Gove clone strikes again – Times repeats claims debunked two weeks ago

Janet Downs's picture
Two weeks ago a Times leading article attacked Wales for not following England’s educational reforms. I suspected it was written by Education Secretary Michael Gove, a Times ex-journalist and recent dinner guest of Times’ owner Rupert Murdoch, because it resembled a Department for Education (DfE) press release.

Two weeks later, the Times top leading article* repeated the claims. And just in case readers didn’t get the message that Wales (red) was the pits compared with England (blue) the Times had a double page spread*.

“Tories exploit Welsh failure to teach Labour voters a lesson”, bawled the headline over two pages in 48 point bold.

So what did the graphs reveal? For most indicators the difference between England and Wales wasn’t particularly large (see Addendum for examples).

It’s shocking that 23.3% of households in Wales are below the poverty rate but it’s also shocking that 22.6% English households are in this position. That figure is nothing to boast about just because the percentage in Wales is 0.7% higher.

But what about education? It’s well-known Wales did poorly in the 2012 PISA tests and GCSE results are not as high as in England. But what is less-well known is that in 2013 Welsh pupils performed better than their English peers in Maths and Science in teacher assessments (TAs) at the end of Key Stage 2. Of course, TAs might not be reliable but that would to also apply to English TAs. And Welsh 11 year-olds reached the same level in English as 11 year-olds in England.

But the Times ignores the positive performance of Welsh pupils at age 11. Instead the leader repeats two claims I debunked two weeks ago:

1 “Opening up school supply to different providers, such as academy chains, has had an invigorating effect on English schools”. But the OECD (page 54) found extending school “choice” had little bearing on the performance of education systems. And the downside of the academy system is becoming increasingly obvious:

(a)There’s increasing evidence that academy trustees are benefitting financially from their involvement – the Public Accounts Committee chair said, “It’s just wrong”.

(b)14 chains, some of which were allowed to grow rapidly by the DfE, have been “paused” (see here for article and links).

(c) Loudly-publicised imports from Sweden (IES, Kunskapsskolan) have been judged to Require Improvement or worse.

(d)Sponsored academies do not out-perform similar non-academies.

(e) The use of equivalent exams in some chains operating for several years has increased since 2011.

2“Cutting the strings that attached head teachers to local authorities” improves schools. The “strings” are largely imaginary: the OECD found “Compared with the OECD average, headteachers in Wales play a greater role in most aspects of school management.” And some academy chains are exerting more control over their academies than ever was the case with local authorities (Academies Commission 2013).

However, the Times may unwittingly have undermined the DfE case that education reforms are desperately needed. It said Labour’s literacy strategy had succeeded. But we keep being told radical overhaul is required urgently because millions of schools leavers can’t read well enough to get a "decent" job. So either Labour’s literacy programme worked or it didn’t.

The Times applauds Wales for introducing a “challenge” programme linking strong heads with weaker ones. Such partnerships were a feature of the successful London Challenge and City Challenge. Perhaps England should have rolled out the lessons learnt from these interventions instead of overspending £1b on the academies programme.

*22 March 2014 subscription required

ADDENDUM. The figures given by the Times included:

1The unemployment rate in Wales is 0.2% worse that in England (7.8% Wales, 7.6% England).
2Average weekly earnings are £57.70 less in Wales (£455 compared with £512.70 in England).
3The proportion of the working-age population with no qualifications is 1.9% higher in Wales (9.5% England, 11.4% Wales).
4The proportion of children living in workless households in Wales is 0.8% higher (14.4% Wales, 13.6% England).
5The proportion of NEETs** is 0.6% higher in Wales (9.6% England, 10.2% Wales).
6The recorded crime rate in Wales is less than in England (sorry, can’t give the exact figures – Saturday’s Times is now in the recycling bin).

**people age 16-18 not in employment, education or training.
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 10:39

Thank you for putting the relative performance in education between Wales and England in an economic context. I note a trend for this kind of lazy commentary and the NHS in Wales provides another point of comparison, needless to say a Welsh anything being the example of worse practice/performance. I don't think we have managed a Mid Staffordshire Hospital crisis yet, though. But back to education, I recall reading a few years ago that the deficit in capitation, or funding per head of the school population amounted to £650.00 per child. If you average that out over the school population of my kids' school in Torfaen in South Wales, a population touching 1000, we're £65,000.00 out of pocket. An extra £65,000 would go a long way in their school.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 12:25

Michele - I suspect the growing tendency to knock Wales is because of the upcoming local elections and, of course, the general election next year.

