Education Policy in Wales Since Devolution

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In early December our education system will be ranked in an international league table. In this article, Dr. Philip Dixon, a respected commentator on Welsh education, reveals why his recent book explains some of the background to that judgment and points to the way ahead.

Tuesday 6th December will be something of a watershed for education in Wales. On that day the latest set of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results will be released by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). This international ‘league table’ will give us a snapshot of our education system compared to the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. The last three sets of results in 2007, 2010, 2013 told a worrying tale of decline and underperformance. Despite hopes to the contrary many fear that 2016 will be little different.

We can expect a lot of mudslinging on the 6th from politicians within and without Wales. What we actually need is careful analysis of where we are, how we got here, and, most importantly, how we can move forward. I hope that my recent book Testing Times: Success, Failure and Fiasco in Education Policy in Wales Since Devolution can shed more light than heat on what are very complex questions.

Education is an almost completely devolved matter. Once Teachers’ Pay and Conditions arrive in the next few years it will be one of the areas where the National Assembly has complete control. We owe to ourselves, and more so to our children, to build the best system we can. We also need to show that devolution works and delivers. For over eleven years I was Director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. This gave me an entrance into many of the big educational debates but also into the effect that policy was having on the ground.

Since 1999 two big beasts have lumbered across the education plain as minister. Their approach and analysis could not have been different. In the opening decade of devolution Jane Davidson was confidently proclaiming that Wales was some sort of educational Garden of Eden. From 2010 onwards that picture was contested and her legacy systematically dismantled by Leighton Andrews. The transition between these two clashing viewpoints is a fascinating story to tell.

Testing Times looks back at the legacy inherited by the first Welsh Assembly Government (as it was then inelegantly called) and notes that devolved policy making did not arrive in 1999. It examines the ‘Grand Narrative’ that successive Welsh Governments have wanted to tell: despite party political stability policy stability has been far more elusive. The book traces a child’s educational journey in Wales from reception to post-16, and examines the content of that journey. It looks at the qualifications that are now on offer to our children and the changing curriculum they have followed. The data is crunched and a verdict given. Finally, I give some positive suggestions about how we can improve.

The book looks at some of the successes of successive Welsh Governments. The biggest to date has been the Foundation Phase for our youngest children. Although it is bedevilled by the slogan ‘Learning through Play’ this phase is laying firm foundations for the future. The Welsh Baccalaureate too, although still in need of more work, is also a feature of our system which could enhance the social engagement and employability of our youngsters.

But the book pulls no punches when things have gone wrong – especially in the workings of the Education Department itself. An OECD report of 2014 was damning about the failure of the Welsh Government to ‘define and implement a national vision of education’. We let a massive gap in GCSE performance comparative to England open up throughout the 2000s, though that is now closing. We have failed to fund education properly over the last seventeen years.

Wales is infamously ‘the land of the pulled punch’. An influential report of 2006 warned that ‘small countries can slip into a cosiness that limits ambition’. Testing Times aims to disturb that cosiness. We need to aim for excellence for our children not Golden Mediocrity. To do that we need to build a more open culture in which genuine dialogue and debate become the norm.  I hope that the conclusions of Testing Times will show how we that might be achieved.

Testing Times: Success, Failure and Fiasco in Education Policy in Wales Since Devolution is published by the Welsh Academic Press ( http://www.welsh-academic-press.wales)

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