Welsh Government education reforms have caused falling standards and must be reviewed and “paused”, an explosive report from a respected and influential research body claims. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) paper, which looks at global, UK, and Welsh education results, says Welsh Government policy and reform – rather than poverty or resources – has caused a decline in children's attainment and continuing on the same path won't improve matters.

It calls for the much-vaunted new curriculum to be revised, a pause on GCSE reform in Wales, and a return to more published data on pupil attainment. It suggests introducing "school report cards” to give parents better information on school performance and says education policymakers could “learn” from approaches in England which have seen more progress.

“The overwhelming conclusion is that the overall level of educational performance in Wales is low and inequalities are high and persistent,” the report, published on March 21, warns. It says there is little evidence that the most prominent education policies of the Welsh Government – the new curriculum, free school meals in primaries, and potential changes to the school year – will improve educational attainment or narrow inequalities. The chief inspector of schools in Wales also has concerns about children's attainment and you can read more about that here

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The report details how performance of disadvantaged children in England is either above or similar to the average for all children in Wales and states: “Low educational outcomes are not likely to be a reflection of higher poverty in Wales, a different ethnic mix of pupils, statistical biases, or differences in resources – they are more likely to reflect differences in policy and approach.”

The paper, titled Major challenges for education in Wales, claims that Wales’ school reforms – a flagship of Welsh policy for more than a decade – led directly to the “low educational outcomes” and low scores attained by 15-year-olds in recent international tests. It says Wales' low Pisa scores are significant and “a major concern and challenge for the new First Minister” who must make education “an urgent priority” for his government. It recommends that policymakers and educators in Wales should “pause, and in some cases rethink, past and ongoing reforms” and says:

  • The Curriculum for Wales should place greater emphasis on specific knowledge than it does now.
  • GCSE reform 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.
  • “School report cards” should be introduced, alongside school inspections, to provide more information for parents.

Looking at Wales’ education performance since policy diverged from England the document highlights:

  • Spending per pupil is similar in the two countries, in terms of current levels, recent cuts, and recent trends over time – yet England does better.
  • Pisa scores in Wales in 2022 (published in December 2023) fell by more than in most other countries and by more than all other UK nations bringing Wales to their lowest ever level – significantly below the average across OECD countries.
  • The average pupil in Wales performed at the same level as the most disadvantaged children in England.
  • Post-16 Wales has a higher share of young people not in education, employment, or training than in the rest of the UK (11% compared with 5-9%) and there are lower levels of participation in higher education (particularly among boys) and lower levels of employment and earnings for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • The gap in GCSE results between disadvantaged and other children in Wales in 2019 was equivalent to 22-23 months of educational progress compared to 18 months in England.

New GCSEs are due to be taught in Wales from 2025 including greater use of assessment, a broader range of subjects, and the removal of triple science as an option. But these reforms “run the risk of widening inequalities, increasing teacher workload, and limiting future education opportunities” while “removing triple science subjects risks capping the future educational opportunities of Welsh learners in science, medical, and technological subjects,” the IFS believes.

And poorer pupils also do worse in Wales than their peers in England. The report found that 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 including Liverpool, Gateshead, and Barnsley.

“Before the pandemic there were seven local authorities in Wales where disadvantaged pupils were at least 25 months behind their peers at the national level: Torfaen, Wrexham, Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Pembrokeshire. In England this was only the case for Blackpool,” IFS researchers found..

On funding the IFS, the UK’s leading independent economics research institute, calculates that differences in educational performance between England and Wales “are unlikely to be explained by differences in resources and spending”. Spending per pupil is similar in the two countries in terms of current levels, recent cuts, and recent trends over time.

Results also cannot be explained by pupils' ethnic background. Pupils from minority ethnic or immigrant backgrounds tend to do better than other groups but still show “lower levels of performance in Wales than in England”.

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On the new curriculum for Wales, based on changes in Scotland, the report says countries like New Zealand, which introduced similar polices earlier, are now rowing back to add in more knowledge. New evidence argues that general skills-based curricula might not be effective and “at the very least all this must leave us wary about the introduction of the skills-based curriculum for Wales".

"There is no good evidence showing that a skills-based curriculum will be able to turn around low scores and high inequalities seen in Wales,” the reports adds, saying that educators must pay heed to Pisa scores as a “valuable and comparable indicator” of young people’s skills in reading, numeracy, and science. The latest low scores capture “a real issue in the Welsh education system” while “the overwhelming conclusion is that the overall level of educational performance in Wales is low and inequalities are high and persistent” and while many may not want to hear it the IFS says Wales could and should learn from education policy in England.

“There is also much that can be learnt from individual teachers and schools in England who have been at the forefront of the knowledge-rich curriculum. Without reform or good data, there could be an even nastier surprise for Welsh policymakers when the next Pisa results are published three years from now.”

Luke Sibieta, IFS research fellow and author of the report, said: "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."

Responding to the report Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, said: “Our belief is that the huge raft of reforms occurring at such pace across many different areas of the Welsh education system is making it increasingly challenging for the workforce to focus on their core purpose of helping young people to learn. Rather than this scattergun approach to reform, which does not appear to be improving outcomes, policymakers need to focus their attention on key areas that will help aid learning, particularly for disadvantaged pupils."

Shadow education minister Laura Anne Jones said: "The state of education in Wales is incredibly concerning and this report highlights how badly Labour have got it wrong. Not only does Wales have the lowest Pisa results in the UK, across the board there are poor educational outcomes in Wales. The Welsh Conservatives would appropriately fund education in Wales, remove Labour's reforms, and save Labour's lost generation."

The Welsh Government said that before the Covid pandemic Wales was the only country in the UK improving standards in literacy, numeracy, and science in Pisa tests. The pandemic had a detrimental impact on this improvement and it said plans have been made to address this.

A spokesman added: "The minister for education and Welsh Language has been very clear that there is more to do and recently hosted an education leaders’ summit to reflect on the challenges facing education in Wales. He has also published the annual report on personalised assessments which includes data on attainment in reading and numeracy in years two to nine.

“The role of knowledge is at the forefront of our new curriculum and it is wrong to claim otherwise. Having worked with teachers and experts to create a curriculum fit for the modern world we are pleased to see evaluations showing schools confidently embracing the opportunity to raise the aspirations of all learners.

“Alongside a renewed focus on the vital skills of literacy and numeracy every pupil will benefit from learning that supports them to become confident and creative with the life skills and knowledge needed to help them reach their potential. The new GCSEs have been consulted on widely with teachers and other partners and our proposals reflect this.”

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