The propaganda (eg in the Times and Telegraph) is that Wales is a socialist state and its performance (even when the difference is less than 1%) can be used to "prove" Labour policies are worse than Tory ones.

The Times, of course, is a Murdoch owned paper. And Rupert Murdoch is on record as saying the education "market" is worth billions of dollars. His company "Amplify" is trying to enter US schools by providing tablets and the like which would be used to deliver curricula. The Times, twice in two weeks, has published a main leading article extolling the virtues of allowing more "providers" to enter the school "market", saying how choice improves schools etc.

So, who's pulling the paper's strings?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 14:16

Michele - See this post

and the one after it by Maurice Holt. I agree with both posters and with most of the comments, as you will note.

However, what is happening in Wales is a puzzle to me. My analysis of the English system is that it is going down the pan because of marketisation, Academies, Free Schools. league tables etc.

However you don't have those problems do you? Or do you? So what are we English to make of it?

Are standards in Welsh schools really worse than in England, or is it all Murdoch media spin?

If your schools really are worse then why? Why are they not much better, or is my hypothesis wrong? Perhaps marketisation really does raise standards like the Sunday Times says it does? Or is that Welsh Labour have screwed up their schools in other unconnected ways?

Has forcing kids to learn most (all?) subjects in Welsh got anything to do with it or am I an English bigot for even suggesting it?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 15:32

Roger - there are Welsh medium schools in Wales, bi-lingual schools and English medium schools. It's not a case that all children are forced to learn all subjects in Welsh - that would only be the case in Welsh medium schools which are mainly found in areas where Welsh is spoken daily.

The Telegraph printed a story about how primary school children in Wales were not allowed to go to the loo unless they asked in Welsh. Comments underneath suggested the allegation wasn't true.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 15:55

Roger - re standards in Welsh schools. PISA results for Wales were poor - Welsh 15 year-olds scored below the OECD average in Reading, Maths and Science. GCSE results are lower: the proportion gaining the benchmark 5 GCSEs (or equivalent) A*-C including Maths and English in England (all schools) is 59.2% while in Wales the proportion gaining Level 2 (ie 5 GCSEs A*-C) including Maths and English is 52.7%.

But already there's a problem with the comparison. How far do Welsh schools use equivalent exams which inflates exam passes in England? When equivalents are stripped out of English results, the proportion falls to 52.8% (all schools).

And that's without considering whether GCSE results are a reliable indicator of the quality of education in either England or Wales.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 16:15

The Welsh Assembly lists the response from the Welsh equivalent of the DfE, the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS). DCELLS doesn't blame socio-economic factors, bi-lingual factors or funding differences. Instead it blames such things as failure of leadership, complacency, too much pupil choice and fragmentation of local authorities.

DCELLS has put in place reforms which have had a mixed reaction. The Unions welcome the extra focus on numeracy and literacy but other strategies (ominously like those in England eg annual grading of schools according to floor targets) have been described as a "knee-jerk and unnecessary overreaction).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 16:19

Janet - I don't think that's quite right. Apparently parents can choose Welsh speaking schools in all parts of Wales. In Cardiff I understand that only a minority of pupils in Welsh speaking schools are from Welsh speaking families. However it appears that in general Welsh speaking schools do better than English speaking schools throughout Wales even in predominantly English speaking families but socio-economic factors are not factored in and may have a significant association.

Also bilingualism is widely recognised to be educationally and cognitively advantageous.

So clearly the Welsh language is not holding back pupils in Wales. So what is?

I am unimpressed with GCSE based data, but the PISA figures suggest something is going on. Any ideas anyone?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 16:29

Roger - I didn't say Welsh medium schools weren't found outside the Welsh heartlands only they were mainly there. And you're right that Welsh medium schools exist throughout Wales. In Cardiff, for example, parents can choose either Welsh or English medium. And you're also right that bilingualism brings advantages.

