Tuesday 10 December 2013

Learning from Pisa

I suppose the one positive thing to come out of the announcement of the results of the Pisa comparisons last week is that no-one in Wales is pretending that it was in any way good news.  How meaningful the league positions are in reality is another question entirely – and Syniadau has an interesting take on that question, pointing out that simply comparing places in a league table may be ignoring a rather greater truth about the decline in mathematical knowledge across large parts of the developed world.
If the results were depressing, the political response has been even more so.  Opposition parties seem to be more interested in getting the First Minister to express shame, apology, or regret than they are in identifying what we need to do to improve.  It’s not often that I feel much sympathy for the First Minister, but I have to admit that the frustration which he expressed with the absence of constructive alternative policies struck a chord.
That doesn’t mean that the opposition’s criticism is entirely unjustified either – the fact that Labour have been in control of education in Wales continually since 1997, either at Westminster or subsequently at Cardiff, makes it reasonable to hold them responsible for the debacle.  But the idea that simply replacing a Labour Government with a non-Labour Government (whatever one of those might be) is the answer to anything - let alone everything - is little more than sloganizing and electioneering.
I rather suspect that politics is part of the problem in the first place; or rather the endless enthusiasm of politicians for dabbling in the details of the education system with more and more ‘initiatives’ and changes to the curriculum, to show that they are ‘taking action’ (or, in the double-speak of which they are increasingly fond, ‘moving the agenda forward’ – which always sounds to me more like pushing a piece of paper across the table than doing anything useful).
And actually, it’s not that I particularly disagree with many of the initiatives that they promote, although there are questions which deserve to be asked – and answered – about whether they are properly resourced and whether the details have been fully thought-through.
Someone once explained the change process to me as like throwing pebbles into a perfectly still pond.  Throw one right into the middle, and you get a perfect wave of change rippling out to reach all corners of the pond.  Throw two pebbles in, and you get a nice interference pattern - sometimes the waves reinforce each other, strengthening the drive for change, whilst at others they cancel each other out.  But throw a handful in, and the usual result is unpredictable chaos.  The education system in Wales reminds me of that chaotic pond – a whole series of different initiatives, most of them worthy in themselves, but never really coming to a conclusion before the water is disturbed again.  But throwing yet more pebbles into the pond seems to be the instinctive reaction of the politicians.
Changing ministers, changing priorities, an emphasis on schools performing wider functions than merely educating children, and a complete absence of decent employment prospects for many of the children themselves – none of these can help.  I’m not going to pretend that I have an easy or quick solution either, but recognising that there probably isn’t one might be a better place to start than clutching at the first straw that floats past.  Or simply demanding a change of minister.

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