Michael Gove on Wales: "a country going backwards"

David Cornock
Parliamentary correspondent, Wales

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To no-one's great surprise, Conservatives at Westminster have lost little time in trying to make political capital out of the PISA results.

Michael Gove delivered his statement to MPs at lunchtime. Here's what he said about Wales: "I'm afraid it's the case that in Wales, a country for which I have an enormous amount of affection, the Welsh Labour government chose to abandon league tables and abandon external accountability, and the current Welsh administration is unfortunately not matching our commitment to spending in schools.

"And the conclusion we can draw from this is if you want to know what our education system would be like if this country were foolishly to vote Labour at the next election, you need only look over the Severn to see a country going backwards."

Tory MPs queued up to bowl the education secretary a free toss, among them Alun Cairns:

"Do you agree that the outcomes in Wales are nothing short of a scandal, and that they are the ultimate demonstration of Labour's education policy in action. There are parents across Wales, and even some in this house, who are genuinely worried about the future of their children's education. Will he encourage the Welsh government to follow the robust reforms that he's introducing?"

Michael Gove: "Wales acts almost as a controlled sample. Welsh children are as intelligent and as motivated as children in England, but unfortunately in Wales there are no academies, no free schools, no league tables, no chief inspector like Sir Michael Wilshaw, no determination to reform like this coalition shows. It is an object lesson in what happens when you abandon reform and succumb to the NUT orthodoxy which I'm afraid has suffocated aspiration for far too many children."

Then there was this response to a question from Northern Ireland: "It is striking actually that Northern Ireland is broadly at the same level as England in these results but Wales, Labour run Wales, is significantly behind and I think we can draw appropriate conclusions about that."

Labour's Huw Irranca-Davies didn't appreciate the Gove approach: "These are disappointing results in Wales but they are also disappointing in other parts of the UK so to make political capital, I would urge, is the wrong approach.

"Would you agree with me, however, that a common lesson is the need to focus relentlessly on under-performance and this is a job not just for governors and head teachers and school teachers but also for parents and communities and for political leaders not least those in areas of deprivation and disadvantage?"

Mr Gove agreed with his conclusion. One of the challenges facing schools in Wales was highlighted by Alan Milburn's recent social mobility report - poorer children in Wales underperform children from similar backgrounds in England, under-achievement that can't be solely explained away by poverty.

Away from the chamber, Welsh Secretary David Jones issued a statement giving his verdict, including a reference to the Downing Street-approved phrase "global race".

Mr Jones said: "Today's figures are extremely disappointing, and highlight the important challenge that Wales - and the UK as a whole - faces to ensure our young people are equipped with the tools they need to shine in the competitive employment market.

"We are living in an increasingly competitive world and if Wales is to succeed in the global race, we will need more scientists, engineers, and young people who are equipped with the skills to put them at the front of the queue. Most importantly, we need to inspire them to pursue their ambitions. Today's worrying figures do very little to help us achieve that aim.

"It is vitally important that the Welsh Government now seeks to address these serious educational deficiencies and give the young aspirational people of Wales the skills they need to succeed."

His Labour shadow Owen Smith said: "The PISA results for Wales are disappointing, but parents, teachers and pupils in Wales should rest assured that the Welsh Labour government has already recognised the scale of the challenge we face and has put in place the measures required to turn things around.

"Two years ago, the Welsh government announced vital reforms to in increase transparency in our school system, making it easier to identify underperformance and to challenge schools to improve their standards. They also introduced measures to increase intellectual rigour, concentrating on core skills in maths and English with new benchmark tests and enhanced GCSEs.

"Most importantly, perhaps, they recognised the need to place teaching excellence and commitment at the heart of our system and became the first part of the UK to ask teachers to continue their training through an MA or other professional qualifications. This is an approach shown by today's PISA report to have led to significant improvements in other parts of the world. Shanghai, which tops the list, requires all teachers to be qualified and to undertake 240 hours of professional development in the first five years, whereas in England, Michael Gove is watering down standards and allowing unqualified teachers to teach in academies and free schools.

"The response of the Welsh government to today's results has been honest, serious and long-sighted, in contrast to the short term, party-political points which Conservative UK cabinet ministers have sought to make today. Using the education of Welsh pupils, striving for attainment in some of the most challenged and deprived communities of Britain, as a means to score points off the Labour Party, is a cheap trick which will be seen for what it is by the Welsh people."