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Education

Wales’s education performance falls to lowest-ever level

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THE ORGANISATION of Economically Developed Countries (OECD) published its latest report on educational attainment (PISA) on Tuesday, December 5.

It shows students in Wales have slipped even further behind the other UK nations in a worst-ever set of results.

In Mathematics, the fall in attainment is the equivalent of a whole year’s education in the subject. Test marks also fell sharply in science and English.

Jeremy Miles, Wales’s Education Minister, said the results showed how the hangover from the pandemic affected students’ education.

His observation had clear merit, as PISA results fell worldwide, with attainment falling in all but ten of eighty-one OECD members.

Wales’s results put its education at the same level as Norway and the USA, and the nation’s results fell the same number of points in England and Scotland.

WHAT IS PISA?

PISA is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ academic performance in mathematics, science, and reading in PISA.

The PISA assessment is regarded, with some misgivings among educational experts, as a guide to the performance of education policies across 79 participating countries.

When the OECD last published the PISA report in 2020, Wales had caught up with the international average in all subjects.

In the new report, all home nations’ attainment fell, but Wales’s fell further than others.

MINISTER BLAMES PANDEMIC

Education Minister Jeremy Miles said: “Before the pandemic, we saw a strong improvement in literacy and numeracy standards in Wales. Sadly, it is clear that the pandemic has derailed some of this improvement.

“We have already started on a path of driving up standards in reading and maths, and we won’t let these results knock us off track.

“At the end of November (see this week’s Education section), we launched literacy and numeracy plans to help support learning and raise standards in these key areas. 

“I have also published the first national report on our children’s reading and numeracy performance. I will do this annually to track recovery. 

“We supported our schools and learners through the pandemic. We will stand together and support them now.” 

Since 2022, schools in Wales have started implementing major long-term reforms, with the new Curriculum for Wales being taught and rolled out sequentially to reach all learners in all schools from 2026/27.

Jeremy Miles continued: “Our long-term education reforms have started after years of planning and, as the OECD says, improvement to education takes time.

“We have taken a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise the quality of education in Wales and I’m confident we will deliver huge benefits for our young people.”

CONSERVATIVES CRITICISE “WIDENING GAP”

Following the usual hackneyed jibe at the Welsh Government’s plans to increase the number of Senedd members, the Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Minister Laura Anne Jones MS said: “The results are not a shock when we have a Labour Government which has so little regard for our children’s future that they cut the education budget this year. All governments should give pupils and teachers the tools to do their best and thrive.

“After 25 years of Labour running Welsh schools, we have a widening attainment gap. Sadly, again, Wales languishes at the bottom of international league tables.

“The Labour Education Minister needs to get a grip of his department and give our young people the start in life they deserve. He can start by getting 5,000 more teachers back into our classrooms after years of declining numbers and the desperately needed money to support growing ALN numbers in mainstream education.”

PLAID HIGHLIGHTS CHILD POVERTY

Plaid Cymru has criticised the handling of child poverty rates in Wales, which it says has contributed to the results, leading to high absenteeism in Welsh schools.

Plaid Cymru’s education spokesperson, Heledd Fychan MS, said: “The PISA results published should be a wakeup call for the Welsh Government.

“Too many young people in Wales are living in poverty, pupil absences are unacceptably high, and many schools are facing a significant deficit in their budgets. Despite the hard work and dedication of an overstretched workforce, the pupil attainment gap is widening, and we cannot ignore the link between poverty and today’s disappointing results.

“Every child, no matter their background, should have an equal chance of success.

“We need more than platitudes and excuses from the Minister for Education in response to these results. 

“Wales had a pre-Covid recruitment crisis in the education sector, the magnitude of which Ministers failed to grasp. 

“Continuing and entrenching cuts to education will do nothing to put Wales on a path towards a turnaround in our PISA results.”

EDUCATION UNION UNSURPRISED

Emma Forrest, NEU’s Assistant General Secretary Regions, Wales, and Legal Strategy, said: “NEU Cymru members won’t be shocked by the OECD’s PISA results. They don’t tell us anything the education workforce doesn’t know – that across most OECD countries, schools need support in a post-pandemic situation.

“Comparison is difficult. We are particularly concerned that these results do not represent many countries’ full cohort of learners. Whilst this is understandable, it makes comparisons less meaningful in the context of the pandemic.

