I urge you to watch it, if only to see how distorted a picture of education in England, Wales and the wider world it paints. Very little in the programme turns out to be as it seems, and it’s an education in how some people have chosen to portray education as being in crisis.
The set up
Ms Griffiths sets out her stall quickly. She claims that education in Wales is going downhill fast. Whereas it used to be great, it isn’t any longer. Here’s what she and others say as she sets the film up.
Sian Griffiths: “I was very happy here (in her St David’s secondary) and it kinda set me on my career as a journalist.”
Here’s St David's on a map. It’s about as coastal as you can get, clearly. The city has a population of 1,800 people, and the wider county – essentially a line due south from Cardigan on the map below – has a population of around 123,000. SIan Griffiths old school is Ysgol Dewi Sant, which has had a bit of a torrid time of late.
This is a serious allegation. It's also not true. The school did narrowly avoid closure in 2015, but it was judged a good school at the time and it was not because of poor educational performance. The protest featured in the film was against plans to close the English-language-instruction Ysgol Dewi Sant and to replace it with another school entirely - in Fishguard, 15 miles away. The closure plan was due to wider issues in local education provision. It was not about performance standards as the film suggest.
David Lloyd, Chair of Governors. “The school was in crisis. No leadership. Anarchy in the staffroom. We couldn’t allow this period of uncertainty to go on any longer.”
This quote is probably an explanation as to why the governing body finally appointed the acting head teacher as permanent head in 2015. The uncertainty over the school's future had meant that Pembrokeshire had advised the school not to appoint a permanent head. The crisis David Lloyd refers to was a crisis of leadership by the governors as much as anyone, not of pupil academic performance. As this report suggests, Ysgol Dewi Sant was “the best school in Pembrokeshire” at the time.
This BBC report makes it clear that the protest which features in “It’s an Education” was against a proposal to close the school in a reorganisation of secondary schools in Pembrokeshire. The BBC report gave the following reason for the actions of Pembrokeshire council, which was pressing for change:
“Pembrokeshire currently has eight secondary schools in total, but there's a 20% surplus of places.
Also, only one of those eight schools is a Welsh medium secondary school, and that's in the north east of the county, in Crymych, so there is a desire to address a growing demand for Welsh medium in other parts of the county.
The council says it would like to improve educational standards, to tackle poor school buildings, and also to take advantage of the 21st Century Schools programme, which would see half the cost of any new school buildings paid for by the Welsh government.“
It does not imply in any way that Ysgol Dewi Sant faced closure because of poor performance or a crisis of leadership.
Ysgol Dewi Sant Head girl: “The whole school felt the danger. Everybody felt pressure.”
Of closure. Not of failing to educate children.
David Lloyd: “We were, on reflection, a community that was sleepwalking to oblivion.”
‘Oblivion’ being, clearly, a community with no secondary school, with a school closed for reasons exterior to the school itself, closure of “the best school in Pembrokeshire”.
Jack Marwood Dodgy Graph Warning(tm). See if you can spot why:
As Jack Worth has pointed out via Twitter, PISA scores are actually scaled score with a mean of 500 and a standard deviation of 100. No, don't stop reading just because some maths has turned up. Come back! All that means is that there is no zero PISA score. Which means that there's no scale which you can reasonably use for a y-axis. Which means the graph in the programme is misleading and Not Even Wrong.
You could probably compare England to other countries to make England look bad, if you wanted to. And comparing Wales to England in this way is also fairly meaningless, too, for reasons I'll come on to later.
For a lot more detail on what PISA has to say about Wales, read this. It contains lots of good data, which “suggests that the education system in Wales is amongst those which are successful at overcoming the effects of socio-economic background.” (P37) and “The performance gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is relatively low in Wales, compared with other OECD countries, and pupils in Wales are relatively well able to overcome the disadvantages of their background.”