The Welsh Assembly (see my comment at 4.15pm) suggests reasons for the poor PISA results but some of the solutions suggested by DCELLS may not necessarily improve PISA performance.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Mon, 24/03/2014 - 17:51

I have just caught up with the correspondence above. I do agree about the political dimension to these arguments. I can hear the sound of grinding axes whenever I read such articles. As for marketisation in England: yes, it's a mess alright. I don't have all the figures to hand, but my general impression is that Wales' lower socio-economic status plays into the lack of achievement in general. The Welsh medium schools do tend to do better, especially in predominantly English/anglicised areas. My personal opinion is it's because of the element of choice in the matter. You have to think before opting for Welsh medium, so that necessarily calls for a level of reflection about your children's education and how you can support it. We did. I'm "one of them" as we are sometimes called. If you're going to send your kids to a Welsh medium school, because you yourself are bilingual, you have to be ready for the insecurities of the odd monoglot English man or woman. I do have to point out here that Welsh, while a minority language, is also the native language of Wales and not dead yet. Rumours of its death are always greatly exaggerated. As for the Telegraph and its urban myths, I can only say I have never seen nor heard of anyone refusing to let kids use the toilet unless they ask in Welsh - and I have worked in nursery and infants education in Welsh and English.
I do also wonder about the benchmarking of schools according to their 5 A*-C's at GCSE. The website 'my local school' gives this information about all schools in Wales. I know that my kids' school doesn't include equivalents in its GCSE benchmarking. I couldn't vouch for others. It's correct that 52.7% achieved 5 A*-Cs in 2013 and the will tell you that 59% of entries in maths achieved A*-C, for English it was 62% and for Welsh, first language it was 72%. I don't know how those stats tally with England and am starting to lose faith in the world of testing. Frankly, the more I read about PISA scores, the less I'm convinced they're totally reliable. There is, however, an overall picture and I think the lower spending on education shows up in the figures. Just as I think the consistency of approach over decades in other European countries pays off and explains the continuing success of Finland and other Scandinavian countries. I believe they spend more on education. Follow the money.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 25/03/2014 - 14:50

I am still struggling with this. Sorry if I am being thick but can anyone help me?

In Welsh medium schools is all/most communication in Welsh?

Does this include English, maths and science lessons?

Do pupils in Welsh medium schools take GCSE papers where the instructions and the questions are in Welsh?

If so are the questions the same as in the English versions of the papers, just translated into Welsh, or are the questions different?

Are their school textbooks in Welsh for maths and science?

What about PISA tests? Are they provided in Welsh for pupils at Welsh medium schools and in English for pupils in English medium schools? Are the data collected and analysed separately? How does PISA seek to sample pupils in Wales? Are pupils from Welsh and English medium schools sampled in a representative manner?

PISA tests Reading, Maths and Science?

Are the reading tests for pupils in Welsh medium schools tests of attainment in the reading of English or of Welsh?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 25/03/2014 - 18:59

In trying to answer my own questions I have found the following.

From the Powys LA

Although the number of subjects taught through the medium of Welsh varies between secondary schools, the aim of Powys County Council and every secondary school that has a Welsh-medium stream is to teach all subjects offered on the curriculum through the medium of Welsh and English in every Key Stage, in order to ensure equal opportunity and equality of provision for all pupils in Powys.

However from a study of the WJEC website it seems that all the GCSE exam papers in maths and science ask the questions in English. WJEC produces tables showing the Welsh equivalent of various scientific terms. This link is to the physics section.

As a science teacher with a class of Welsh speaking pupils I would want to prioritise teaching the precise meaning of the English scientific terms because these are what will appear in the GCSE exam.

Is there a problem here for the teacher and/or the pupil? Presumably not on the basis that generally bilingualism is cognitively enhancing. But what about the higher levels of application of understanding that are assessed by PISA? These require very precise understanding of scientific terms. In physics, 'force', 'work', power' and 'energy' have different meanings and the precise use of language is very important. For example, when a pupil writes about the 'voltage going through a wire' you know that the level of understanding is seriously flawed.

Does the Welsh language make a clear distinction between these terms? If not then what is the value of following the Powys directive of making pupils learn science in a bilingual way?

The performance of Welsh pupils in the PISA tests of (English) reading, maths and science are dramatically poor. So could my first suspicions of the Welsh language possibly getting in the way of deep understanding of maths and science have some basis? If so then this would provide an explanation for the markedly poorer performance of Welsh pupils in PISA compared ito other measures that Janet has pointed out.

I don't know, but there is so far a deafening silence in answer to the question of why Welsh pupils appear to be underperforming. It seems from their response that the Welsh government doesn't have much of a clue either, judging by their reactions to the PISA results. I would expect many of their proposals to make matters worse.

