Last night leading figures in Welsh education gathered for a debate on the future of education in Wales at Cardiff University’s Hadyn Ellis Building. The event was held ahead of the next round of PISA results due for release on 6th December 2016. PISA is a triennial survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15 year old students.
The event marked the official launch of Dr Philip Dixon’s newly published book Testing Times: Success, Failure and Fiasco in Welsh Education Policy Since Devolution. The book provides a critical but constructive analysis of the last seventeen years of Welsh education policy, including the strategies and initiatives that have led to the Welsh Government’s Department of Education famously being labelled ‘dysfunctional’ by its own minister. In the book, Dr Philip Dixon asserts that if the PISA results are not favourable then only a major intervention can restore confidence in the Welsh education system. He calls for the establishment of a Recovery Board, responsible to the National Assembly, to take charge of a strategic reform programme for Welsh education over the next six years.
The debate was chaired by Professor Chris Taylor, Professor of Education Policy at Cardiff University and Cardiff Co-Director of the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD). Dr Philip Dixon was joined by Gareth Evans, former Education Editor at the Western Mail, Professor Leighton Andrews, Professor of Practice in Public Service Leadership and Innovation at Cardiff Business School and former Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government, and Professor Gareth Rees, Research Professor at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD).
The forthcoming PISA results featured prominently within the debate. Professor Gareth Rees argued that PISA doesn't use longitudinal data, which would give a clearer picture, nor can the results tell us about the effects of policy changes on education in Wales. While the results cannot be ignored, we do need to question exactly what they can tell us and what they can’t.
Dr Philip Dixon suggested that the Foundation Phase is the key success but that we've also had some notable failures, including underfunding.
Another key topic of discussion was the role of local authorities, the value of consortia and whether we are listening enough to practitioners.
“My issue and my concern is curriculum reform, as schools are coming from very different viewpoints across Wales,” said Professor Gareth Evans.
Dr Philip Dixon proposed: "Are we prepared to reform the entire system? Schools are just part of it."
Professor Leighton Andrews concluded that “in 2010 local authorities didn't know what 'good' looked like. There's still a way to go.” He also emphasised the fact that there should not be a knee jerk reaction to PISA next week, whatever the results.
The key messages that transpired from last night’s debate were that we do need data showing where we are in a wider education context but we also need to challenge what's given to us. We then need to steer a steady course with high quality teaching and leadership, and finally, we must look at all the evidence and collaborate if we are to move forward.
Further reading: A Crisis of Welsh Education? A Review of the Current Evidence: