Tag Archives: PISA

PISA Targets

26 Jun

Yesterday I contributed to the Sunday Politics show discussion on the political fall out from the Cabinet Secretary for Education distancing herself from her predecessors PISA targets.  While it remains online you can view it here, starting around 40:04 in.

In terms of the political discussion what I said was that I don’t believe the ramifications extend to the classroom.  I don’t know of a single teacher who base their work on ensuring PISA results are improved.  Teachers are focused on simply doing their best for pupils, ensuring that socially and academically they reach their full potential, and that they attain the best qualifications possible.  Naturally if PISA measures the things it claims to in the way it claims to, and that remains a big and ever increasing if, then the work done in our classrooms should be captured.

However, where it does have an impact is on policy development.  We saw in 2010 how PISA results led to a huge upheaval in strategic direction.  Leighton Andrews put in place a raft of policy changes that often totally contradicted the previous approach in Wales, which were implemented in direct response to PISA.  Across the world Governments have changed their education policies to reflect aims and targets in PISA.  The big question that comes out of the apparent clash in PISA targets being set within the Welsh cabinet is, what are the implications for our policy approach in future?  Whose targets are we aiming for? What happens if we reach one but not the other? Why are we continuing to set targets for PISA and are they meaningless for a number of reasons? Or are we still expecting to see the possibility of our system turned upside down based on PISA?

For what it is worth I supported the position taken by Kirsty Williams.  When the original story broke I agreed that PISA targets had failed to focus policy and resources on the right elements to support our pupils and teachers.  Getting away from that is, ironically enough, the best way to ensure a better education system.

One other thing I wanted to touch on comes from the line that David Reynolds said in the piece, which is that PISA results are the driver of economic success.  His evidence for this is that Shanghai saw great inward investment following their rise to the top of the rankings.  I don’t dismiss any assumptions out of hand but I have continually been left cold by this argument.  For me it is a case of correlation without causation.  Just as you can find evidence to show one influencing the other, you can find the evidence that undermines that view.  For example Finland ranked top of PISA in 2000.  The year on year growth of the Finish economy for the next thirteen years following that was at a lower rate than in 2000.  There are a host of nations whose economic success exceed their PISA scores and vice versa.  Indeed in 2015 the Welsh Government announced historic record inward investment figures.  That alone contradicts the argument.

As I say, I don’t dismiss any thinking out of hand but it seems a reach to claim that PISA is make or break for inward investment when that isn’t necessarily born out by the facts.


School Swap: Korea Style – 2

30 Nov

Yesterday I blogged on episode one of the BBC documentary about South Korea’s education system.  I was a little bit critical of the fact the piece seemed to gloss over, or at least not give great attention to the significant concerns that exist with the emotional impact of a Korean style system.  This morning I caught up with the second, and final, episode.  You can find it here while it remains active on iPlayer.

I found the focus on the celebrity teacher a touch odd and unnecessary.  Clearly the career path of this individual was pretty unique and not the norm.  I’m not sure if the show was trying to give the impression that all teachers in South Korea can become millionaires but that isn’t the case.  This is just an example of someone who has found a gap in the market.  It is like saying that Professor Brian Cox is somehow representative of the average university professor.  That said I did appreciate the fact the show made a point to emphasis the respect that teaching as a career is afforded in Korea and the standing teachers have in their community.  Undoubtedly this is one issue that plays a significant role in school discipline as well as community support for the actions and endeavors of a school.  This was reflected also in the demand for teaching training roles.  As we discovered 3,000 individuals applied for a teaching course where only 36 were given places.  This replicates a similar demand to join the profession from nations such as Finland, whose philosophy on education is in stark contrast with South Korea yet whose esteem for the teaching profession is equally high.  Contrast that with Wales where we have failed to fill our secondary teachers training courses for the past five years including attracting a third fewer than the target last year.

To give credit to Sian Griffiths and the production team I was clearly too quick to jump the gun in my criticisms yesterday that they were overlooking the negative impacts on childhood that accompany a South Korean style system.  In this episode there was a blunt reflection of those issues, including first hand accounts of individuals who had been emotionally scared through the process with the suicide rates laid bare to see.  It was particularly interesting to hear the views of the former education Minister, someone who had overseen PISA success yet recognised the potential damage that had caused to creativity and freedom to enjoy childhood.

