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Questions, questions

Betsan Powys | 13:15 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, Mrs Powys.

Then we'll begin.

Today's big question is this: are Welsh secondary school pupils getting better results than they were a decade ago?

No brainer? They are.

Correct. GCSE results just keep getting better so yes, Welsh pupils are achieving higher grades than they were, say, a decade ago.

Right answer, wrong question perhaps. Let's try another one, a more probing one.

Have the results gained by pupils in Wales improved as much as pupils in England?

The answer? No.


The answer that came today from Bristol University - one with a great deal of data attached - says it's because league tables were abolished in Wales nine years ago but not in England. From that point on English secondary schools started to outperform schools here and the gap has grown ever since.

If you have the Bristol answer down as correct, then you accept that Welsh schools - in particular ones in less affluent area that don't perform well - have no fear of being named and shamed in official league tables, so they're not motivated to pull up their socks and do better.

Then again you may have the Bristol answer down as plain wrong. 0 out of 10. You may already have got out your red pen and written "crass" or "questionable piece of research" or "numerous flaws in the methodology" next to it like the NASUWT and ASCL Cymru.

In the chamber this afternoon Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams had hoped to whack the FM over the head with the Bristol report. She'd hoped to floor him with a hard-hitting question about the Labour government's failure to invest in Welsh pupils, follow it up with a rhetorical question about who's fault it was that pupils in Welsh schools are falling behind their counterparts in England and finish him off with the $64,000 version: what is he intending to do about it?

In the event, class, she fluffed it. Why weren't pupils in Wales doing better, she asked. (Note the flaw in the question class - way too open.) They ARE doing better, countered Mr Jones. Performance hasn't fallen at all. It's risen! Guffaws of delight from the Labour benches.

Back she came. Yes, ok, it may have risen but not by as much as in England. Aha, says Mr Jones. You started out by saying standards had dropped. Now you're accepting they've increased. That was quick! The Education Minister, a man who tends to make sure his metaphorical punches land, couldn't contain his delight.

At the third attempt the punch is thrown ... sort of ... but by then the FM is more than ready to side-step it. He's not at all sure the report is comparing like with like but of course, he wants to see the gap in performance closing.

For your homework, I'd like you to do a comparative study of these two statements in response to the Bristol report: the first an extract from an Assembly Government Spokesperson:

"We want to improve performance across all schools and believe strongly that league tables are not the most effective way of presenting information to schools, parents, and the wider public.

"Robust self evaluation and performance data play a vital role in promoting continuous improvement and we fully endorse this. As a result we have designed an All Wales Core Data Set for primary and secondary schools which will give key information about school performance".

Now how about this - described as an "additional line" - from the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews:

"In Wales over the decade of devolution we have implemented most of the changes the profession wanted to see. So we don't have league tables. We will see in December when the international comparisons of school performance are reported in the OECD's PISA survey whether that approach has paid off. "

Is that the sound of a Minister foreseeing disappointing results and putting the onus fair and square and early on the shoulders of teachers?

That, class, is what you call a rhetorical question.


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