Poor academic performance ... or just poor?

It goes without saying that the results of the 2009 PISA survey published yesterday are disappointing. But although everyone knows there's something wrong, not many people are giving a coherent reason why.

However the answer one person has given does seem to me to be more plausible than most. Professor David Egan wrote this on This is my truth today ... though it's only an extract from his full article, which is here.

   

Far more significant, however, was the extremely strong relationship that exists in Wales, compared to more successful countries, between living in relative poverty and disadvantage and not doing well in PISA. That is again likely to be the most important cause that explains our overall performance and it is also possible that we will have slipped further in this respect relative to other countries, including England, who have begun to address the relationship between poverty and educational performance.

Put quite directly, where you are born in Wales, who your family and friends are and the community you live in has a profound effect, despite the raw talents and potential that may be your birthright, with what you will achieve in education and thereafter to a large extent in life. In essence if we want to explain PISA, we need to look no further than the insidious effect which poverty continues to have on our nation and its people, particularly our children.

Today, one day after the PISA results were published, this article in the Western Mail shows how Wales' GVA relative to the UK as a whole has slipped yet further.

     Wales confirmed as UK's poorest nation

The full data are here but the critical figures are:

Wales GVA per head relative to the UK as a whole

1989 ... 85.4%
1999 ... 77.4%
2010 ... 74.3%

This shows that there is a fairly good correlation between Wales' worsening GVA figures and our decline in academic achievement. That, of course, does not prove a connexion, but it certainly adds weight to the probability.

-

It is fair to say that the link between educational achievement and poverty is a subject that Professor Egan has raised on a number of occasions, for example here in March last year. I thought the figures in this table were particularly informative:

The percentage of children not meeting the expected grade in the lower Cynon Valley:

•  Age seven ... 25.1%
•  Age eleven ... 32.9%
•  Age fourteen ... 58.8%
•  Age sixteen ... 77%

Assuming this pattern is going to be pretty much the same for other areas of higher poverty in Wales, this probably does most to explain why Wales does relatively well compared with England in the early key stages, but that performance then declines markedly when children enter secondary school ... and it should be remembered that the PISA tests are taken by those aged fifteen. It would also explain why Wales then starts to do relatively well (at least when the Welsh Baccalaureate is taken into account, as I noted here) in post-GCSE education. This would be because children from more disadvantaged areas are less likely to be taking A levels and the Welsh Bac Diploma.

It is not a matter of poverty, but of relative poverty. Many of us will remember a generation where we were much poorer than we are now in absolute terms, but in a situation where the gap between rich and poor is widening rather than being narrowed, those who are already poor must feel an increasing sense of hopelessness about whether education—which always used to be the obvious route out of poverty—can now still bridge a gap that is continually widening.

-

If this analysis is true, then it would seem to suggest that the problem of our poor academic performance is not really going to be solved by focusing only on education, and in particular will not be solved simply by spending more money on education. To me, that solution seems to be a knee jerk response. People will suggest it either because they feel we have to "do something" no matter what, or because they are involved in education and want to see education cushioned from the severity of the cuts.

Money, particularly investment, is needed. But I think the target should not so much on changing the way we teach, for the changes we have made in the past few years seem to me to be perfectly reasonable, and need time to work through before we can judge them. Instead, the more pressing need should be to change the attitude of hopelessness that seems to be growing as the relative poverty of the most disadvantaged parts of our communities increases. I think Professor Dave Adamson's quote in this clip from the link above hits the nail on the head.

     

There's almost a social isolation that can occur, and young people can get locked in a local culture where they have very low aspirations. They don't expect to do well in school, their parents don't expect them to do well and, sadly, their teachers often don't expect them to do well. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that they won't do well.

Bookmark and Share

19 comments:

Lyndon said...

Our "close-knit" communities at work.

The reinforcement of failure.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, this sounds like the Left wing intelligencia trying to cover their backs.

Poverty is obviously a contributing issue but I don't think you can get away that it's such a big factor. The converse to your argument about 'relative poverty' could be that young people see the relative poverty they're in and see others better off and decide to improve their educational chances. It could be a spurn to success but it's put through the prism of Left Wing doctrine to be a reason for failure.