My lasting thoughts would echo those of the headteacher from Ysgol Dwei Sant.  There’s lessons to look at and learn from South Korea but equally there are key lessons they can also learn from us, particularly around that deeper thinking, creativity, communication, cooperation and emotional development of character.  This is the nature of education policy.  It is looking at the best and recognising how, what and where it can influence Welsh education, but in doing so remaining committed to the core values that are the foundation of our society.


*Whoever chose Kung Fu fighting for both shows soundtrack needs a geography lesson.  Kung Fu originates in China.  Carl Douglas who did the song is a recording artist from Jamaica and it was an ode to Chinese culture.  

*Finally good on all the Welsh students for ending with a hug, and particularly Tom who used the typically Welsh ‘see you later’ when leaving for a 10 hour or so flight home. 

School Swap Korea Style

29 Nov

This morning I caught up with the first episode of the School Swap: Korea Style programme on BBC Wales in which three Welsh pupils traveled to South Korea to experience life in their education system.  You can view the show here whilst it remains on iPlayer.

These comparisons are always at the forefront of debate when it comes to the publication of PISA results.  We are forever contrasting performances between nations and asking why one is succeeding above another in the rankings.  Sometimes those comparisons make sense, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes we are comparing the right things, asking the right questions and for the right reasons, sometimes we are not.  Sometimes we are learning valuable things, sometimes we are misrepresenting the lessons.  It is, to an extent, an inevitable reaction during this media intensive period.

I’ve always believed that it is important to look at international systems and try and see what could potentially work for Wales, in the same way that I think some of the brilliant practice we see in Welsh classrooms should be viewed internationally also.  This doesn’t just mean looking at Asia and Finland but other nations across the world and within the UK.  that said, the reality is that education policies do not always travel well, and certain aspects of one countries education system only work there because of the nature of their society, culture and values.  That is not to say we can’t look at results, outcomes and policies and manipulate them to a Welsh context.

Looking at what did come across from South Korea it did, I am sorry to say, confirm some of the real concerns I harbored for their approach.  It is not a system I crave.   Clearly they have incredible results but it is negligent to examine them without asking at what cost are they delivered? We saw pupils spending 10 hours in the same chair being talked at in silence day in day out.  Children were only getting, in an absolute best case scenario, 6 hours sleep, they where undertaking punishingly long days and were falling asleep at the desk.  The system was funded by parents paying huge sums for private tuition and children denied a childhood in the pursuit of rigid structural learning devoid of creativity.

What was most worrying from a viewing perspective is that I simply did not feel the show gave any real credence to these concerns.  These issues were never really treated with any seriousness.  That pupils were lying asleep across their desks was remarked on with a pithy comment as if it was humorous and the 14-16 hour days were noted in envy rather than concern.  Only through the narration of the three Welsh pupils, who I thought were a credit to themselves, did we really get any reflection on the social and emotional impact of this style of education. It very much appeared as if there was a conclusion written to this show with the narrative set to fulfill it.  Something that incidentally also seemed evident to me in the previous show BBC Wales commissioned Sian Griffiths to undertake on Welsh education*.  It is only fair of me to point out however that this is episode one and perhaps the others will delve into this in more detail.  You would very much hope so as it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore them.

Another aspect that concerns me as a viewer, and as someone focused on Welsh education within my profession, is that documentaries such as this lead people to expect schools to achieve Korean results within our society.  If you want Korean outcomes you must have Korean culture, including major parental payments for private tutors and high suicide rates. (Suicide is the biggest cause of death to those in their 10s, 20s and 30s in South Korea).  To say you want Korean style academia means you want to change our whole society and values, not our education system.  While I don’t doubt many will clamor for world leading PISA results I do not believe there is an appetite for a similar style of society.  I may be wrong to make that assumption of course but certainly I am very proud that we are putting well-being at the heart of our educational agenda.

The proficiency of South Korean pupils should not be underestimated.  Examining their system is not something that should be dismissed.  I do believe there are aspects of any nations approach that can provide important insights.  However, 6am-12am days simply should not be an ambition for the well-being of our children.  There are lessons to be learnt, but also warnings to be heeded.



*As an aside I can’t help wondering, giving the numerous talented people working for BBC Wales news and politics departments, including their own current and former education correspondents, why it is they have not trusted anyone in-house to front these shows rather than using a presenter whose personal positions are perhaps less neutral on such matters.


