Posted: Thu 21st Mar 2024

Call for major overhaul as Welsh education faces declining results and rising inequalities

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

A report published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reveals significant challenges facing the education system in Wales, highlighting a need for urgent policy reforms.

According to the IFS report, Wales experienced particularly poor results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published in December 2023.

The country not only witnessed a greater decline in reading, maths, and science scores compared to most other countries but also lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom.

This worrying trend is not limited to PISA scores alone.

The IFS highlights larger disparities in General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results and poorer post-16 outcomes in Wales, indicating a deep-rooted problem touching many parts of the education system.

The report points to an extended range of low educational outcomes in Wales, which cannot solely be attributed to factors such as higher poverty levels, a different ethnic composition of pupils, statistical biases, or disparities in resources.

Instead, the underlying reasons are more likely tied to longstanding policy differences and approaches, including lower external accountability levels and less frequent use of data to inform educational practices.

One of the critical findings of the IFS analysis is the performance gap between disadvantaged pupils in Wales and their counterparts in other parts of the UK.

For instance, in 2019, the gap in GCSE results between disadvantaged children and others in Wales was equivalent to 22–23 months of educational progress, significantly wider than the gap in England.

This issue is compounded by the higher share of young people in Wales not engaged in education, employment, or training, alongside lower participation in higher education and poorer employment outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report also casts doubt on the effectiveness of the new Curriculum for Wales and the proposed GCSE reforms, suggesting that these initiatives might inadvertently exacerbate inequalities, increase teacher workloads, and constrain future educational opportunities.

The report urges policymakers and educators in Wales to reconsider the current changes being made in education, highlighting a number of areas of concern.

It suggests the new Curriculum for Wales should focus more on specific knowledge to enhance learning.

The IFS advises delaying reforms to GCSEs, allowing more time to assess their impact on students’ future prospects, teacher workload, and the fairness of educational outcomes.

The report emphasises the need for more detailed data on students’ abilities and the extent of educational inequality, recommending that this information be made available on a regular basis.

The IFS proposes introducing school report cards to complement existing inspections, offering parents more detailed information without reviving the competitive nature of league tables.

Luke Sibieta, IFS Research Fellow and author, said: “Policymakers in Wales have long placed a high emphasis on reducing inequality in education and wider society.”

“Teachers and school staff in Wales work hard to equip young people with the skills they need for the future and mitigate the effects of poverty.”

“Unfortunately, we see worryingly low outcomes in PISA tests, high inequalities in GCSE results and disappointing post-16 outcomes for young people in Wales.”

“Faced with this gloomy picture, policymakers should have the courage to make reforms based on solid evidence, such as increasing the emphasis on specific knowledge in the curriculum and making better use of data to shine a spotlight on inequalities throughout the system. Without reform, the picture may worsen.”

In response to the report, Eithne Hughes, Director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, said:

“This report paints a particularly gloomy picture of the Welsh education landscape and it’s clear that much more needs to be done to tackle inequality.

“Teachers and leaders in Wales are just as skilled, experienced and committed to supporting disadvantaged pupils as those elsewhere in the UK, and yet, as this report makes clear, there is a disparity in pupil outcomes.

“Our belief is that the huge raft of reforms occurring at such pace across many different areas of the Welsh education system is making it increasingly challenging for the workforce to focus on their core purpose of helping young people to learn.

“Rather than this scattergun approach to reform, which does not appear to be improving outcomes, policymakers need to focus their attention on key areas that will help aid learning, particularly for disadvantaged pupils.

“The current Education Minister himself has recognised this by calling for a clearer focus on national priorities in order to reduce the equity gap.

“We look forward to working closely with the new Education Minister – whoever that may be following next week’s expected reshuffle – on how this can be achieved.”

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