“Here in Wales, we have the new Curriculum for Wales, which none of the cohort tested in PISA have been taking. 

“Suppose the Welsh Government wants to take anything from these results. In that case, it is an opportunity to ensure that they have a qualifications system which does not focus on tests and time-limited exams but gives young people a real chance to show what they can do.

“We will continue to work with the Welsh Government on the critical aspects of workload and professional development for the workforce, and how we can best support the wellbeing and expertise of staff, to ensure they are able to focus on children and their learning.”

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Education

College lecturer shortlisted for two WorldSkills UK EDI Hero Awards

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ESTABLISHED in 2020, the WorldSkills UK Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Heroes Awards honour the individuals and organisations that promote and embed innovative practices, projects, and initiatives, making a positive impact on learners, workplaces, and the wider skills system.

With seven categories including: Rising Star, Role Model, Inclusive Skills Development, Skills Competition Diversity Champion, Network of the Year, Skills Competitions Advocate, and Initiative of the Year, Ben Blackledge, CEO for WorldSkills UK commented: “These awards are an amazing opportunity to highlight and celebrate the difference being made by organisations and individuals across the skills sector.

“We are passionate about championing the need for inclusive opportunities that give all young people the chance to succeed in work and life, and that is why we are thrilled to come together in person in a few weeks to celebrate and hear first-hand who the winners are.”

Pembrokeshire College Employability Co-ordinator for the Life Skills Academy, David Jones, has been shortlisted in both the Role Model and Skills Competition Diversity Champion categories for the work he does on a daily basis to encourage and inspire his learners to remove barriers and achieve their full potential.

David will now join the other finalists at an awards ceremony on 7 March at the House of Commons, where the winners will be announced. Charlotte Nichols MP will be presenting the awards and commented: “Congratulations to this year’s WorldSkills UK EDI Heroes Awards finalists!

“I am absolutely delighted to support the awards, and I’m thrilled that the award ceremony will be hosted in-person for the first time at the Houses of Parliament.

“This provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the outstanding finalists and anticipate the announcement of this year’s well-deserving winners.”

The annual EDI Heroes Awards event is dedicated to celebrating the achievements of those going above and beyond to create more inclusive practices. All awards are open to students, apprentices, employers, and employees, recognising individuals and organisations who are making a difference to the future of the industry. 

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Education

Estyn decision to scrap headline gradings has ‘lifted a burden’ on schools

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Estyn’s decision to remove gradings such as “excellent”, “adequate” or “needs improvement” from inspection reports has lifted a burden on schools, a committee heard.

Owen Evans, Estyn’s chief inspector, told the Senedd’s education committee that feedback from schools since scrapping the headline gradings has been overwhelmingly positive.

Giving evidence on Estyn’s 2022-23 report, Mr. Evans said the new approach has led to a far more professional dialogue with schools about what’s working and what’s not.

“I think that’s been incredibly refreshing,” he said. “There are several layers of pressure that come with an Estyn inspection of a school….

“The removal of summative judgements and the fact that you’re going to be labelled with that one word, has lifted a burden on the sectors that we look at.”

‘Outlier’

However, Mr Evans stressed that removing gradings must be seen as a trial.

He said: “We are a bit of an outlier. We are still the only inspectorate in the British Isles that has removed summative judgements and a lot of eyes are on us about how this is working.”

Mr Evans, who has been in post for two years, added that Estyn is likely to carry out a review to ensure the reforms have led to further improvements.

He said it was important to introduce parental reports given the removal of gradings, suggesting that reports for learners themselves could also be on the horizon.

Asked about Estyn’s funding, which has increased from £11.5m in 2021-22 to £16m currently, Mr Evans told the committee the uplift was due to the pandemic.

‘Backlog’

He told the committee the interruption created a huge backlog and Estyn needed to increase capacity to finish its six-year cycle of inspections by the end of the current academic year.

Mr Evans said 90%-plus of the uplift has gone on additional inspections and inspectors.

Arguing the additional funding should become a part of the inspectorate’s baseline budget, he told MSs that Estyn will start visiting schools twice every six years from September.

He explained that the main inspection has been slightly curtailed, so Estyn can afford to have an interim inspection after three years rather than a “big bang” every six.

