight against those baying for blood.

Education in Wales since devolution has been characterised by near-constant churn; no sooner has an initiative begun, than it has been shut down and, in many cases, actually reversed.

This is, to some extent, a by-product of the uncertain and volatile environment in which politicians operate – the lifespan of cabinet ministers is notoriously short and I haven’t come across a single one that doesn’t want to leave their mark during their time in office.

Inevitably, leaving a mark normally translates into ‘revolutionary’ new policy and, very often, change for change’s sake.

That is why, as I have written before, Ms Williams deserves great credit.

In following through a Labour politician’s plans (let’s not forget that Huw Lewis was the architect for the vast majority of current policy), she put the system’s needs before her own.

But she must do so again – and whatever December’s results have in store for Wales, Ms Williams must stand firm before the inevitable media storm.

So too must all actors engaged in Welsh education; only by speaking with confidence about our practice and aspirations for the future can we ensure our reform agenda is not derailed again.

If we truly believe in what we in Wales are doing, then we cannot be architects of our own downfall.

When the winds of change blow and the pressure to deviate grows, we must hold our nerve… even if more PISA pain is the price we have to pay.