‘Wales still worst in UK in world education tests’. This is how BBC Wales announced the most recent results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study in 2016. But, the headline could also have been ‘Wales tops the table of rich countries in world education tests’. It all depends on the choice of yardstick for ‘good’ and ‘bad’. And this choice can have major implications for educational policy and for children’s lives.
The source of the ‘worst in UK’ title is average test scores. In PISA 2015, the mean reading score in Wales was below the other three UK nations and also below the EU/OECD average. If the UK nations are treated separately then Wales would rank 33rd out of 41 countries in the EU/OECD. It makes sense that policymakers in Wales wish to improve this standing.
However, the ‘average child’ is only one way of judging a schools system. UNICEF’s latest Innocenti Report Card, published last week, instead considers equality. It focuses on the size of the gap in reading scores between the top and bottom 10% of children. Here the picture is very different. Wales is the most equal nation in the UK and England is the most unequal. In fact, Wales is more equal than any of the 37 EU and OECD countries outside the UK. This is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Inequality in reading scores in UK nations and selected other countries
Wales is also much the most equal of the four UK nations (and second only to Iceland in the international rankings) in terms of the socio-economic gap in reading scores between children of parents with ‘high’ and ‘low’ status jobs; and England is the again least equal of the four UK nations.
A recent Welsh Government analysis stated that ‘Both GCSE attainment and PISA data indicate that too few pupils in Wales are achieving the highest grades, which in turn suggests that not enough is being done to stretch more able and talented pupils.’ But is this assessment accurate and is it a correct diagnosis of the problem to be solved in Wales?
It is true that, in the PISA results, Wales has fewer very high achievers (in absolute terms) than many other countries. But that pattern is almost inevitable given that Wales has a relatively low mean score and particularly low inequality. That doesn’t mean that the answer is to stretch the top end of the distribution.
An informative way of looking at this issue is to measure the gap between average (median) and the top 10% of children. Using this yardstick, Wales doesn’t have such strong high achievement as England. But Wales is quite comparable on this measure to Northern Ireland, Scotland and to the countries right at the top of the league table for average reading scores – Canada and Finland.
In fact, countries with a lot of relatively high achievers, tend to have lower (rather than higher) mean reading scores. That is not surprising. The UNICEF report shows that countries with higher equality also tend to have higher average standards. So, targeting high achievers will not automatically improve mean scores, and could even decrease them.
There is also another issue to consider. Why should children who are already doing the best be the target for extra help? Even in Wales, which has small socio-economic gaps in achievement, the majority of high achievers are from better-off families. So, focusing on this group means devoting more resources to children who already have other advantages.
Rather than looking towards the rest of the UK, Wales could turn elsewhere to inform its policy directions. And it would not have to look too far. The Republic of Ireland (marked IE in the chart below) achieves a very healthy balance of standards and equality – being ranked in the top five EU/OECD countries for both mean reading scores and equality in reading scores in PISA 2015. It is also more similar in size and characteristics to Wales than England is. Further afield, Estonia (EE) has similar patterns to Ireland.
Figure 2: Reading scores
Wales could aim to emulate these countries – minimising inequality while raising standards across the board. If, instead, it pursues the more specific goal of raising the standards of the ‘more able and talented’ students it risks losing its leading position in high educational equality. It is likely to create new inequalities and may not even improve average standards. This would be a step backwards not forwards.
Gwyther Rees is an Honorary Research Fellow at WISERD, Cardiff University and a Social and Economic Policy consultant at UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the above organisations.