There are many issues here but teachers and the teaching profession - teaching unions especially - have to take part of the blame. It would be nice just for once to hear the teaching unions campaign for pupils not just teachers. It would be nice to hear them discuss ways of making it easier to sack bad teachers rather than backing them.

The Labour government in Cardiff has micromanaged education which has not been a great help either.

The intellectual left wing narrative has systematically undermined the networks which helped children and families to improve their education - Sunday Schools, Urdd, Cubs, Scouts, with an intellectual snobbishness which would vary from calling the Urdd facistic, Sunday School and religion irrelevant, Cubs and Scouts as being something for pointy-elbowed mothers.

This intellectual climate has undermined the kind of networks which gave support to kids of all backgrounds. It's especially obvious in Wales where a kind of common lowest denominator is used in the culture war by Labour members so as to undermine the cultural agenda associated with the Welsh language the, 'nobody sings folk music', 'the Eisteddfod is for Welsh crachach snobs' etc.

And in its place we have the state trying to take over the big gaping hole which the Labour party has helped undermine. Millions and millions of pounds spend doing what the chapels, Urdd, Scouts did for free to tax payers. This hole is filled by Community First and other Labour front organisations.

Poverty isn't the only problem. Don't fall for the Brit nat left wing covering their backs. They've been in power in Wales for almost a century, they've held the education brief in the Assembly since 1999. This is a gaping hole in the track-record of Labour in power. Leighton Andrews has done some good stuff since coming into post this year but he's too late. The record stands for itself - Labour can't be trusted to govern.


Dai Dwl

Photon said...

A very interesting and profoundly important topic of debate, very well presented here, I have to say.

I think it is very obvious to those of us who grew up in Wales that there is a general culture of low aspiration and indeed of negative attitudes towards those who are 'a bit too clever for their own good'. This is not unique to Wales, and is widely-known in many other cultural settings of poverty and deprivation.

It seems to me there is an urgent need to be honest with ourselves in Wales and admit that we have deep-rooted problems in relation to our economic, political, educational and aspirational situations. Like miners and quarrymen of a century ago, we need to accept that we are very poor as a people, and do something positive about it, especially for our children.

Owen said...

Some good comments above.

Although I'm under no doubt that poverty plays a role, I think economic performance overall (GVA) is a red herring. Yes the figures are shocking but they never give a real, tangible outlook of how Wales's economy is performing on the ground. When you look at Wales from an international and European perspective, Wales's GVA per capita is very similar to South Korea, one of the PISA top-performers and is only marginally below the EU27 average.

Similarly pupil funding is another red herring but I guess we can all figure out why with one glance at the PISA table.

IMHO, we should be looking at what is being taught and how it's being delivered in schools.

Firstly the what. PISA tests are very practical-orientated. Our curriculum is very focussed on in-depth underlying concepts and theories. If you've worked with core mathematical principles out of a textbook, but never used them in the context of exchange rates or economic statistics, you won't do well in the PISA test. Here's a pdf with some sample questions on if anyone's interested.

Now the how. We won't know what effect Foundation Phase will have for the best part of a decade. Learning Pathways are very grand sounding but never seem to have anything, in terms of qualifications or options, to back them up, unlike the Welsh Bac.

We need to give teenagers, especially those who are not suited for academia real options in terms of vocational and practical qualifications. They should be valued as highly as GCSE's and A-Levels. If we can teach childcare and engineering at 14-16, why not computer programming/game design, aeronautics, management, marketing, personal training, translation, applied science, architecture, accountancy? Something that can even lead to higher education or into direct employment.

They need hope. They need to be challenged, but matching their interests and goals, not something an examining board decides they have to know.

Anonymous said...

Labour has created a chav culture which married the social liberalism of the left wing with the economic liberalism of capitalism. It's a uniquely Labour phenomenon.

Labour talk a lot about the importance of aspiration but when aspiration rears its head, Labour knocks it down.

