Heads down and examine the facts
Scotland must learn a lesson and bring back league tables to salvage the credibility of our education system, writes John McTernan
This is the reality for modern politicians – you can fudge, but you cannot hide
Research proves that without system of measurement educational standards will fall Picture: Getty Images
Like Scotland, Wales used devolution to reject the consumer-facing education reforms pioneered by New Labour in England. The Welsh Assembly Government abolished testing and league tables in 2004, "freeing" teachers and schools. And, as in Scotland, standards slipped. Last November the authoritative international comparative study Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA) found that Welsh 15-year-olds were lagging well behind their English counterparts – and not just the English average, but behind each and every region of England, even those most similar in socio-economic terms.
In a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary Testing Times, presenter John Humphrys applied the forensic skills he usually reserves for grilling politicians on the Today programme to examine this. He went to Paris to talk to Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA programme for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He was measured, but said very clearly: "you need some benchmark for success. Whether abandoning those kind of assessments altogether was the right thing, that's really up for debate. At the end of the day teachers, students, parents need to know how well they are progressing." Words that should embarrass our MSPs who currently collude in a system that prevents parents and pupils from having an objective measurement of performance.
Happily for Wales, though they made an error in abolishing testing, they have a committed reformer as minister of education – Leighton Andrews. With a refreshing honesty he has admitted: "What we've got to do now is ensure we are getting robust measurement – perhaps we took our eye off the ball during that period". More than that he is actually putting in place a system that ensures that tests are restored. Last November he appointed a panel of experienced educationalists to advise him on the structure and governance of education in Wales and as a result Andrews announced a national literacy plan in February. This will begin in autumn and will be supported by reading tests. A national literacy plan, with testing, will start in the following school year, 2011-12. (CHECKING]
The Welsh government's Structure of Education Services Review Task and Finish Group is essential reading for anyone who cares about education. Its importance is in part because getting education right is central to building a successful economy. As the OECD say: "Education is a large item of public expenditure in most countries. At the same time, it is also an essential investment for developing the long-run growth potential of countries and for responding to the fundamental changes in technology and demographics that are reshaping labour markets."
But more striking is the passion that comes across. So many reports – whether to government or from it – are dry and dully written. Not this one. The chairman's foreword is forthright: "No-one enters the teaching profession to fail children. However, educational opportunity is the greatest gift we can offer our learners and if we fail to provide it to even one person, then it is a tragedy that is likely to blight their whole lives. That is the challenge facing educators and politicians. Learners and their families have a right to expect that we are not prepared to accept anything that is of second-best quality. Unfortunately the reality of educational outcomes in Wales is that too much of what we provide does not compare with the best attained within the UK let alone internationally."
I wanted to stand up and cheer when I read those words, so reminiscent of Obama's speech about African-American education: "We've got to say to our children… no-one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands. You cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses."
There is, though, one area where Andrews has so far ducked a major challenge. He has ruled out reintroducing league tables. He makes the usual case – it's unfair on schools with difficult catchments, it stigmatises some schools and it doesn't help poor schools improve. There is a pragmatic argument against this. The combination of Freedom of Information and digital technology mean it is impossible to conceal information from the public. Indeed, BBC Wales reckon that in 48 hours recently they published more information about school performance on their website than the Welsh Assembly Government had made public in a decade. This is the reality for modern politicians – you can fudge, but you can't hide.
But there is a more powerful, and more principled reason for sharing information with parents – it raises standards. That's right – it works. If you are a policy wonk, and I confess I am, one of the great thrills of devolution is that it is a real-time, real-world policy experiment. Different policies in England, Wales and Scotland can be compared and contrasted. Last year Bristol University published a study of the impact of publishing league tables. They were able to compare English schools with Welsh ones. Their conclusion. Devastating. For Wales. Professor Simon Burgess' study has a beautifully detached academic title – A natural experiment in school accountability: the impact of school performance information on pupil progress and sorting. But, here's what they concluded: "We find significant and robust evidence that this reform markedly reduced school effectiveness in Wales." Professor Burgess was even starker when interviewed, he said that in Welsh schools the impact was that young people dropped two grades compared to Englishstudents. So, where in England you'd get a B, in Wales you'd get a D.
This on its own is shocking. Taken with what has been shown about abolishing testing we now have enough evidence today that Wales – and Scotland – took a wrong, and destructive, turn when they decided that parents needed no information about how schools, teachers and pupils performed. Humility, and learning from experience, is the greatest – and rarest – talent among politicians. In Wales, Andrews has shown greatness in being willing to change his mind when presented with evidence. In Scotland? We have the delusion of abolishing testing, league tables and now Standard Grades. Keynes said when the evidence changed he changed his mind. How much more evidence do the Scottish Government need before they acknowledge that they are wrecking what was once the greatest education system in the world? And how much longer will Scotland stay silent?