Long road to improved global ranking

I was there, back in 2010, when the Education Minister Leighton Andrews, took a long, hard look at Wales' standing in world league tables and said that enough is enough. The Programme for International Student Assessment - or PISA tests - had found Wales' fifteen year old pupils wanting.

Everyone involved, he said, should be "alarmed". The figures were "unacceptable". Wales was spending more than countries that were outperforming us. How come? We were sliding down the tables at a speed bright Finnish teenagers could probably work out given the details about time and distance. Many Welsh pupils, sadly, could not ... even with a calculator.

The Welsh government, local authorities, teachers, parents were all in this together, said Mr Andrews. Now they had to sort out what was rapidly becoming a national humiliation.

On Sunday, I was there, at the kitchen table, taking a long, hard look at practice papers in numeracy and literacy, both in Welsh and in English. Alongside me, two children, aged eight and nine, who weren't even born when a previous Welsh education minister deemed tests for children their age or thereabouts to be less than helpful, and scrapped them. Sorry, children, bad timing.

This week they'll sit the brand new reading and literacy tests introduced by Leighton Andrews. The government's 'Learning Wales 'website' urged us to help raised standards by having a go at test papers at home. And so, the long road to improved PISA ranking started here. They calculated the speed of a dinosaur, the route of a spy and how many bottles fit into the box. When it came to literacy and diagrams of how to make a bird feeder, my son said (with some feeling) that this paper meant he didn't just have to spell words correctly. He had to understand what they meant! This, his father suggested to him, sounded like rather a good idea really.

They'll be marked by their teachers. That bit isn't new. What is, is the fact that all school children in Wales - from seven to fourteen - will be sitting the same tests. A system of testing that is "clear, consistent and rigorous" says Mr Andrews, is a vital element in the effort to claw our way back up those international league tables.

The problem, of course, is that another set of PISA results, based on tests taken in 2012, are set to be published later this year. The minister might be very 'active' now suggested Plaid's Leanne Wood and the Liberal Democrats' Kirsty Williams in last week's First Minister's Questions - but after fourteen years of unbroken rule by Labour education ministers, was there any chance at all these figures would be any better?

This was Kirsty Williams' question: "Is it still your expectation that, when those results are published later this year, results will have improved? If they do not, what will you do about it?"

The answer from the First Minister, is worth reading, and suggests he's long since learned that when it comes to testing questions, answer the question you want to, not the one asked ...

"We expect to see improvement in the results of any tests that are taking place and taken forward. The reading tests, if I remember rightly, start this week. That shows the commitment of this Government to ensure that our literacy and numeracy levels are there with the best in Europe. Many plans have been taken forward in order to improve literacy and numeracy in Wales, and the Minister for education has, indeed, done that."

Note the tense: "tests that are taking place". Mr Jones carefully avoided any direct reference to what Kirsty Williams was actually talking about - that set of already-taken PISA tests which, like it or not, will be a key barometer about whether the Welsh Government's getting to grips with the problems within the education system.

Talking of tense and testing, Leighton Andrews had a rare meeting with his Westminster counterpart today, Michael Gove. The two have not, it's fair to say, seen eye to eye on a number of issues since 2010. According to the Welsh Government, "Ministers enjoyed a frank but cordial discussion" on the issue of three-country agreement on qualification standards. In the league table of governmental euphemisms, "frank" is surely near the top in the "oh to have been a fly on the wall" stakes...