PISA ... looking back three years

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.

     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.

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.

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Welsh not British said...

If there was a book of clichés used by football pundits then somewhere in that book it would say "if you tread water you'll go backwards".

We have the opportunity to be a smart small nation, where our abundant water and ability to generate many times what we need in energy can be used to attract industry. Yet our leaders have no interest in this.

Anonymous said...

WNB ........ So change the leaders. But to do this you have to convince the electorate that you, the alternative, are smarter. This seems to be proving something of a challenge.

Education and the health service are pretty much home grown problems, made here in Wales for the people living here in Wales. My suspicion is that the intelligentsia, the educated amongst the population, although not necessarily the wealthy, are educating and medicating themselves elsewhere. Hence no outcry and no remedial action.

The rump is happy to live, work and educate its young in a dump simply because it knows no better. And never will.

Ambiorix said...

The rump is happy to live, work and educate its young in a dump simply because it knows no better. And never will.

Completely agree!

Anonymous said...

So, one educationial model which does ask more of its pupils and engaged parents and is very ambitious for its pupils, parents and Wales is Welsh medium education. Yet, this is the one system which many Labour AMs and Huw Lewis in particular, seem to go out of their way to obstruct and 'give in' only after years of protesting by those 'engaging parents'.

Welsh Labour is driving Wales to the ground.

Anonymous said...

"WNB ........ So change the leaders. But to do this you have to convince the electorate that you, the alternative, are smarter. This seems to be proving something of a challenge."

Very fair comment. The explanations of what a different government would look like have not been convincing to date, although we should also be clear that the electoral system exaggerates Labour's support. At the next elections the parties can put forward better education policies, although with our luck the election will end up being sold as a "referendum on Westminster".

Anonymous said...

Anon 21:48 said

'My suspicion is that the intelligentsia, the educated amongst the population, although not necessarily the wealthy, are educating and medicating themselves elsewhere.'

Do you mean they're watching open university programmes whilst at the same time necking a bottle of aspirin? A frivolous response perhaps, but not as silly as the point you were trying to make.

Anonymous said...

Anon 22:33, you mean this isn't something we should talk about? It not something that the rest of the population have a right to know?

Why not? You think we might get upset about it? Damn right we will!

Anonymous said...

Anon 00:15 - The PISA results in Wales have been widely reported in the media - even the English based media have shown some interest. I doubt that anyone with an interest in this issue is being prevented from contributing to the debate - although there is inevitably a great deal of misinformed opinion around the issue. Why you consider the post at 22:33 to be an attempt to shut down or limit the debate is a complete mystery to me. And please, stop writing as though your posts represent anything other than your own opinion. You have no mandate to speak on behalf of 'the rest of the population' (whoever they might be).

MH said...

Thanks for the comments.

As I said in a comment on my previous PISA post on Tuesday, I'm wary about looking for political solutions to educational problems. And that means I'm not inclined to play the party political line of saying that it's all Labour's fault. That's not to say that Labour is not at fault, or that there are no things a Welsh Government could do to make things better. But that, as I see it, the problem is rather more deep-rooted.

I was actually quite horrified at 21:48's comment that, "The rump is happy to live, work and educate its young in a dump simply because it knows no better. And never will."

Yet as I think about it, there is some truth in there somewhere, but I think it's come out in the wrong way. As written, it implies that there is an "underclass" in Wales, which I wouldn't dispute; but that the people in it aren't interested in getting out of it ... and I would definitely dispute that.

I would put it in terms of losing hope, rather than having no motivation. As I said in my post, education was always seen by people in Wales as one of the ways of making sure that the life your children would have was better than the life you, as a parent, might have now. I'm now in my 50s, and the one thing, emphasized more than anything else, that I remember of my parent's attitude was that they wanted my sister and I to have more opportunities and a better life than they had, and that the way to achieve this was through education.

And, of course, my parents were hardly alone in wanting this for me. So, as a result, education and teachers were treated with enormous respect. To be honest, it approached veneration. But poor people in deprived neighbourhoods in this generation no longer think that way. Teaching is not valued, teachers are just thought of as ordinary or, if anything, looked down on.

But this isn't an attitude problem. It's more a matter of coming to realize that being well educated isn't going to make as much difference in this day and age as it used to. There are now, in our famous-for-fifteen-minute celebrity society, perceived to be better routes out of poverty: things like sport or music, for example. So it's not that people in deprived communities don't want anything better for themselves and their children, it's more that they are disillusioned with education as a way out. If the community doesn't put the same emphasis on education, the local school starts to decline in importance; as it declines, it stops attracting the best teachers; so it declines more ... vicious circle.

I don't think it's a coincidence that better educational performance goes hand in hand with teaching being so much more highly respected as a profession in South Korea or Finland than it now is in Wales. But attitudes like that can't be changed back in just a few years. Just as it took a generation for respect for teaching and teachers to decline, it might take a generation for it to recover.

Ultimately, though, the real thing we need to do isn't so much to see education as an escape route from disadvantage for just a few, as if the idea is for our kids to have to battle their way to the top of a box of Borussian Cornflakes. It is to get rid of the disadvantage by creating a fairer and more equal society in which there cannot be such extremes between rich and poor.