When people were ambitious for their kids to learn Welsh they were Welshies 'not going to normal schools' and WM was obstructed; when they were ambitious that their kids compete at the eisteddfod they were 'middle class snobs' singing folk music which wasn't 'ordinary working class culture' and possibly fascistic; when they wanted better education (in English) they're 'pointed elbow parents'.

Leighton Andrews has possibly realised the problems but it's too late for a generation and more of Welsh kids.

Labour, Welsh Labourism with its lowest common cultural denominator, is the problem.


Macsen

Anonymous said...

The comments are great the post itself was all a bit complacent. Poverty? Poverty of aspiration certainly and a deeply conservative teaching profession which is more about preserving the status quo than a bit of honest heart searching.

Owen said...

I've no doubt poverty plays a part in underachievement. However I don't think the wider economic argument (GVA) stands up too well. Welsh GVA per capita is similar to one of PISA's top performers, South Korea, and overall is near the EU27 average. Similarly one look at the PISA table dismisses the per-pupil spending shortfall argument.

Our poverty is relative to the UK, it's never seen in an exclusively Welsh or international context. Areas that by UK standards are poor, like Port Talbot, Bridgend and Ceredigion are areas of skilled manufacturing and education/research. Likewise, retirees are just another diviser for GVA per capita figures. I'd like to see what productivity in Wales is for everyone in employment/economically active. I'm willing to bet it would be a lot more impressive.

Back to PISA, we need to look at what is taught and how. Firstly, the "what". PISA tests are applied/practical based. Our curriculum is very in-depth and based on underlying principles and theories. If you've never had basic mathematics taught in the context of exchange rates, workplace problem-solving or economic statistics, you won't do well in the PISA test. Some sample questions are here if anyone is interested.

Secondly the "how". If we want our teenagers to break the cycle of underperformance, we need to give them more options, especially those for whom classroom academia is offputting. If we can teach childcare and engineering to 14-16 year olds, then why not other vocational/practical courses like computer programming, game design, aeronautics, accountancy, translation, applied science, management, marketing, personal training/nutrition?

Give these teenagers options, based on their interests (not exam boards), that may lead to higher/further education or even a direct route into employment.

MH said...

I'd like to pick up on a few points Dai made.

First, I don't see that there's anything particularly left or right wing about what I've said. There is undoubtedly a correlation between relative educational achievement and relative poverty, and I would therefore have thought that all sides of the political spectrum would be interested in exploring how the two are linked, whether or not other factors are also at play.

You've said that young people who see others are better off than them would decide to improve their educational chances. I think that is a highly questionable point, and perhaps the crux of the problem. I said that education was definitely seen as the route out of relative poverty a generation ago, but I don't think that is the case now. I think many young people are now more likely to see celebrity as the way out of poverty. Certainly the "cult of celebrity" is a much more prevalent cultural trend in recent years, and I think this has probably been a big factor in downgrading the importance of education. There are certain people who don't want to do well at school simply because they think their life chances might well be better if they concentrated on other things instead.

If this analysis holds water, it means that re-instilling the value of education is more a cultural problem than a specifically educational problem. And therefore we should not expect the way we "do" education to solve it. This ties into the point I made before about simply spending more on education not being some magic bullet that would change things. We need to look at the wider picture, rather than just concentrate on education itself.

To be continued ...

MH said...

Continued ...

I think some of the points you've made about what we now call the Third Sector (voluntary groups, charities, churches and the like) are valid. If there's one attitude that does seem to be prevalent in Welsh working class society, it is perhaps the idea that we expect "the Council" or perhaps "the Government" to provide a basic safety net provision rather than to have to rely on the good will of others to provide it instead. In one sense we have a right to expect it, but I can see that it might also drown out other providers. The downside is that people then end up with what the council decides to provide, whether it is good or bad.

This might be particularly true with education. Some schools are much worse than others, and although people tend to know how good the good schools are (because they blow their own trumpets about it) they tend not to realize how bad the bad schools are. They probably don't know if the local school is bad or just average, and send their children to it on the assumption that if the council is providing it, it must be OK ... because if it wasn't OK someone would have done something about it.