I must emphasise that I don't know the answer either but I suspect that I may be encroaching on very contentious territory where little debate appears to be taking place.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 12:51

Yes, in my kids' school everything, save English, is taught through the medium of Welsh. So the exam questions on the science papers, maths papers, languages papers etc are all in Welsh. The WJEC just produces the same papers, but one set in Welsh and another in English. In Wales, the level of Welsh medium teaching will vary. In our corner in the SE of Wales the schools tend to be 100% Welsh medium, possible because it's such an anglicised part of the country.

You're not being thick, Roger. Not much is mentioned in the British media about what happens in Wales, or indeed Scotland or Northern Ireland regarding education. And the same goes for much else. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is: "So do your kids sit exams all in Welsh?" I assure them they do, apart from English, and then they go away to digest that thought. If you only know one language this seems like a great intellectual feat, and possibly one that ought not be 'inflicted' on the less able child. However, if you've been brought up with two languages it's not actually that out of the ordinary. People often think this must mean that the 'burden' of another language will hold the kids back and impair academic achievement. I haven't come across any date which backs this up. I have also frequently heard it said that poor attainment in literacy is the fault of the Welsh language, yet the stubborn statistics show that the same percentage of kids in English only schools are failing in English literacy as in the Welsh medium schools. Oddly, the GCSE figures show a better pass rate in the Welsh language than the English language, but that may have something to do with the fact that the English language is fiendishly hard to spell.

But this is an old chestnut and goes all the way back to the Treachery of the Blue Books (1847) when monoglot Anglican clergy, relying on witness reports from Anglican ministers in Wales, concluded the Welsh were illiterate (in English) and in need to a good dose of English education. It has to be pointed out that the Blue Books (parliamentary reports of their day) were compiled by the Anglican Church about a population that was largely Welsh-speaking and non-conformist. Suspicious on two counts! You can almost never remove the political context from the argument.
As for PISA tests, it's incredibly hard as a lay person to know if anyone even thought of testing Welsh medium pupils in Welsh or whether they just thought: "Oh well! Everyone speaks English so it'll be fine". Maybe they did think about the linguistic dimension, but equally it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't.

The issue of the Welsh language is often a convenient red herring in the argument. It's easy to single out, but the evidence doesn't stack up. When you look at the schools' performance banding on mylocalschool you see the usual reflection of schools in the more affluent areas performing well. And conversely, schools in economically depressed area such as the South Wales Valleys, don't fare well on the whole (though three cheers to Oakdale Comp!). I do worry, as well, about the droningly negative chorus that strikes up whenever Wales is mentioned. It can't do kids' self-esteem much good if this is all they're fed about themselves.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 13:25

Thanks, Michele, for giving information about what goes on in Wales. Most of the stuff on this site is about England so it's good to hear about what happens in other parts of the UK. My only experience of Welsh is seeing bi-lingual signs when visiting South Wales and playing Snapdragon with my granddaughter.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 15:29

Thank you Michelle. As Janet has pointed out it is not possible to conclude that there is any general underperformance of Welsh pupils compared to English pupils in GCSE. The variations within Wales and within England seem to me to be much greater than between Wales and England and follow the usual socio-economic pattern. If I were advising the Welsh government I would recommend universal Cognitive Ability Testing (CATs) of all pupils in Y6 of primary school. The CATs Verbal tests could be made available in English and in Welsh. The Quantitative and Non-Verbal tests should be equally accessible in either language. CATs data (unlike SATs in England) provide a very secure basis for assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning in sufficiently large cohorts of pupils. Equitable admissions arrangements can also be achieved through CATs.

Compared to SATs, CATs are cheap, not based on specific curriculum content, cannot be crammed for, are unobtrusive in terms of school organisation and provide significant diagnostic information for individual pupils in terms of possible specific learning difficulties. CATs data for schools (unlike SATs) can provide a statistically sound basis, independent of socio-economic bias, for judging the performance of individual schools and, in Wales, the effects if any, of differences in the level of immersion of Welsh language in teaching methods and curriculum. In addition CATs data could be used to compare Welsh schools with the large number of English schools for which CATs data are available.

My suspicion is that the Welsh system is likely to be shown as performing better than the English system on the basis of statistically valid (eg CATs based) comparisons.

The Welsh government should not be jumping to any conclusions in the absence of sound data.