This is the bigger problem that we need to solve. To the extent that we can solve the problem of people in relative poverty we will at the same time solve a large part of the problem of poor academic performance. We will also go a long way towards solving problems of long-term health, such as obesity and low life expectancy, which the poor suffer from to a much greater extent than the rich.

Anonymous said...

MH - Although parental attitudes are important in determining edcuational success or otherwise of their offspring - crucial in many cases - I am not convinced it has ever been the case that all parents have understood the benefits of education or instilled in their children positive attitudes towards education. Although my own parents were always encouraging and supportive that certainly wasn't the case with many of comtemporaries growing up in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, the proportion of children leaving school without any qaulifications was much higher then than it is today. And the further back you go, the worse the situation becomes. For example, both my parents attended a grammar school and yet left school without sitting a single examnation.

Tarian said...

Interesting article. I have a few observations.

Relative poverty is a red herring. There is a poverty of ambition among many of our population which I believe is caused by a few factors. Firstly although we have poverty we don't have the grinding poverty that makes ambition and education an absolute necessity for survival. Obviously this is a good thing but many of our people can live tolerable lives without feeling the need to push thier kids that little bit further. Naturally parents insist (quite genuinely) that they want their kids to succeed but this only occasionally results in the kind of pressure and support required for success. I think several interrelated factors can explain this. Perhaps the most significant is the low level of education of parents in Wales, and this is closely related to the weakness of the Welsh economy and the brain drain which has been going on for decades (even centuries).

In general the children of middle class parents do better educationally than the children of working class (or workless) parents. The lower on the class and poverty scale the worse the outcomes. But it is not a question of income - quite simply well educated parents tend to give their kids the best start in life through investing time reading and doing maths with them (even as infants), they often owe their own success to education therefore instill a positive attitude towards it in their children, and vitally they understand HOW the education system works i.e. you can't expect the teachers to take sole responsibility for educating your kids. It amazes me that so few people realise that much of what goes on in scholls is not actually education but sorting (ranking kids based on pre-existing ability/training and giving this a veneer).

So how is this linked to the weak economy and the brain drain? In terms of the economy we have an undersupply of jobs and those that are available are often poorly paid. The neglect of our economy by Wastemonster has resulted also in a lack of skilled jobs requiring good academic achievement. People can see few opportunities in their areas which would 'reward' all the hard work neede to achieve in school. The bottom line is that they would have to move to England and take their chances - strangely enough this is not a major pull for some - family, community and a sense of belonging still have a strong pull (thankfully). However, the vast majority of those who have succeeded academically have had to leave Wales for work and this has been going on for decades. These well educated and well paid people then raise their kids in England (or wherever) and instill in them the values that allowed them to succeed. Instead of bolstering our economy, bolstering the culture of ambition in our schools and communities, the benefits produced by these people accrue to England (usually the south East). The effects of the brain drain are cumulative and there is some truth in the idea that those left behind form a kind of residual population with a diminishing capacity to access the routes to progress. There are some parallells with the bifurcation which led to the disintegration of mixed class black neighbourhoods in the USA which caused cohesive, balanced and ambitious communities to disintegrate into the poverty stricken ghettoes of today.

The solutions to these problems are actually fairly simple. Education is not hard and can be successfully carried out even in the poorest and underfunded areas. The key factor is a focus on the essentials from the teaching profession and a positive attitude instilled throughout the community. As a final point I would warn about giving sole control to teaching prefessionals - this usually means headmasters, unions and the theoretical 'experts' of the teaching colleges. These represent vested interests and should be treated with scepticism.

Tarian said...

Eye yam saw re four ddy typos.

Anonymous said...

Tarian - Excellent post. Not sure that the solutions are quite as simple as you suggest but the rest of your argument seems irrefutable to me.

Anonymous said...

I see alot of sense in what Tarian says. My parents encouraged me outside of the school hours, to read and to become computer literate. They also had a sense that devolution would create job opportunities that you'd otherwise have to go to London to find. But the bottom line is that we don't have a high-value private sector in Wales. We employ about 75% of the workforce in the private sector but it tends to pay badly. People then get things twisted and blame this on "socialism" (even though Wales has never had socialism), or on devolution (even though devolution didn't bring any economic levers) or on any manner of things. Well, most people don't actually blame it on those things they blame Thatcherism and the lack of diverisification in the Welsh economy, but we all know things are more complicated than putting up any of those bogeymen.

A change of government and minister would help as well! If only to freshen things up.

Owen said...

I'd probably only be echoing what's already been said, but the PISA report itself (as pointed out in my own blog on this) said that economies with a greater "resilience" - pupils performing better than their socio-economic background would suggest they would - produced higher scores.

It's clear that in large chunks of Wales there is no "resilience", probably for the reasons quoted by Prof. Adamson and others in this thread. It could just be cultural - an expectation of low performance and anti-intellectualism. It could simply be a lack of chances - disadvantaged pupils growing up in disadvantaged areas are going to lack the contacts, resources etc. they need.

It's also, as MH says, going to be the general state of the economy too. Many jobs that require higher levels of academic achievement don't pay very well - like the sciences - have fewer and fewer openings, or simply don't exist in the right numbers in Wales.

I still think there's going to have to be a critical assessment of the curriculum and teaching methods, and that's something I said in the 2010 thread. That should be a slow-burner over several years that requires a patient, methodical approach. For the time being it's perhaps best to - as many people elsewhere have said - "do nothing" and let current reforms bed in.

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