But if the council has been in the same hands for year after year, it simply isn't in the council's interest to say they have bad schools, and therefore nothing is done about them. As you will know, one of the things that particularly concerns me is the expansion of Welsh-medium education, and in particular that in order for it to expand we cannot rely on building brand new schools, but of closing existing schools for them to reopen as WM schools. Yet parents inevitably say that the underused school it is proposed to close is "good". I would simply say that identifying the bad schools and closing them on the grounds that they are bad would be a far more sensible way of freeing-up buildings for use as WM schools.

-

But my main point would be that if there is a link between relative poverty and relatively poor academic performance, then the poor academic performance is a symptom of the bigger problem of deprivation and relative poverty rather a problem in itself. The failure to tackle poverty (and child poverty in particular) most definitely is something that we can blame Labour for. They had thirteen years to make a difference, but didn't even make a dent in it.

Look again at the end of the video clip, where Betsan Powys says to Huw Lewis that the 2020 child poverty target simply wasn't credible, but he would have none of it. Now I may make fun of Screwloose's pomposity, but I have nothing but praise for his concern for child poverty. I've also been impressed by the way he's been piloting the Rights of Children and Young Persons Measure through the Assembly. But at the end of the day, poverty is an economic issue. It is about how we organize and run our economy, and specifically how we redistribute our wealth to avoid excessive polarization between rich and poor.

Anonymous said...

... this is what happens when people vote Welsh Labour.

Talking a good fight, class jingoism, harking on about the blinking 1930s and Nye Bevan doesn't change the fact that they can't be trusted to run the Assembly nor with our children's education.

Owen said...

Original posted at 11:37, 9 December

Some good comments above.

Although I'm under no doubt that poverty plays a role, I think economic performance overall (GVA) is a red herring. Yes the figures are shocking but they never give a real, tangible outlook of how Wales's economy is performing on the ground. When you look at Wales from an international and European perspective, Wales's GVA per capita is very similar to South Korea, one of the PISA top-performers and is only marginally below the EU27 average.

Similarly pupil funding is another red herring but I guess we can all figure out why with one glance at the PISA table.

IMHO, we should be looking at what is being taught and how it's being delivered in schools.

Firstly the what. PISA tests are very practical-orientated. Our curriculum is very focussed on in-depth underlying concepts and theories. If you've worked with core mathematical principles out of a textbook, but never used them in the context of exchange rates or economic statistics, you won't do well in the PISA test. Here's a pdf with some sample questions on if anyone's interested.

Now the how. We won't know what effect Foundation Phase will have for the best part of a decade. Learning Pathways are very grand sounding but never seem to have anything, in terms of qualifications or options, to back them up, unlike the Welsh Bac.

We need to give teenagers, especially those who are not suited for academia real options in terms of vocational and practical qualifications. They should be valued as highly as GCSE's and A-Levels. If we can teach childcare and engineering at 14-16, why not computer programming/game design, aeronautics, management, marketing, personal training, translation, applied science, architecture, accountancy? Something that can even lead to higher education or into direct employment.

They need hope. They need to be challenged, but matching their interests and goals, not something an examining board decides they have to know.

Owen said...

Original posted at 14:05, 9 December

I've no doubt poverty plays a part in underachievement. However I don't think the wider economic argument (GVA) stands up too well. Welsh GVA per capita is similar to one of PISA's top performers, South Korea, and overall is near the EU27 average. Similarly one look at the PISA table dismisses the per-pupil spending shortfall argument.

Our poverty is relative to the UK, it's never seen in an exclusively Welsh or international context. Areas that by UK standards are poor, like Port Talbot, Bridgend and Ceredigion are areas of skilled manufacturing and education/research. Likewise, retirees are just another diviser for GVA per capita figures. I'd like to see what productivity in Wales is for everyone in employment/economically active. I'm willing to bet it would be a lot more impressive.

Back to PISA, we need to look at what is taught and how. Firstly, the "what". PISA tests are applied/practical based. Our curriculum is very in-depth and based on underlying principles and theories. If you've never had basic mathematics taught in the context of exchange rates, workplace problem-solving or economic statistics, you won't do well in the PISA test. Some sample questions are here if anyone is interested.

