As with probably everyone else in Wales, I've had to reflect hard on the PISA results announced this week. However when I read Professor David Egan's comment on what Victoria Winkler had to say in this post on the Bevan Foundation blog, it prompted me to look back to what I wrote three years ago.
It strikes me that nothing much has changed, and therefore I hope people won't mind me recycling it.
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.
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.
My original post is here, and I'd advise people to look at it because of the quality of the comments and discussion afterwards ... which we can perhaps continue here.