Measuring PISA Performance

6 Oct

Last week the Welsh Government announced that they were scrapping the top 20 PISA target that had been front and centre of the headlines for so long in Welsh education.  It is fair to say that the move came in for a hefty amount of criticism from some opposition politicians and the media have not been glowing in its assessment of the performance of the DfES over recent weeks.

What the Welsh Government has proposed is that there be a target set in terms of the points to be achieved through the PISA testing rather than where those points ultimately leave Wales.  This, I believe, is a far more sensible and progressive measure of performance.

Truth be told, however unlikely, Wales could end up in the top 20 with a lesser performance than it has secured in the past.  Equally it could drop down the rankings even though its actual performance in the tests improves.  This is due in part because of an increasing number of nations taking part in the PISA process and in part due to the fact that the rankings are determined relative to the performance of other countries.  A good year all around puts pressure on Wales’ position, a bad year and Wales could be the beneficiary of a higher ranking.

Monitoring the performance against past points scores will, irrespective of what position Wales ultimately ends up in, give a clearer picture of the progress we are, or are not, making.  Of course there is a different debate to be had about if you think the 500 point target is an appropriate level.

I have to say that I do harbour some doubts about Wales ability to show major improvements.  These concerns are based on the fact that we have taken reforming decisions that have come back to bite us.  The scrapping of these targets and also that of the banding system go to show that the Welsh Government have got things wrong.  Decisions that will have hindered the learning environment.  More worryingly we seem to be rowing back from the commitment to the Foundation Phase.  Before even the first cohort of Foundation Phase pupils have gone through the system to undertake their GCSEs, A Levels or even PISA testing the Welsh Government has somewhat lost its nerve.  Instead of fully getting behind the principles of learning through play, and the critical thinking and problem solving skills that it develops, the Welsh Government have reintroduced standardised teaching in a way that undermines the approach.  This includes the reintroduction of standardised testing, testing at the Foundation Phase and establishing age rather than stage expectations. The theme of the Government at least giving the perception of the Foundation Phase ethos being undermined loomed large in Professor Imran Siraj’s Foundation Phase stocktake published this year.

If Wales does, or does not, reach the target is yet to be seen.  What is clear to me is that in setting a points rather than positional target the Welsh Government have recognised a flaw in their approach and are at least creating a more appropriate and relevant comparison for the future.  For that they would be congratulated.


In Conversation With…….Simon Thomas AM

20 Jan

The second politician that I’ve spoken to as part of the ‘In Conversation With….’ series I met with Simon Thomas AM


Simon is an Assembly Member for the Mid and West Wales Region and Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Education, Skills and the Welsh Language.  Prior to taking up these positions Simon was a special advisor to the One Wales Government and a Member of Parliament representing Ceredigion.

We discussed the recent PISA results and issues around that test in general.  We also discussed banding, the curriculum review, standardised testing and supply teaching.

You can hear the conversation in full by clicking on the following .

Alternatively you can hear it on my Soundcloud here.


PISA Reflections

6 Jan

There was an inevitable media frenzy following the publication of the latest PISA results.  Who can blame journalists when these tests have been held up by governments across the world to justify reforms, often for ideological reasons.

No one pretends PISA 2013 was positive news for Wales, or indeed any nation in the UK.  That said, given the almost divine status they have achieved in the eyes of some advisors; reporters and politicians, it is only right we look closer at some of the concerns with the process.

There is a growing body of evidence casting doubt on the methodology that underpins the PISA test.  Teachers, employers and academics are all beginning to question the tablet of stone that PISA results are written on.

In the first instance there are concerns at the different cultural diversities in dealing with such a wide ranging test.  Does the test evaluate truly the mathematics, reading and science skills of pupils across the world, or evaluate them against a background of cultural and societal niches.

The fact this is a test conducted in 65 different nations naturally throws up translation issues.  There is a genuine debate about the interpretations and conclusions pupils will have in reading questions phrased differently in different languages.  This is of course not the fault of the OECD, the organisation behind the test.  Papers have to be translated and there is no such thing as a word perfect translation.  That, however, does not change the principle of the concern.  There are questions here also about the inherent bias for nations, such as Finland, whose language has a simpler structure than English with its irregular patterns.

How exactly does the sampling skew any results?  Can you really compare the results of a huge city region like Shanghai with more rural areas across the world?  What about the subjects that are sampled? Can you determine the success or failure of an entire education system based solely on three subject areas?  How questions relate to the current curriculum being taught is also open to creating wide variations in results.