Secondly the "how". If we want our teenagers to break the cycle of underperformance, we need to give them more options, especially those for whom classroom academia is offputting. If we can teach childcare and engineering to 14-16 year olds, then why not other vocational/practical courses like computer programming, game design, aeronautics, accountancy, translation, applied science, management, marketing, personal training/nutrition?

Give these teenagers options, based on their interests (not exam boards), that may lead to higher/further education or even a direct route into employment.

MH said...

I've just looked at my email notifications and seen two comments by Owen which had not appeared because they had been caught in the blogger spam filter. For what it's worth my guess is that any mention of South Korea and education is taken to be some sort of dissertation scam. I get quite a few of those.

I've now found the right button to press to reinstate them (having previously copied and reposted them, only for them to be transferred into the spam box a few minutes later) and would encourage people to go back and read them. They are both similar probably because he noticed the first had dissappeared, and I can only apologize if he thought I had deleted them.

-

As you say, Owen, I did try to stress that I was talking about relative poverty, so the points you make about GVA (or GDP) per head elsewhere are valid. The point I was trying to make is that there is a real sense of hopelessness that exists in some pockets of some of our communities. These may be particular towns as a whole, or maybe certain housing estates, or maybe more isolated rural villages. The point made by Dave Adamson in the video was that only a stone's throw away, in Mountain Ash, things were very markedly different from the way they were in Perthcelyn. If it doesn't sound Orwellian (and with the highest regard for the people that live there, for it is not their fault) it seems as if we have created an "underclass" of the socially and economically disadvantaged in which people have no realistic expectation of being prosperous.

In the past, the majority of us might have been poorer, but because most of us were in that situation there was no sense of "us and them" ... or at least the "them" was a very small class of rich people. Now, much of what we used to call the working class are averagely well off and much more concerned about themselves than those who are more disadvantaged than them. It is this sense of being abandoned that we must fight to reverse, for if we don't, we cannot hope to call ourselves an inclusive, fair society.

-

But of course, there is much that we can say about the education system itself. Of what we expect it to achieve and of how we make sure it does do that. You concentrate on that, and there's not much I'd disagree with in what you say. However, what we do in Wales is not so very different from what is done in England or Scotland ... so it cannot really be the cause of our relative decline in PISA performance relative to England and Scotland. The things that we are doing differently (like the Foundation Phase, which is a bold and radical innovation that I entirely support) have not yet had the chance to make a difference. So if we are looking for a reason for our decline relative to our closest neighbours, it cannot lie there.

So far as I can see, the only thing which correlates with our PISA decline is our relative decline in GVA compared with the other countries of Britain.

Owen said...

Thank's MH for posting my comments, and you assumed correctly about why I've posted twice. Apologies if that's confused any other readers.

I agree that over several decades councils and government have created "ghettos". Distant pockets of social housing estates that are stuck up the side of a hill in the valleys. Places like Penrhys in RCT and Bettws in Bridgend county.

There is an "attitude problem". It's a Welsh thing, or a valleys thing, to expect everything on the doorstep, because "that's the way it's always been". I don't blame them either, but I do blame the people and ideas that've reinforced this attitude. This includes romanticism about the industrial past and playing to convenient excuses for people to right themselves off, like disability, or for 15 year olds a perceived lack of opportunity.

There is hope, I'm not sure if you've highlighted this before MH, but Neath Port Talbot have achieved consistantly good examination results over the last few years, always being near the top performing LA's. It's not PISA but it's a start. Perhaps the answers to our questions are a lot closer to home that we think.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"When you look at Wales from an international and European perspective, Wales's GVA per capita is very similar to South Korea, one of the PISA top-performers and is only marginally below the EU27 average."

Good comment from Owen. The relative comparison to the UK is misleading because by the same data, Wales' GVA increased throughout the devolution period. But the relative gap grew because the UK figure powered ahead due to the financial services growth of the south-east of England.