“For England and Northern Ireland (with differences of 41 and 45 points respectively) socio-economic background is seen to have a greater effect than the average in OECD countries. In contrast, Scotland and Wales (with differences of 37 and 35 points respectively) show an effect of socio-economic background which is lower than the OECD average.” (p92)
Of course, single score means, such as overall PISA Mathematics scores, obscure the complexities of the underlying data, as discussed above. So it’s worth looking at the spread of maths scores PISA recorded for Wales in 2012 compared to the OECD average, which Ms Griffiths doesn’t do. Here they are:
As it turns out, there is an in depth OECD report about Welsh education, which is available here. The OECD is of the opinion that Wales has a high proportion of low performers, underdeveloped professional development, an incoherent accountability and evaluation system, and has tried to reform too quickly in an incoherent way.
It's worth noting that there is quite a bit of criticism of PISA, and many question its assumptions, methodology and conclusions. This gives a flavour.
Random unnamed person (who turns out to Leighton Andrews, Education Minister, 2009-2013, speaking in 2010 - thanks to Chris Padden for identifying Mr Andrews) : “Schools in Wales are simply not delivering well enough at all levels of ability. This can only be described as a systemic failure.”
As Harvey Goldstein, Professor of Social Statistics, at the University of Bristol says, “We simply do not know what characteristics of the English, Singaporean, or any other system, may be responsible for its performance. It is simply not possible to make any such kind of causal inference from PISA results. What has often been termed ‘PISA Shock’, leading to ‘PISA Panic’, has accompanied past releases and politicians of all persuasions, in many countries and abetted by OECD, have used the ‘evidence’ about movements up and down the tables to justify changes they wanted to make anyway to their own educational curricula and assessment systems.The best thing to do with these results is for policymakers to shrug their shoulders, stop making simplistic comparisons, ignore the media hype, and decide whether supporting PISA really is value for money.”
Luckily for politicians, evidence-free rhetoric is rarely held up to much scrutiny.
Sian Griffiths: “This year (my family is) staying in a luxury hotel, one of a chain opened by my brother, Keith”
Keith Griffiths has clearly done very well for himself both at school and work, having studied architecture at Cambridge in the 1970s, joining Arup, moving to Hong Kong before striking out on his own, eventually running one of the world’s biggest architectural practices.
Keith Griffiths: “In order to get out of St David’s you needed a good education, which was certainly provided for here in St David’s.”
This was and is almost certainly true, especially if, like both Sian and Keith, you want to attend Oxbridge. Wales clearly has many children working at the highest level.
“Testing of 11 and 14 year olds is to be abolished in Welsh schools (News Report, September 2006)”
What isn’t mentioned here is that External testing of 14 year olds in English schools was abolished in 2008, too, and writing at 11 in England has been internally assessed since 2011.
“Asian countries consistently lead the way (in PISA tests of 15 year olds)”
Casual viewers will be forgiven for not being aware that Shanghai and Hong Kong are city states, not countries, and that Singapore is an exceptionally unusual country of just 5 million people, of whom 1 in 6 are millionaires and 30% are foreign nationals.
Leaving aside the fact that in the main PISA tables, the UK is shown as a whole, not as four nations, so Wales doesn't come '43/68', it won't surprise anyone to know that Wales is also bottom of the UK class when it comes to measures such as income per capita, at 30% below England and a huge 60% lower than London, for example. England and Wales are very different countries for all sorts of reasons too obvious to go in to here.
This is a sweeping assumption on which to start the programme, and it sets the tone for the claims which are to come:
- Something is wrong
- Children are being short-changed
- Schools are at fault
Pursuing a personal agenda
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of Education and Skills, appears next. Schleicher, as with many people, takes as a given that school results are due to the efforts of schools, not children, and he quotes statistics relating to children in Shanghai, a place almost as unusual as Singapore.
Ms Griffiths then introduces a recurring theme in her programme. “At the end of the day, these kids in Wales are going to be competing on a global stage for jobs, for top university places with kids from across the world in way that hasn’t happened before. Is that why parents need to worry about these rankings?”
This is a common theme from many educational commentators. “Competing on a global stage”, “competing for top university places” and “competing with kids from across the world” are common refrains from those who have bought into the "Education is in Crisis" fallacy.