PISA however is another matter. If it is judged that pupils in Welsh medium schools need to take science and maths exams that are written in Welsh, then this must also apply to the PISA tests. Like you, I doubt that this was the case. The Welsh government (and anyone else interested) needs to find out. If a significant proportion of the Welsh PISA pupil test cohort were taught maths and science in the medium of Welsh and took Welsh language GCSEs in these subjects then it is obvious that they are at a disadvantage taking PISA tests in English in maths and science where the precise meaning of mathematical and scientific terms is very important. The same applies to the PISA reading comprehension test.

The Welsh PISA results were so dire that such an explanation seems much more likely than those proposed in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph on the basis of no sound evidence whatever.

However, I must say that if I lived in Wales, while I would want my children to attend schools that resulted in them becoming bilingual, I would definitely want them taught science in English as I see no disadvantage in this for a bilingual child and many advantages given that English is the dominant international language of science and of international discourse between scientists.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 15:49

Roger - according the NFER who administered the PISA tests in the UK:

In Wales: "The tests and questionnaires were available in both English and Welsh. Translation was completed by professional translators, supervised by NFER‟s Swansea Office. Research staff in the Swansea Office are experienced in the development of Welsh language tests and curriculum materials so were able to ensure that the correct subject specific terminology was used. The translated materials were trialled by researchers from NFER‟s Swansea Office with pupils in a small number of schools to check understanding of the translated versions. Schools in Wales were asked if they wished each pupil to complete the survey in English or in Welsh. Pupils were not allowed to choose mixed languages – each pupil had to complete the survey in just one language. Twenty-two schools opted for Welsh for some or all of their pupils. In 14 of these schools all pupils completed Welsh versions while in the other eight schools both language versions were used." (page 103)

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 16:07

Thank you Janet. The mystery deepens. However the arguments used by the Daily Telegraph against the Welsh system also apply to Scotland, which performed much better.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 16:45

Roger - and we must remember that Welsh pupils performed at the same level as English pupils in teachers' assessments of English at the end of Key Stage 2, and outperformed English 11 year-olds in teachers' assessments of Maths and Science.

And, as you said, we can't compare England and Wales for GCSE results because we don't know how much Welsh schools use equivalent exams.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/03/2014 - 17:09

According to Estyn - the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted - the secondary sector appears to be the weak spot. Schools in Wales are judged Excellent, Good, Adequate and Unsatisfactory. For inspections from 2010-2013, 2% of primary schools were Excellent, 78% were Good. So 80% of primary schools were Good or Better (about the same proportion as in England). 20% were Adequate and None was Unsatisfactory.

Secondary schools inspected in the same period: 12% were Excellent and 39% were Good. So only 51% of secondary schools were Good or Better. This is below the figure for England. 42% were Adequate and 7% were Unsatisfactory. That figure is above the proportion for England.

Of course, we don't know how the inspection systems compare - but based on the Annual Report of of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales, the secondary sector doesn't come out particularly well.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 27/03/2014 - 14:09

Thank you Janet for your diligent unearthing of the critical stats. I would agree with the general point about the weakness in Wales' secondary education system. It tallies with what I think I observe, but appearances can be deceptive and it's good to see the data. One comment I hear on my travels in education is that recruitment of decent head teachers is a constant headache. My personal view is that a school's ethos flows from the top and having worked under both strong and weak heads (as a classroom assistant and a parent governor) I have seen how, at the chalk face, the influence - organisational, moral and educational - of the head really comes into play.

On your point about English being the language of science, I think I would broadly agree with your points, Roger, though with a small caveat. As a medium for conveying clear, precise meaning, English is rather poor. We use English in science because of an accident of history, this being that America speaks English and is so very dominant in scientific progress. Other languages are often more self-explanitary. Welsh describes diabetes as 'the sugar illness'. Diabetes is of Greek origin and the mellitus descriptor means 'honeyed' in Latin. German is the clearest language I've studied for conveying meaning. Gravity = Schwerkraft, roughly translated (by me) as the force of heaviness. The concept is immediately clear to the native German speaker. The average English-speaking kid is possibly still scratching her/his head at the latinate term, gravity. However, the fact of the matter is that the world of science is shaped by English and as such other languages have to adapt. I would favour children being taught in their native language but with the add-on of learning terms critical to their future studies in English too. Frankly, though, this is not a problem in Wales. No one but the most very sheltered can avoid English if they grow up in the UK. My experience of travelling back and forth to France since the 80's tells me that they can't really avoid it either. I am constantly surprised (and dismayed) that if you're anywhere near the hospitality or tourist industry you can easily get by without a word of French.

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