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Wales is in the midst of radical education reform. Here, Nerys Defis reflects on recent pronouncements from two key players in our system’s development and questions the role of assessment as Wales’ exciting new curriculum develops…

Exams and tests are nothing new and, across the UK, the beginning of summer marks the beginning of exam season.

Traditionally, pre-exam nerves were the domain of 16 and 18 year olds sitting O and A-levels. In today’s schools, those nerves are also being felt by children as young as six years of age sitting their National Reading and Numeracy Tests.

For those sitting GCSEs and A-levels the exam pressure is very much accepted. They are key qualifications and are generally seen as essential for a prosperous future. As far as the National Reading and Numeracy Tests are concerned, it is much more difficult to gauge how they are viewed by both schools and parents.

Wales’ first year of national testing in 2013 certainly had its teething problems. Newspaper headlines branding the testing progress as a ‘shambles’ were a clear indicator that there was room for improvement.

By 2018 the testing procedures are well established and initial concerns about the ability to track year on year progress have been addressed. Nevertheless, other concerns, such as the marking workload and the tests’ incompatibility with Foundation Phase philosophy, remain.

In 2019, it will be interesting to see how schools adapt to the onset of online testing. The adjustment of question difficulty made possible by the online tests will surely be welcomed, as the ‘one-size-fits-all’ nature of the current paper-based tests is one of their most negative aspects.

By December 2019, we will also know the results of another set of tests, the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. In previous years Wales’ disappointing PISA results have made for very uncomfortable reading within the corridors of our educational establishments.

In a recent article, Gareth Evans, Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa, warned that another set of poor Welsh results could de-rail the current Welsh educational reforms. Without doubt, there is more pressure than ever to show that standards in Wales are on the rise.

Surely, halting mid-reform as a result of another round of disappointing PISA results would be both disappointing and counter-productive. One of the alleged reasons for Wales’ flagging school system was what the OCED called ‘reform fatigue’, but well-thought out, timely educational reform can have outstanding results.

In 1997 Singapore began to reform its education system with its vision of ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’. When Singapore first joined the PISA survey in 2009, it was recognised as one of the world’s top-performing countries. In the last PISA study, in 2015, Singapore was top of all three OECD PISA tables.

Singapore’s education system is by no means perfect but it is undoubtedly successful and stable, with none of the ‘reform fatigue’ associated with Welsh education. It is also an education system that expects high standards from everyone.

In much the same vein, a recent speech given by Kirsty Williams, Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Education, at an Athrofa seminar in April, emphasised both her and the Government’s vision that they are able to ‘raise standards for all and reduce the attainment gap’; in effect ensuring that all pupils, from all backgrounds and all areas in Wales, have an equal right to an excellent education.

It has taken Singapore decades to reach this goal and sit at the top of international educational tables. Why would Wales be any different?

The planned changes in Welsh education need to be long-term. Schools need time to adapt. They also need to be trusted and given the necessary breathing space to try out different approaches. As part of this, the current culture of sharing good-practice and inter-school support also needs to be continued.

Current reforms taking place in Wales, such as the planned new curriculum, seem to be eagerly awaited – reforms that are ironically taking place because of shortcomings in Wales’ education system that were highlighted by test results such as the PISA surveys.

The consensus for change that followed Professor Graham Donaldson’s Successful Futures report remains, and the collaboration seen between Welsh Government, its partners and pioneer schools in building the new curriculum is both exciting and refreshing.

During a recent visit to Yr Athrofa’s Aiming for Excellence Conference, Professor Donaldson stated his belief that Scotland’s recent educational reforms were not as effective as hoped due to an over-emphasis on teaching for qualifications.

Whilst conceding that Key Stage 4 pupils must prepare for their key GCSEs and A-level qualifications and that these place inevitable constraints on teaching, Professor Donaldson believes that curriculum delivery can be controlled. He also predicted that the long-term aim will be curriculum-led qualifications that reflect the newly-reformed school curriculum.

Inevitably, many comparisons have been drawn between Wales and Scotland’s educational reforms but as Professor Donaldson stated: ‘Wales is not Scotland’. Wales is following its own path towards an improved education system, hopefully a path that isn’t guided by test results of any kind.

In his speech to UWTSD’s student-teachers, Professor Donaldson emphasised that we must not see tests as the purpose of education as ‘tests do not create a love of learning’.

There may well be testing times ahead for Welsh education, possibly as a result of the PISA survey results and possibly as a result of external factors such as a change of personnel within the Government, following First Minister Carwyn Jones’ departure.

But to ensure Wales has what Ms Williams envisages is an ‘education system that is a source of national pride’, policymakers on every level need to have courage in their conviction and faith in their schools.

Changes are needed and wanted but, inevitably, these things take time. Let’s hope that tests – of any form – do not impede those changes.

  • Nerys Defis is an ITE lecturer at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David