Interestingly the relative GVA gap between Wales and the UK average fell slightly in 2009- even though Wales' GVA stagnated in that year, the UK average slipped back further to narrow the gap (because of the recession and financial services taking a brief hit).

There are some parts of Wales that have GVA above the UK average. It's all relative.

It is not a useful comparison.

The PISA tables are a different story.

Anonymous said...

This argument about poverty doesn't make sense.

By this reasoning then no country would ever get out of poverty because there would be no incentive for the population to do so. And if one part of the community - the next door village, the next housing estate, the next street - did get any wealthier then other streets/communities/estates wouldn't because they're too busy feeling sorry for themselves and having a sulk.

So, S. Koroa would still be a war-torn hole; Finland a dirt-poor cold place full of loggers; Singapore a malaria-infested swamp.

Sorry, the left wing argument just doesn't hold water here. It's Labour's problem. It's built on labour's intellectual bankruptcy.

The successful states here are all by and large with a strong conservative (with a small 'c') hinterland - either a conservative education policy or a conservative (not the same as reactionary) community where there are standards and social mores and taboos which people are expected to follow.

Within that context there is discipline in class, expectations of what the teachers and their unions deliver and what is expected of parents. All these have been undermined by the Labour intellectuals in the UK and in its fiefdom in Wales.

Dai Dwl

Anonymous said...

"The successful states here are all by and large with a strong conservative (with a small 'c') hinterland - either a conservative education policy or a conservative (not the same as reactionary) community where there are standards and social mores and taboos which people are expected to follow. "

What is a "successful state"?

Netherlands is pretty successful- not a very conservative level of social standards though.

Most of the successful European education systems are based on state provision. Finland might be different I suppose.

At the end of the day we need to sort ourselves out. It isn't a left/right issue.

Anonymous said...

First things first. We are a small country and the PISA survey took in 132 schools or 59% of secondary schools. All very well if the characteristics of those schools represented a fair cross section of social and econonomic status (and therefore educational outcomes). Get it wrong and we could look rubbish.

The Republic of Ireland quickly looked at their own results (catastrophic) and commissioned a Canadian team to come up with reasons;

8 Very low achieving schools in the sample that weren't in the 2006 sample.
A threefold increase in immigrant children since 2006.
Disengaged pupils who were not inclined to put much effort into an exam that had no consequences for them personally.

Does any of this apply to Wales?
The highest achieving subsection of Welsh secondary schools is the Welsh Medium sector (1996 definition; 58 schools) so was this fairly represented in the sample.

21 schools asked for some or all of the pupil questionaires in Welsh. 10% of the total returns were in Welsh. 10 schools sent all Welsh returns. 16 schools sent Welsh school (headmaster) returns.

I think that 21 is the total number of Welsh Medium schools that there could be in this sample, although fewer is a distinct likelihood.

Is that representative?

36% of all Welsh schools but 16% of the schools sampled.

WM secondaries form 26% of Welsh schools and have 21% of Welsh 15 year olds.

It makes a difference. 85.4% of Welsh Medium secondary school have fewer than 15% of pupils on Free school Meals. These are high achieving schools with children from families where parents are educated to degree level.

Compare English medium schools; 57% of 15 year olds are in schools which have more than 15% on FSM's. The fall off in academic achievment with each 1% on FSM's accelerates towards the bottom schools and there are almost as many EM pupils in schools with 30%+ on FSM's as there are WM pupils in schools with less than 10% on FSM's.

We may be rubbish in the PISA tests but not necessarily as rubbish as appears.

Wales tried to implement methods of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children through the (discontinued) RAISE initiative. £16 million was spent. only Neath Port-Talbot and Swansea showed any concrete results. Implementation of the project was haphazard at best and negligent at worst.

Anonymous said...

out of interest, Catalonia performed better than in 2006. Large influx of people from outside Catalonia contributed to lower standards but still better than Spain. So a bilingual society can achieve as well, if not better, than monolingual one.

http://www.catalannewsagency.com/news/society-science/catalonia-improving-education-pisa-survey-finds


Twpsyn

Post a Comment