Welsh education in 'crisis' as fears mount that reforms will leave poorer children worse off

Classrooms in Wales are in a 'crisis' as exam results fall to faster than any other UK nation, and while reforms are coming into place, experts fear they will only further disadvantage children

Wales’s Education Minister (and First Ministerial candidate) Jeremy Miles has announced plans to improve attainment and record breaking levels of school absences.

The minister is trying to turn Wales’s flagging education system around, after pupils recorded the country’s worst ever Pisa results last month - when results plummeted faster than in any other UK nation.

The minister told journalists he’s confident results will improve, but experts have told ITV News that Wales’s education system is in crisis, with fears the government’s controversial new curriculum will make things worse - particularly for the poorest children.

An exclusive survey of teachers for ITV News found that more than eight in ten say they don’t have enough support and that the new curriculum isn’t raising standards.

An exclusive survey of teachers for ITV News found more than eight in ten don't have the support they need. Credit: ITV News

How well children do at school is often closely linked to how affluent their parents are. As the poorest nation in the UK, it’s no surprise then that Welsh children routinely score badly in international tests like Pisa, but this malaise runs deeper.

In last month’s tests, the most affluent pupils in Wales had similar scores in reading and mathematics to the average in England.

2022 study also found that the difference in results between Welsh pupils from poorer households and their peers at age 16 was greater than in England as a whole, as well as in even more deprived parts of England.

To try and tackle this longstanding “disadvantage gap”, the Welsh government announced a radical overhaul of the Welsh Education system in 2015.

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It was described by the then education minister as “the biggest shake up to education since 1944” and “very different from what we are seeing happening over the border in England”.

The new Curriculum for Walesrolled out since 2019, involves giving schools more autonomy over what they teach and assess, with the responsibility of designing and implementing it transferred from civil servants to teachers. Its emphasis is on skills and pupil wellbeing, rather than the procurement of specific knowledge.

While there has been praise for the freedom this offers teachers, many fear it will lead to inconsistency between schools, and have warned similar systems has failed elsewhere.

study of the early rollout by Cardiff University warned that “far from reducing educational inequalities, the new Curriculum for Wales may actually exacerbate them”.

One of the authors, Dr Nigel Newton, told ITV News there was “no evidence” their concerns had been addressed by the Welsh government.

Wales’s new curriculum is very similar to that implemented more than a decade ago in Scotland, which was recently criticised by Lindsay Paterson, emeritus professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh as “badly thought-out”, and an “inescapable culprit” in the “severe decline” of Scotland’s recent PISA results.

Similar curricula in Finland, New Zealand and Australia also saw declines in results which subsequently led to reform.

Educationalists agree that curricula like these often require more resources to succeed, but the Welsh government has overseen successive real term cuts to the education budget. Last week 87% of headteachers in Wales warned they would need to cut their budgets next year.

Asked today whether international results have given the minister pause for thought over the new curriculum, the minister told ITV News he was confident it was part of the answer to improving standards.

“The reform programme that we have is, yes about the curriculum, but about a range of other reforms as well including around school improvement and teaching. And those reforms have actually been designed  together with the OECD which is the organisation which runs the Pisa tests.”

The minister cited New Zealand and Canada as countries who have been successful after undergoing similar curriculum reforms, however, both countries have seen a consistent decline in their Pisa scores over the past decade.

Asked whether he had read the report by Cardiff University warning that the new curriculum could worsen the attainment gap, the minister didn’t respond.

The Welsh government is clearly totally committed to its new curriculum, but as international evidence emerges that similar systems are failing, many fear that the government may have backed the wrong horse. 

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