Does the above mean that we should ignore PISA’s findings?  No not at all.  Everyone in education sit up and take notice of PISA, but as part of an overall package of measurements not as the be all and end all of our evaluation system.  Unfortunately across the world these tests are being used to drive wholesale reforms.  Indeed the Welsh Government has overhauled the education system here to ensure that we are more PISA focussed.  Even if we climb the PISA ladder in future there is no telling if that approach will have unintended consequences on our wider education and community ambitions.

PISA tells us only a limited number of things.  They do not say if there’s consistent progress only providing a snapshot of performance from one particular cohort, at one particular time, using one particular test.  PISA will never tell us if we are creating happy; socially responsible or creative pupils.  They will not help show if we are developing people who will become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, artists or community leaders.

In our response to PISA we do need to question not just what type of education system we want but what type of society we envisage for Wales.  In introducing the Foundation Phase, a system whose first cohort of children is yet to be evaluated by PISA, we embarked on a new style of teaching.  It’s designed to ensure pupils had a space to think; to develop essential critical thinking, creative and problem solving skills.  It’s also a system centred in engaging children; allowing them a freedom to learn, making school a place to want to be.  This is a stark contrast to the ethos of education of, for example, South Korea.  While children in Seoul may currently be high amongst PISA rankings the school routine of punishingly long hours; excessive testing and extra study well into the evening, would be abhorrent to many Welsh parents.  Indeed, these pupils languish at the very bottom of indicators evaluating the happiness of school children.

Finland, who may have slipped below East Asian nations year, still remain the highest performing Western country for both reading and science and continue to perform well in mathematics, all with a system based on teacher and pupil wellbeing at its core.  This shows there is another way to the data driven rigid conformity of the East.  While we can, and should, look at their system we must also recognise that in many areas such as gender equality, UN happiness index and income equality, Wales is far behind the progress of our Scandinavian counterparts.

Neither end of the spectrum will you find a system that can simply be transported to Wales.  We have to find a Welsh solution by evaluating what works in other countries, but recognising the specific challenges not only within our schools but within our society.  What works elsewhere will not always work for us here.  We all need to pay attention to what PISA tells us about education, but in doing so we must also accept the flaws in its approach, and the realities of what it isn’t telling us about the cultural drivers of performance.



PISA Preview

27 Nov

Next week we will get the PISA scores for 2012.  The tests were pretty much unknown to most people, including those working in schools, until the 2009 results were used to radically change the direction of our education system in Wales.  The big question, aside from how well we may or may not do, is what will the implications of this years scores be?

As of November 13th there are 117,000 people unemployed in Wales.  When those individuals next apply for a job and reach the interview how many do you think will put forward their PISA scores as validation for their credibility as a candidate?

Now my flippancy isn’t designed to totally discount the importance of PISA to our economy.  Clearly these international comparators are influential in demonstrating the strength and capabilities of the workforce of tomorrow.  PISA can be influential in attracting new investment and jobs into Wales as it gives an indication of the skills and abilities of the potential labour market.

However, is that solely reason enough to allow our entire education system to have become driven by these tests?  Reform after reform has been brought in to ensure that Wales climbs the PISA rankings.  Yet it is still the merits of GCSEs, A Levels and potentially in the future the Welsh Baccalaureate which are the measures by which university places are offered and existing employers evaluate CVs.  When it comes to these indicators in Wales we have seen steady progress

Still, PISA remains important, but is it actually a fair assessment? More and more, academics are beginning to question the methodology of PISA tests.  Test that have driven education reforms and millions in funding across the world, including here in Wales.  Concerns that different countries take different questions, or how the weighting given to different types of questions is determined, certainly raises fears that they are not valid comparisons.  Some academics believe the difference in these questions could account for huge variation in final positions.  Denmark for example could land anywhere between 5th and 37th depending on these factors.  That has profound implications for the way it’s Government and people react to their international standings.  From celebration and praise to chastising staff and draconian changes to practices.  Many in Wales would suggest that teachers in Wales have seen their fair share of the latter on occasion since the last round of PISA results.

That the OECD’s response to the Times Education Supplement on the above issue was to confirm “large variation in single (country) ranking positions is likely” hardly fills anyone with confidence.

There is also the concern that PISA offers just a snap shot of one particular cohort of pupils, in much the same way as banding does.  There is no tracking of performance over a long-term period but instead just a brief picture of a particular set of pupils on a particular day of testing.  Again, this does not totally discount the findings but it is something that needs to be considered when developing wide-ranging new policies to be able to fit our education system to a PISA test.

