Ann Keane · BBC news · David Reynolds · Leighton Andrews · the Economist · The Telegraph

Welsh education – ‘producerism’s last hurrah’!

This week’s TES is reporting that the chief inspector of Estyn (the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted) Ann Keane has just published a report claiming that 40% of pupils starting secondary school in Wales do so with a reading age of six months below their chronological age.

What I would like to know is how she came by that figure. If the average age of pupils starting secondary school is about eleven years and six months, this means that only 40% are below a reading age of about eleven years and six months.
I don’t believe it! The figure confounds everything we hear on our courses from English secondary teachers and TAs who screen secondary children from the moment when they arrive in secondary school. What they tell us is that around sixty percent plus of children regularly test below their chronological age. What’s more, many of those are falling below a reading age of nine years and six months, the level below which many practitioners believe it is possible for a pupil to cope at all successfully with the secondary curriculum.
The figures given for Wales make no sense at all. If 60% of pupils have a reading age at or above their chronological age (C 11.6) and the other 40% of pupils have a reading age of eleven, everyone would be functioning at secondary level perfectly well. So, why does Professor David Reynolds, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government and educationist at the University of Southampton, describe the findings of the chief inspector as ‘shocking’ and even go as far (here) as characterising Wales as ‘producerism’s last hurrah’?
It’s because everyone knows that if every pupil were to be tested using a properly normed and standardised test, the results would be so egregious as to cause a national scandal.
With only two out of seven local authorities in Wales rated as ‘good’ and one in special measures, the teachers’ union ATL Cymru blames the local authorities. Philip Dixon of the ATL Cymru is quoted as remarking that, while high level of social deprivation cannot be used as an excuse – nice bit of rhetorical special pleading that, Philip –, ‘the English prescription is not one that we’d want to take, as it is far too rigid in its approach’. I take this to be code for repudiating the need to teach phonics to beginning readers and/or the need to test to find out if children are learning. The heads’ union the NAHT said that there was ‘agreement about what was needed to be done’ and felt that ‘the diagnosis is attracting far more energy than making sure the remedies are developed properly’. I’m sure they would far rather no one published any nasty statistics about how many pupils their schools are failing every year so that everyone could go back to enjoying a quiet life.
And Leighton Andrews, who has presided over this debacle as minister for Children Education and Lifelong Learning since 2009? He prattles on about how the report identifies ‘where we have been successful and where the education sector in Wales needs to raise game’. Notice how the statement mentions success and associates it with the inclusive ‘we’, which is carefully positioned before that part of the statement that says it (Wales) ‘needs to raise its game’ – a subtle way of distancing the minister from the ‘shocking’ results.
And what were the successes he is so keen to celebrate? Oh yes, 95% of pupils feel safe and 95% of them ‘know who to talk to if they are worried or upset’. I wonder if they would feel as ‘safe’ if many of them knew that they would find it desperately hard to find work when they leave school because they can’t read very well or because they are innumerate.
Parents in Wales should be outraged by the spin and prevarication of government at all levels and of the unions. A proper, publicly accountable system of independent testing needs to be established and there needs to be an immediate return to phonics teaching for beginning readers and for those children who have fallen behind as a matter of the most urgent priority.

3 thoughts on “Welsh education – ‘producerism’s last hurrah’!

  1. Our local Head, in response to this year's school banding, looked back at the 2011 GCSE cohort to see how they performed in literacy in year7. He found that 51% had a reading age of six months or more below their chronological age and 25% had a reading age of 9 Years and six months or less. This isn't an inner city school, its a town school with 14% of pupils on Free school meals. It is also a bi-lingual school and all it's Primary catchment area schools are Welsh Medium. That means that throughout KS1 pupils have been spoken to and taught exclusively in Welsh, only being introduced, gradually, to English at KS2. Now this is an idea that will never be looked at in Wales but I'll just float it anyway:- Could it be that 4 and 5 year olds coming from a home background that is English speaking but where parents are not well educated actually would be better off receiving intensive intervention through their first language rather than exposing them to a language which was entirely foreign to them? Just asking.

  2. This isn't simply a question about language policy. It is, as I'm sure you are aware, a very political one.
    My answer to your question though is that I don't think so. All the evidence seems to be that educating children bilingually gives them greater linguistic resources. However, the teaching of reading and writing in English in KS2 would need to be of a very high standard because it is so complex to teach. Equally, the teaching of Welsh to English L1 speakers would also need to be very good indeed. I'm told, and I'm not a Welsh speaker, that learning to read and write in Welsh is much easier because it is much more transparent/shallow – the system is very much more one-to-one (i.e. one sound, one letter spelling) than it is in English.
    In my experience of teaching English as a foreign language, I have never met a speaker of any language who can read and write in their own L1 who can't learn to read and write in English. Their pronunciation may not be so brilliant and their grammar and syntax is often non-standard but they can read and encode. It's as if, whether consciously or unconsciously they understand that the system is sound-symbol based.
    My question back to you would be: Is there any correlation between the pupils who come from English-speaking L1 backgrounds and the children who are coming into Y7 with reading ages below 9.6? If the school doesn't know, wouldn't it be a very good idea to find out?
    I might put the question to David Crystal and see what he thinks.

  3. It would take some in depth research to find out exactly who is benefitting from Welsh medium education and who may be suffering. There is however no appetite to find out.
    Not all pupils who go to Welsh medium and bilingual schools (they are all classed as Welsh medium under the 1996 education act) take their examinations through the medium of Welsh. Last year 56% of pupils from Welsh Medium schools took GCSE through the medium of Welsh but nearly all WM pupils will have attended WM primary schools. A*-C pass rate for students taking through the medium of Welsh was 75%; for pupils taking exams through the medium of English the pass rate was 71%. There are so many possible reasons for this but at least one of them is the possibility that pupils from English backgrounds have been poorly served in WM schools.

    For many years supporters of Welsh Medium education have pointed to superior educational outcomes from those schools. The true state of affairs is hidden by the fact that WM secondary schools have about 9.2% of pupils on FSMs against an all schools average of over 17%.
    The second masking factor is the way Core Subject Indicator statistics and Level2 inc. Maths Eng/Welsh are used to compare WM and EM schools in Benchmarked tables. The inclusion of "Either or Welsh/English" gives a mathematical advantage to WM schools. Removing this anomaly shows WM schools underperforming EM schools at every comparable benchmark. The same is true at KS3 and across all core subjects and most non core subjects.

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