A moment’s consideration for life for the majority of children in St David's reveals how ridiculous this argument is. Clearly some of the children in Pembrokeshire might compete on a global level for the limited number of Oxbridge places. But economics doesn’t work in the way these comments suggest. Able and ambitious children will, like Ms Griffith’s brother, end up starting their own businesses and competing – on anything up to and including the global level, as Keith Griffiths has done.
The vast majority of school children are not, however, competing with those outside their own countries, and to suggest that they are is to promote a conflict which does not exist.
Sian Griffiths, speaking about Andreas Schleicher: “He said very clearly that culture starts at the top.”
No, he didn’t say that. At all.
Sian Griffiths: “Wales has the worst performing schools in the UK.”
No, it doesn’t it. It has some of the schools with low average attainment, but it – as with every part of the UK – has some of the schools with high average attainment.
Huw Lewis A.M., Minister for Education and Skills “We have instituted one of the most profound (educational) reform packages any part of the UK has seen since the second world war.”
Or, "We've said we've made a big changes because, well, that's politics."
Sian Griffiths: “In St David’s a new head was promoted to tackle the problems they faced.”
The main problem Ysgol Dewi Sant faced was that the local authority wanted to reconfigure Pembrokeshire’s secondary education provision, as reported above. As a result, the school had an acting head teacher, David Haynes, following advice from Pembrokeshire. Because Mr Haynes was not a permanent appointment, Estyn, the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted, deemed the school’s leadership and management unsatisfactory. The problems YDS faced were political, not academic.
After much to-ing and fro-ing because of the uncertainty whether or not the school would close or not, David Haynes was appointed permanent head by the school governing body. The full, complicated story is worth reading.
The ‘problems Ysgol Dewi Sant faced’ were not primarily those of educational attainment, which has been good for some time, but a much more complex structural issue.
“It’s amazing, the cultural changes a headmaster can make, and the ability for teachers to feel empowered, energised, motivated, all those things.” Elizabeth Daniels, parent and mindfulness trainer
Ms Griffiths has found a child who was struggling with maths at Ysgol Dewi Sant. Her mother also happens to be a “mindfulness trainer” and in 2014, she worked with the school to implement a “ground-breaking wellbeing course at St David's Ysgol Dewi Sant.” Ms Daniels thought the school was “going downhill fast”, although – given Ms Daniels professional interest - it isn’t certain which aspect of the school she is talking about. The implication is that the teaching “wasn’t great” but there is room for doubt as to why this was deemed the case.
Hannah Daniels certainly implies that increased confidence helped her to go “from a from a U to a C in one term.”
Sian Griffiths: “In 2013, the Welsh Government introduced Numeracy and Literacy assessments. Every year pupils aged five to fourteen are scored for their maths and language skills.“
These haven’t been an unqualified success, as this report - Wales' national reading and numeracy tests a 'shambles', say unions - suggests, with controversies over marking and validity of the tests.
Sian Griffiths: “Categorisation is supposed to show parents how well or badly their school is performing. Last year only thirty secondaries were awarded a Green. And a couple of years ago, St David’s was awarded a Red.”
Is thirty good or bad? There’s no indication, simply an implication that this is too low. Here’s some more data. In 2015, 31 out of 211 (15%) secondary schools were in the green support category. In comparison, 6% of English secondary schools are rated Outstanding, the top category in the England – not that any comparison can or should be drawn between these two very different ways of rating schools.
There’s no explanation that criticism of St David’s was based on the lack of a permanent head teacher, or that the banding itself has been criticised for being too volatile.
Sian Griffiths: “I’m looking at this website called My Local School. But it hasn’t got the kind of information which I would find if I was looking for a school in England. In England I could pull up a school and find out its position on the kind of league table of ranking, how it compares against all the other schools in England. I can’t seem to do that here.”
There’s a lot of information on My Local School. The information Ms Griffiths says she wants – the ‘position in the class’, if you like – is an indication of the kind of children who attend the school, not the school itself. Additionally, the UK government doesn’t provide the information Ms Griffiths wants in England either. It provides similar information to the Welsh government's website, in a much less user-friendly format.