“It’s imperative the budget stays at that or slightly higher,” he said. “But we realise there’s a lot of pressure on the system – we have to demonstrate the value of what we’re doing.”

‘Self-evaluation’

Laura Anne Jones, for the Conservatives, raised concerns about an emphasis on self-evaluation, saying: “I don’t think anyone’s going to mark themselves badly.”

Laura Anne Jones MS speaking in the Senedd
South Wales East MS Laura Anne Jones MS is the Conservative shadow education minister

Mr Evans shared the shadow education minister’s concerns as he warned that self-evaluation is not yet strong enough within schools for Estyn to rely on it.

The chief inspector, who was previously S4C’s chief executive and a senior Welsh Government civil servant, warned that the pandemic continues to cast a shadow.

Mr Evans said variability between schools has widened, raising attendance as an example.

“Some are coping and some are not,” he told MSs: “I think the social contract between schools and parents has, to a degree, broken down.”

‘Stubborn’

Claire Morgan, a strategic director at Estyn, said average attendance is 87.5%, meaning pupils are missing 12 days of education in an academic year “which is far too much”.

She called for more to be done to tackle “stubborn” attendance issues, saying successful schools have a strong community focus.

Mr Evans said exclusions are rising while the number of children and young people going into pupil referral units has doubled since the pandemic.  

He said pupil referral units are no longer helping learners return to mainstream education.

He said: “The wave of anecdote I hear – from everyone from headteachers to teachers and caretakers to support staff – is behaviour, particularly out of the classroom, has worsened.”

‘Relentless’

On Wales’ poor performance in the latest Pisa results, Mr Evans said he was disappointed but not shocked as he called for a “relentless” focus on standards.

He said the results reinforce Estyn’s previous annual reports, which have long raised concerns about numeracy, science and literacy.

Mr Evans suggested a focus on the new curriculum has taken away from subject specialism.

Asked about the impact of poverty on attainment, he said the pupil development grant can make a difference but he suggested the funding is being used to plug budget gaps.

The chief inspector also raised concerns about “great deficiencies” in recruiting teachers in terms of the Welsh language and secondary school subjects such as maths.

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Education

Castle School closure certain now rescue plan has failed

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PARENTS have been informed that the highly regarded Castle School, a beacon of independent education since its establishment in 2009 in Cresselly, is on the verge of closing down, with no rescue plan in sight.

The institution, which began with a mere 22 secondary-aged pupils, saw significant growth over the years, relocating to Narberth in 2015 and later to Haverfordwest. The school, known for its broad curriculum catering to pupils from the age of three to 18, prides itself on an ‘exceptionally high academic performance’, boasting an average of 95 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE.

Despite its academic success, the school announced earlier this month that it would be shutting its doors to the majority of its pupils come July, though it will remain operational for current GCSE and A Level students until their examinations are completed the following year.

Harriet Harrison, the headteacher and proprietor, expressed that the decision to close was made with a ‘heavy heart’ and after considerable deliberation. The news has left many parents in a scramble to secure alternative educational arrangements for their children.

A glimmer of hope appeared when Dr Mark Boulcott, a local dentist and retired army officer with a daughter at the school, presented a rescue plan. “I am doing what I can as quickly as I can. I am doing my very best to stop the closure of a great school,” Dr Boulcott stated, signalling his commitment to prevent the closure.

The school was envisioned to transition into a charitable organisation, with Dr Boulcott collaborating with Mrs Harrison until the end of this academic year before assuming full leadership in July. Unfortunately, this plan has been rendered unviable, with Dr Boulcott disclosing that from a business standpoint, the school’s recovery from the Covid crisis was insurmountable under the current conditions, making the prospect of taking over ‘untenable’.

In an earnest letter to the parents, which was obtained by The Pembrokeshire Herald, Dr Boulcott lamented that the challenges of establishing the school elsewhere were too great, necessitating a considerable investment and an estimated two years to navigate bureaucratic hurdles.

“It is with regret that without immediate extensive capital investment, something we do not have, school purchase resurrection or reorganisation is impossible,” Dr Boulcott concluded in his correspondence with the parents, effectively extinguishing the last embers of hope for the school’s survival.

As the community grapples with the impending loss of Castle School, the situation underscores the continuing pressures faced by independent educational institutions in the post-pandemic landscape.

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