Leighton Andrews has an ambitious schools improvement target of getting Wales into the world’s top 20 education systems when the next Pisa tests are completed in 2015. He is also introducing a new body – Qualifications Wales – to award and regulate the nation’s qualifications with inevitable consequences for Cardiff-based exam board WJEC. This is from an extensive interview in Wales Online…
Wales was ranked 38th for reading, 40th for maths and 30th for science the last time results were published in December 2010.
Unveiling a 20-point improvement plan to revive Welsh fortunes, Mr Andrews said Wales should aim to be in the world’s top-20 education systems when Pisa tests in 2015.
There is a lot at stake and one of the minister’s closest allies, Welsh Government adviser Professor David Reynolds, believes failure to improve will jeopardise economic prosperity.
Mr Andrews said: “Clearly, the skills that our young people have are very important to our economic future and David Reynolds has made an important contribution in helping us explore and work through with teachers the skills that are tested by Pisa.
“It is very important that our qualifications are rigorous, that our young people are learning from the best in the world and we have a system that tests our skills.”
Earlier this month, Mr Andrews met with Pisa officials at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) headquarters in Paris.
He has since asked the organisation to conduct an external review of the “quality and equity” of education in Wales.
At home, Pisa continues to divide opinion with the NASUWT teaching union accusing the Welsh Government of “misusing” data for its own purposes.
And it has emerged ambitious plans to propel Wales’ schools system into the world’s top-20 will require a 15% surge in GCSE performance. So does Mr Andrews regret setting the target?
“No. The Welsh schools system has to be ambitious. We have to see ourselves as a small, smart country that can do well in the world.”
But it will take more than a positive outlook to jump further than any Pisa nation has jumped before. With the odds stacked heavily against us, how does the minister rate our chances?
“I think we’re putting in place the necessary support and training, focus and understanding of what Pisa demands to enable us to do it. But I can’t necessarily judge how other countries are responding or rising to the challenges of Pisa,” said Mr Andrews.
“I am very focused on what we are doing, particularly to do with standards in Welsh schools. Standards are improving – 5% improvement in a year is a good improvement I think. We continue to put in support and we have fewer young people leaving school without qualifications.
“I will always be highly ambitious for our education system, and will always be highly impatient in terms of the rate of change. I’m more impatient than is good for me and I think we have to set ourselves high standards and learn from the best. I also think we have world-class practice in Wales and it’s important to spread that.”
Ensuring Welsh children are taught the skills needed to excel in Pisa is reliant on an efficient qualifications system.
But the planned introduction of Qualifications Wales – a new overarching body to award and regulate the nation’s qualifications – has much wider implications.
The future of Cardiff-based exam board WJEC appears untenable, given it currently provides about 80% of GCSE and 70% of Wales’ A-level entries.
Shedding more light on the situation, Mr Andrews said: “The question that needs to be asked, is has the WJEC mission moved from supporting the needs of the Welsh education system to earning cash to support its own organisation?
“That’s a question I’ve raised with board members of the WJEC in private and now in public – and it’s a big question as we go forward with the creation of Qualifications Wales.”
The decision to introduce Qualifications Wales – recommended by the Welsh Government’s review into qualifications – is a natural place to set the exam ball rolling.
But with the review’s 41 other recommendations still up for consideration, commentators have questioned the minister’s rush to shake the tree.
“It’s clearly going to take some time to establish and this is not a simple process,” said Mr Andrews.
“I didn’t want any uncertainty for WJEC going forward as to what our intentions might be. The logical route was to appoint Huw Evans (the review’s chairman) as the chair of the task and finish group looking at issues around governance, structure, model and so on.
“What we are proposing is something along the lines of the Scottish Qualifications Authority – who I’ve been meeting with this week. That will entail, of course, the WJEC becoming part of Qualifications Wales. I’ve already had conversations with the chair of WJEC and with local authority leaders about this.
“Clearly, there will need to be a transition as we’re not going to do this overnight and it will take a number of years to produce. I think the most sensible approach is that we create a system whereby WJEC can be dissolved into Qualifications Wales.
“Obviously, there is potential for the board of WJEC to make that happen in a timely and consensual way and I’m sure that Huw Evans will have constructive conversations with them about that.
“I can’t get into the legalities, but if you’ve got experienced people who’ve been used to developing qualifications and associated materials you need to support those, then obviously we want to keep those skilled individuals within our system.
“WJEC has over the years served Wales very well and has got a good reputation for delivering qualifications in Wales, and we obviously want to build on that. But I think there is a tension in their mission.”
Mr Andrews suggested the fragmentation of local government in the 1990s – when “WJEC was told to compete for business” – had changed its outlook.
He added: “There is a question to be asked legitimately as to what extent did that diversion in its mission have an impact on its operation?
“I think it’s inevitable if you are suddenly having to market in a more commercial way and compete with other exam boards, that the overall mission of the organisation is not simply on the needs of the Welsh education system – but also on activities which further commercial return.”
Assessing the overall performance of Welsh education in 2012, Mr Andrews concluded he was “very encouraged by what we’ve achieved this year”.