League tables, as described by Ms Griffiths, are provided by the media (Telegraph, Guardian), much to the (apparent) frustration of those who provide the information about schools, who are well aware that the variation within schools is much greater than the variation between schools. Even these league tables don’t rank schools as Ms Griffiths suggests.
Sian Griffiths: “There’s one measure that many hail as the key to success in England but which Wales continues to resist: The introduction of academy schools. And to see one of the best in action, I’ve come to Mossbourne Community Academy in the London borough of Hackney.”
Academy schools aren’t really a measure; they are more of a change to the funding structure of a school. And an equal and possibly larger number of people question whether the academy programme is having the success which is often claimed, including the House of Commons Education Select Committee, as Huw Lewis points out in the film.
Ms Griffiths unwittingly goes on to show why Mossbourne – like London - has been a huge success of late: Money and intake. Mossbourne is certainly the jewel in the academy crown, but it’s also largely in a class of one and doesn’t seem to have found a model which can be applied outside of the capital.
Peter Hughes: “An academy really is a private school in the state sector.”
No, it really isn’t. At all. In anyway whatsoever.
Then we get to see the Mossbourne Pledge in all its glory, with a class of clearly bored and resentful teenagers imbuing the school mantra with as much lifeless and dreary tedium as they clearly feel for it. For those who aren’t aware of this odd ritual, it’s simple. All children start every class with a statement that they "aspire to maintain an inquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive ear so that in this class and in all classes I can fulfil my true potential." It would appear that this isn’t quite delivered with Dead Poet’s Society-like fervour, and the children don’t exactly look thrilled to be at the academy (below).
Yes. Yes, it is.
Andrew John, Mossbourne Science teacher: “I would love to go to Llanelli or Swansea but I can’t because there’s no jobs because people are seeing out the end of their career there.”
Heaven forfend that those who have worked their way up through the Welsh education system should have the temerity of wanting to continue to do so and not simply step aside for knights in white armour from England.
There are over 200 secondaries in Wales. Jobs come up regularly. Don’t be silly.
Sian Griffiths: “15 year olds have already taken the latest (PISA) tests and the results are due later this year. But in Welsh schools there are still mixed feelings about the value of PISA.”
That there are "mixed feelings about the value of PISA" is true in every country in which children take part in PISA tests. It’s not uniquely Welsh to question the value of pitting countries against each other in the way the OECD does. Many people do. (Oh, and whilst we're at it, have a wild guess which global education company designed the 2015 PISA tests? Go on, give it your best shot. The answer is here*.)
Sian Griffiths: “They will face the same challenge: To make a Welsh Education system that can compete with the rest of the world. Is it really enough, it today’s age, when this generation of kids are going to face a world that is more ferociously competitive when it come to getting a job than probably any other in history. Don’t we want our schools to be academically excellent, places where our kids can really achieve the best that they can do? Children do only get one chance at an education and we all of us have a responsibility to make that the best that it can possibly be.”
No, no, no. This is a simple summary of the worldview pushed by a particular group of interested parties, dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement by Pasi Sahlberg. Children in St David's and the places like it are not "competing with the rest of the world". That's not how economics works. Those working in supermarkets, hairdressers, building sites and most offices are competing on a local scale, not a global one.
Yes, we need some people to compete on a global scale, but, realistically, this number of people is crushingly, vanishingly small. To build an education system based on the needs of such a tiny minority is ludicrous beyond all words. We need a system which enables children to get an education which allows them to play a meaningful role in the community in which they live. Not everyone can, or should, aspire to global leadership.
Hardly anyone will argue that secondary schools shouldn't aim for academic excellence, or that children shouldn't achieve the best qualifications that they can, and to suggest that many people feel differently is silly. But presenting Welsh schools as being in crisis is simply daft, and this programme is a perfect example of the utterly dishonest way in which many people seek to claim education is 'failing' children.
* Yep, Pearson designed the 2015 PISA tests, of course.