If Wales wants to stand on its own two feet, we need to stop falling behind on education
If there is a much used but little understood modern political phrase, it is ‘levelling up’. But strip away the jingoism and at its heart lies the premise that talent is equally spread across the country, but opportunity is not.
Life in Wales is a postcode lottery, such that an adult’s life expectancy is five years higher in Monmouthshire than Merthyr. Welsh GDP per capita is amongst the lowest in the UK, and less than the former East Germany.
Lower productivity is at least in part due to a difference in skills levels, which leads to a vicious cycle where areas that generate higher productivity – whether elsewhere in Wales, the UK or Europe – can pay higher wages which in turn attract better-skilled workers, leaving deprived areas further behind. Better skills means better jobs and higher wages.
Education is key to fixing this. Whilst many column inches are used to debate the pros and cons of devolution, independence or unionism, what is often overlooked are the areas over which the devolved administration already has control.
Throughout the quarter of a century of devolution, Wales has consistently ranked last amongst the four home nations in various PISA results, as well as below the OECD average across various measures, such as reading, mathematics, and science.
The league table looks like a pre-2022 Eurovision scoreboard with countries such as Estonia, Finland and Poland performing better than the UK (and therefore much better than Wales).
Education is pivotal to the success of a country and needs to be at the heart of any post-pandemic economic recovery. Improving the education system must therefore be a priority to ensure Wales can stand on its own feet whether as part of the Union or working towards the distant prospect of being an independent nation.
The Welsh Government’s strategy to improve speech, language and communication support for children under five years states that “it is widely recognised that a child’s development in the early years is vital”.
“This includes children’s acquisition of speech, language and communication (SLC) skills and oracy which underpins a child’s ability to read and write and to problem-solve,” they say.
“Positive cognitive development is strongly associated with a child’s success in school and entry into the workforce.”
At the same time the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has reported that pandemic restrictions such as lockdowns have worsened SLC delays amongst younger children. Children from deprived backgrounds were more likely to be behind their peers in SLC development by the time they started primary school, and this has only worsened as a result of the pandemic.
Research by Save the Children in 2016 showed that nearly eight in ten Reception teachers in Wales often see children who struggle to speak in full sentences, with almost 90 per cent of teachers reporting that those children fall further behind in their learning.
The 2018-19 annual report by Estyn’s then Chief Inspector of Education and Training said of the importance of children’s speaking, listening and literacy skills that “in general, pupils in primary and secondary schools do not always have enough opportunities to take part in learning experiences that focus specifically on talking, for example to improve their ability to question, challenge and build on the contribution of others through debate.
“In less effective schools, listening and speaking are viewed as skills that support reading and writing, rather than as skills that need to be developed in their own right.
“Frequently, teachers’ interventions and comments focus exclusively on what pupils are taking about rather than also on how they are saying it.”
It won’t matter what technical, vocational or academic courses or apprenticeships are offered. Without basic literacy and numeracy skills people will not even fully understand a job advert.
We also know that deprivation will exacerbate underachievement, something not helped by the fact that child poverty rose by 5% in Wales despite falling across the rest of the UK, with concern that this will rise again as the cost of living crisis bites.
Back to basics
So far, so depressing. So what can be done to get Wales out an economic skills trap? If education is the driving force for the economy it should be centre stage of Wales’ own ‘levelling’ up strategy.
Schools must change, with greater emphasis on the basics. When I taught mathematics I confiscated calculators until the pupils learned how to do simple arithmetic, using their brains not just a keypad.
But parents must take responsibility for their offspring too. When teachers are reporting that pupils are now coming into school unable to use a toilet or cutlery, then it is time to say that parents’ abdication of responsibility must stop.
Schools are not there simply to take children off parents’ hands during the day and provide the majority or only development a pupil gets. A change in attitude is required; a progeny is for life, not just for Christmas. A back to basics approach by parents and schools alike must be engendered.
How do we bring about effective change? The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that spending per pupil in 2021-22 was expected to be £7,600 in Scotland, £6,400 in Northern Ireland, £6,700 in England and £6,600 in Wales.
Last again, but the PISA rankings rank England top, then Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, so it’s not simply about how much you spend but how you spend it. Investment is needed, not expenditure.
To invest in education, schools must have more flexibility to develop the courses needed in their area, whether it’s tourism in Pembrokeshire, accountancy in Cardiff, or engineering in Anglesey.
How do you pay for this, particularly in the face of a cost of living crisis? Government is about choice and decisions. Decisions are made in good faith based on available evidence at the time but, for example, would it now be more prudent to invest public money in apprenticeships rather than an underutilised airport?
Secondary school pupil absenteeism has more than doubled to over 16% in the last year compared to pre-pandemic levels, with rates higher among pupils from poorer backgrounds. School leaders report that some pupils “have simply got out of the habit of regular attendance and never full re-engaged”.
The rate of permanent exclusions in Wales has more than doubled in the last decade, with persistent disruptive behaviour, verbal abuse and threatening behaviour towards adults, and physical assault against a pupil figuring large.
Clearly there isn’t enough discipline in school settings.
Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of Michaela Community School in Wembley and dubbed Britain’s Strictest Headmistress advocates a return to tradition and discipline. Her approach is one of Marmite, with supporters and critics regarding her either a visionary or a demagogue.
Whilst her methods may seem severe, they do get results. Discipline is drilled into the pupils but they speak of the benefits that discipline has brought them. The school’s militaristic manner might be seen as extreme, but surely some of its methods can be applied to schools in Wales if the outcome is proud parents and educated children? If education is now a culture war, surely it is one that we want to win.
But to improve and get a better-balanced economy, broad skills need to be developed. Thanks to the pandemic previously undervalued roles were lauded as ‘key workers’, but differences still remain. There is a shortage of care workers because there is better pay and prospects as a shop worker.
In his 2020 book Head Hand Heart, David Goodhart divided human aptitude into Head (Cognitive), Hand (manual and craft) and Heart (caring, emotional).
To improve the Welsh economy – and indeed society and culture – roles which fall under each of these categories must be valued, with appropriate education and training made available.
The world is filled with examples of countries whose education systems, and economies, are faring better than Wales. Estonia’s national curriculum changed its focus to more innovative teaching practices while upgrading vocational education and training.
Germany’s further education system, with its emphasis on high quality technical education and apprenticeships, is held in high regard.
We should not look to simply pick and replicate any one system, but to learn from wherever we can to employ those methods and practices most relevant to Wales’ own uniqueness.
Wherever you stand on the union-independence spectrum, Wales’ success will only come with an improved, balanced economy with an appropriately trained and educated workforce. To get there we need discipline, investment, improved standards of teaching, and relevant courses that are appropriate to upskilling the workforce.
If we want to raise the standard of living in Wales, we have to start learning how.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.