Wales saw a very disappointing set of PISA results when they were published in December 2023. There were larger declines in reading, maths and science than in most other countries. This left scores in Wales lower than in the rest of the UK. The problem is not just low PISA scores either; there are bigger inequalities in GCSE results in Wales and post-16 outcomes are worse.

Poor educational outcomes across the spectrum in Wales, with particularly poor performance among less-well-off pupils, represent a major challenge for the new First Minister. We recommend that policymakers and educators in Wales rethink past reforms and make major changes. Without reform, there is a danger that the picture will get worse.

These are the main conclusions of a new IFS report, ‘Major challenges for education in Wales’, written by Luke Sibieta, who is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Education Policy Institute.

Low educational outcomes in Wales extend across a range of measures and are unlikely to reflect higher poverty in Wales, a different ethnic mix of pupils, statistical biases or differences in resources:

  • PISA scores in Wales in 2022 declined by more than in most other countries, and by more than in the other nations of the UK. This brought scores in Wales to their lowest ever level, significantly below the average across OECD countries.
  • In PISA, the average pupil in Wales performed at the same level as the most disadvantaged children in England.
  • The gap in GCSE results between disadvantaged and other children in Wales in 2019 (equivalent to 22–23 months of educational progress) was larger than in England (equivalent to a still large 18 months of educational progress).
  • Across England and Wales, the local areas with the lowest performance for disadvantaged pupils are practically all in Wales. There are many local areas of England with higher or similar levels of poverty to local areas in Wales, but which achieve significantly higher GCSE results for disadvantaged pupils, e.g. Liverpool, Gateshead and Barnsley.
  • In PISA data, second-generation immigrants also tend to show lower levels of performance in Wales than in England.
  • Spending per pupil is similar in the two countries, in terms of current levels, recent cuts and recent trends over time.
  • There are also worse post-16 educational outcomes in Wales, with a higher share of young people not in education, employment or training than in the rest of the UK (11% compared with 5–9%), lower levels of participation in higher education (particularly amongst boys) and lower levels of employment and earnings for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The explanation for lower educational performance is more likely to reflect longstanding differences in policy and approach, such as lower levels of external accountability and less use of data. There are also important lessons for policymakers in Wales from across the UK.

  • The new Curriculum for Wales is partly based on the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Both aim to broaden the curriculum, improve well-being and focus on skills. However, there is now evidence that these quite general skills-based curricula might not be effective ways to develop those skills. In PISA, pupil well-being in Wales is also significantly below the OECD average.
  • New GCSEs are due to be taught in Wales from 2025, including greater use of continuous assessment, a broader range of subjects and the removal of triple science as an option. These reforms run the risk of widening inequalities, increasing teacher workload and limiting future education opportunities.
  • There is much greater use of data to understand differences in outcomes and inequalities in England. This could easily be emulated in Wales without any return to school league tables.

We recommend that policymakers and educators in Wales pause and rethink ongoing reforms in the following areas:

  • The new Curriculum for Wales should place greater emphasis on specific knowledge.
  • Reforms to GCSEs should be delayed to give proper time to consider their effects on long-term outcomes, teacher workload and inequalities.
  • More data on pupil skill levels and the degree of inequality in attainment are needed and should be published regularly.
  • A move towards school report cards, alongside existing school inspections, could be an effective way to provide greater information for parents without any return to league tables.

Luke Sibieta, IFS Research Fellow and author, said: ‘Policymakers in Wales have long placed a high emphasis on reducing inequality in education and wider society. Teachers and school staff in Wales work hard to equip young people with the skills they need for the future and mitigate the effects of poverty. Unfortunately, we see worryingly low outcomes in PISA tests, high inequalities in GCSE results and disappointing post-16 outcomes for young people in Wales. Faced with this gloomy picture, policymakers should have the courage to make reforms based on solid evidence, such as increasing the emphasis on specific knowledge in the curriculum and making better use of data to shine a spotlight on inequalities throughout the system. Without reform, the picture may worsen.’

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