Welsh schools, league tables, and making camera film more efficiently

Posted on 21-01-2012

There is an interesting article in this week’s Economist about Welsh schools. In 2001 the devolved Welsh government abolished school league tables. A decade on, the results are not encouraging. The Economist’s main piece of evidence for this is that only 66.5% of GCSE results get a good grade (I presume they mean a C or above).  In the rest of the UK the figure is 69.8%. I think the Economist are being a bit slippery here. They don’t say what the starting point was for both regions in 2001, and in any case it’s a fairly small difference. (The BBC league tables from 2000 suggest that Welsh and English schools were roughly level back then, although I can’t find the exact metric the Economist are using.) This doesn’t seem to me to particularly damn Welsh schools: the main thing it suggests is how poor results are across the four countries. But whatever you think of the comparison, in absolute terms these are not impressive results from Welsh schools. Combined with weak performances on OECD tests and fewer pupils going to university, these results gives the lie to the idea that abolishing league tables will improve outcomes by allowing schools to focus on broader aspects of education rather than narrow teaching to the test.

So abolishing league tables is not the answer. But the failure of the rest of the UK to convincingly outperform the Welsh suggests that league tables themselves are not the answer either. Indeed, these figures confirm my belief that the problem with education in the UK is not that teachers don’t work hard enough or that senior managers aren’t focussed enough.  The problem is the content of the education system: specifically, the content of the curriculum and the most popular teaching methods.  This is, I think,  a constant across the state system in the UK (although the prevalence of selection in NI might make it a different case.) In a way, this goes back to my post here about structural reform and pedagogic reform. You can make all the structural reforms you like, but if the essential content of  a system is flawed, those reforms won’t help. If you have a factory making camera film, there is little good ranking every aspect of the factory according to a range of Key Performance Indicators. It might make the process of making camera film much more efficient and streamlined, but it won’t change the essential fact that the final product is worthless.  (Or, as the Core Knowledge blog put it for an American audience, there’s no point building a better Edsel.)