Are the Welsh Government’s education reforms on track?

22 February 2017

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

this is a picture of a mathematical formula in chalk on a blackboard

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, will make a statement in Plenary on Tuesday (28 February 2017) on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) recommendations for the Welsh Government regarding its education reforms.

In October 2016, the Cabinet Secretary commissioned the OECD to consider the reforms the Welsh Government is undertaking to improve standards of education and whether they are ‘on track’.

The OECD’s influence on Welsh Government education policy

The OECD has been considerably influential on the Welsh Government’s education policies in recent years, not least through its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The previous Welsh Government initiated a raft of reforms in direct response to Wales’ disappointing PISA results in the 2009 and 2012 cycles. Reflecting on Wales’ PISA 2015 results, announced on 6 December 2016, the Cabinet Secretary said:

We will use these results and the rich data that they give us, allied to the forthcoming OECD report, to support and challenge my priorities and programme.

The OECD carried out an in depth review of the education system in Wales in 2014, which led to the Welsh Government’s new education improvement plan for the period to 2020, Qualified for Life (published October 2014). For more information on this, see our previous articles, Improving school standards (June 2016), Education policy leaning towards PISA? (December 2015) and PISA: What is it and why is it important? (November 2016).

The OECD’s Autumn 2016 review and the Welsh Government’s intention to refresh Qualified for Life

The most recent involvement of the OECD followed Kirsty Williams’ visit to the OECD in September 2016 just several months into her role as Cabinet Secretary for Education, when she said:

I believe in following international evidence. That is why I have asked the OECD to look at our reforms and to report back on whether we are on the right track and that we are making the right levels of progress.

It is not good enough to limit our ambitions to simply looking across the border, we must strive to be up there with the best in the world. So when I met the OECD, I asked that they advise me on whether we now have the right strategies in response to their 2014 Review.

The Cabinet Secretary told the Children, Young People and Education Committee during budget scrutiny in November 2016 (PDF 543KB) that the OECD’s findings would influence her final decisions about how to use the £20 million allocated in 2017-18 for raising school standards (part of a total £100 million pledged over this five-year Assembly.)

I’m not waiting for them to tell me how to spend the money. This is the approach I’m intending. But I do want to reflect, before I make absolute, final allocations [on] their report. It would seem churlish to me to have them over to test this and then have no reflection on what they might say. So, those are the areas and the figures that we’re looking at the moment—a taster of where we’re going—but I will use the feedback from the OECD report to refine what we’re doing. As I said, we’ve put this forward to them as part of our plans, but I do want a little bit of flexibility to be able to reflect on what they tell us.

In a letter to the Committee (PDF 784KB) regarding the development of the new curriculum, the Cabinet Secretary said that the OECD’s early findings following its visit to Wales in November indicated ‘many things now in place are putting Wales on a more promising track’. She added:

The OECD has confirmed to me that we are on the right track and need to continue on this path. In line with this I will be refreshing our strategic delivery plan, Qualified for Life, with a view to publishing a revised document in the spring. It is important that we do this in order to ensure that everything we are doing in education is suitably aligned with and supportive of our reform agenda.

The Welsh Government’s education priorities

The Welsh Government’s existing education improvement plan, Qualified for Life, has four strategic objectives:

  • An excellent professional workforce with strong pedagogy based on an understanding of what works.
  • A curriculum which is engaging and attractive to children and young people and which develops within them an independent ability to apply knowledge and skills.
  • The qualifications young people achieve are nationally and internationally respected and act as a credible passport to their future learning and employment.
  • Leaders of education at every level working together in a self-improving system, providing mutual support and challenge to raise standards in all schools.

Kirsty Williams’ priorities as Cabinet Secretary for Education can be found in letters she exchanged with the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, in June 2016. These letters set out details of their agreement underpinning her appointment to the Cabinet and acceptance of collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions.  The ten education priorities are:

  • Consider the recommendations of the Diamond Review [of student finance and HE funding], with a view to early implementation where appropriate, but without any negative effect on the higher education budget;
  • Reducing infant class sizes;
  • Ensuring every child gets the best start in life through an expanded Pupil Deprivation Grant
  • Incentivising, recognising and promoting teaching excellence to raise standards across the board.
  • Prioritising schools’ access to super-fast broadband within the national programme;
  • Promoting and enhancing academic and vocational routes into and through further and higher education;
  • Review of current policy of surplus places with an emphasis on rural schools and taking account of future growth trends;
  • Further consultation on the specific recommendations of the Hazelkorn Review of oversight and regulation of post-compulsory education and training;
  • Exploring a potential expansion of the remit of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol to include further education;
  • Prioritising support for enhanced links between education and industry.

When asked during budget scrutiny, whether there was any further prioritisation within these ten priorities, the Cabinet Secretary replied (PDF 565KB):

In terms of prioritisation, delivery across all of these commitments remains of equal importance. However, I expect all our policies to help raise standards and further narrow the attainment gap between pupils from our most deprived communities and those from more prosperous areas.

What to expect from the Cabinet Secretary’s statement

Assembly Members and stakeholders alike will be keen to hear about the OECD’s verdict on the Welsh Government’s education reforms and the Cabinet Secretary’s next steps. The OECD’s report and recommendations are likely to influence the next iteration of Qualified for Life and the Welsh Government’s updated education improvement priorities, as well as decisions on how to spend the additional investment to raise school standards.

The signals, which Kirsty Williams has given since the OECD’s visit, suggest more of the same rather than a significant change in direction:

When I invited the OECD last month to look at how we were doing in Wales, their advice to me was unambiguous: stay the course; be brave; you are doing the right things.

Estyn’s Chief Inspector, Meilyr Rowlands, recently told the Children, Young People and Education Committee (PDF 751KB):

I think I don’t expect to see great u-turns or changes. I think it’s a question of building on the current direction. The general sense of direction, I think, is the right one. I think what we need to do now is to implement those initiatives successfully. So, I’d be expecting to see some detail about how some of these things, such as the curriculum reform, are going to be implemented successfully.

The Cabinet Secretary’s statement and Assembly Members’ subsequent questions will be broadcast on Senedd TV and a transcript will be available on the Assembly’s Record of Proceedings.