The issues with PISA testing could fill a lengthy blog on their own, both arguments for and against.  However the main point is to accept that they have an important role to play in the ever-increasing globalised economy but that implementing radical reforms without questioning the detail behind the comparisons is, and has proven to be, foolhardy and somewhat short-sighted.  After all the nation who consistently top the PISA rankings, Finland, are the nation that place the least emphasis on doing so.  Their reforms are based on a whole child approach to doing what is right for their communities, not what is right to try to climb these tables.  That they remain high performers is a positive coincidence rather than a deliberate target.

(For more on this debate this programme on Radio 4 which recently examined the flaws in PISA’s approach and what the tests can actually tell us is well worth listening to).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the objective of the former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, to show  improvement in 2012 from the 2009 results.  That ambition was downplayed by the Minister and his officials before he left post.  While the First Minister reiterated the aim the current Education Minister gave a more realistic outline of where we may end up.

The reality about any education reform is that it takes time. This is a point that I discussed with the GTCW and Aled Roberts AM in recent ‘In Conversation With….’ pieces that I recorded.  The leading education systems in the world have all been developed over a 20, 30 or 40 year period. Those who have undergone that transformation will say that they are still developing and reforming. The problem is that we often confuse, much to the detriment of children’s education, the time it actually takes to change an education system and the desire to see short-term impacts of reforms alongside a political cycle. I of course appreciate that those politicians in the post of Education Minister, or opposition spokesperson, are working to election deadlines. Rapid improvements are demanded and expected of politicians and political pressures are exerted. However, for all that political bluster, educational change will not work to another’s timeline but at a rate of change that is sustainable and effective.

In Wales we certainly have not had enough time between the doomsday response to the last PISA rankings and next month’s publication. Now I am not convinced that some of the measures put in place by the Welsh Government are the right course of action to help support improving standards. In fact I think the dramatic increase in bureaucracy, workload, standardised testing and league tables that we have seen will act largely as a barrier to our national ambitions. These are measures that have been proven to fail in other nations by hitting staff morale, shrinking the curriculum and placing accountability measures high above collaboration and support. Indeed Finland’s educational missionary, the world-renowned Pasi Salhberg, has already stated that he believes the Welsh approach will fail.

That being said, ignoring my own cynicism, two years is simply not enough time to see the benefits, or indeed negatives, of policy changes on the overall picture of the education system as a whole. With that in mind it is certainly hard to expect to see rapid improvements in next month’s PISA scores. Further to that, the ambition that was stated by the Welsh Government that we are expected to reach PISA’s top 20 nations by 2015 is, to be kind, optimistic. To achieve such a feat Wales would have shown improvement on a level, and at a pace, that would be pretty much unheard of internationally.

There are other factors also acting as barriers to Welsh improvement in December’s publications.  Traditionally mathematics is the weakest PISA subject for Welsh students and on this occasion, unlike in 2009, this is the main subject that has been tested.  There will, inevitably therefore, be an expectation that results will not be as strong.

Of course, in years to come if we do improve we will have to ask the question if that has come about as a result of an improving education system or simply because we have aimed to introduced PISA style testing in schools designed to help us teach to the test? We may very well have pupils that will be better at PISA but not necessarily better educated pupils?

The Education Minister said in a recently Assembly debate that, “PISA is not the be all and end all of measures.”  Let’s all try to keep that in the back of our minds when the rhetoric reaches fever pitch next week.


In Conversation With…. Aled Roberts AM

28 Oct

In the second of the ‘In Conversation With…..’ audio blogs I was pleased to be able to sit down with Aled Roberts AM. (Recorded October 22nd)


Aled has been the Welsh Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Education, Spokesperson for Children and Young People and Spokesperson for the Welsh Language since he was elected to the National Assembly for Wales as a regional Assembly Member for the North Wales Region. Prior to that he was the leader of Wrexham County Council.

Please click below to hear the conversation where we discussed the recent budget negotiations to secure additional funding for the Pupil Deprivation Grant; the current state of education in Wales; the role of the local authority and a reaction to Huw Lewis AM’s recent ‘Reform, Rigour and Respect’ speech.

Alternativly you can listen on soundcloud here.

The Carrot Cake

All participants in the audio blog series usually will get carrot cake from me but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t get a chance to pick one up on this occasion. I owe you a slice Aled. Sorry!