Review of 2012: A year of great change in Welsh education

The education system in Wales often hits the headlines but 2012 has been a pretty dramatic year by anyone's standards.

It was a year of great change.

A year when few working within it avoided the scrutiny of Education Minister Leighton Andrews. A year when Wales began moving further than ever perhaps, from the education system across the border.

Literacy

January seems a very long time ago, but it was the month we learned just how desperate literacy levels had become in Welsh schools. In its annual report, the schools inspectorate, Estyn, said that 40% of pupils were arriving at secondary school with reading ages below their actual age.

Child writing A national literacy programme was launched

Twenty per cent of pupils arrived at secondary school with a reading age below nine years and six months - generally considered the level of functional literacy. It warned some never catch up.

David Reynolds is a professor of education effectiveness at Southampton University and a senior Welsh government advisor.

"I don't think it's been a wonderful year. It didn't start at all well," said Prof Reynolds. "Those figures about the high proportion of entrants to secondary school who were functionally illiterate were a huge shock to people."

By the summer, Education Minister Leighton Andrews had launched a national literacy programme. A similar programme for numeracy followed a few months later. Time will tell what difference they will make in the classroom.

Review of Qualifications

Those programmes were welcomed by the employers who warned that pupils are leaving school without the basic skills needed for the workplace. Their concerns were heeded - in a major review of qualifications in Wales, there was a recommendation that two new GCSEs in Numeracy and Maths techniques should be introduced.

But there was one recommendation that really grabbed the headlines.

GCSEs should remain here and become an integral part of a system underpinned by the Welsh Baccalaureate.

A brave conclusion at a time when the reputation of the GCSE brand was tested to the limit by undoubtedly the biggest controversy of the year.

GCSE row

"Irresponsible" was how the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, described his Welsh counterpart, after Leighton Andrews ordered a regrade of GCSE English language papers in Wales. It followed some pretty difficult GCSE results; A*-C grades fell here for first time in a decade and the gulf between the percentage of Welsh pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE compared to other parts of the UK grew to its highest ever level.

Michael Gove and Leighton Andrews Michael Gove and Leighton Andrews

But it was poor performance in the English Language GCSE that really stood out. Leighton Andrews immediately called for a review.

Exam boards had been told by regulators in the summer to raise the C grade threshold.

The review found that to be "unfair". More than 2,000 pupils in Wales ended up with better grades.

England didn't do the same, so a C grade in Wales this year now means something different to a C across the border.

Mr Andrews said it was the resolution of an injustice, a view supported by teaching unions here. But what happened exposed a gulf in opinion that puts the whole concept of three country exam regulation in doubt.

Prof Reynolds believes it was a turning point for Wales.

"I think what it showed people was that we could make decisions in our own way. That we could be ethical, and that we could deliver. It produced a great deal of confidence I think that we're capable of more".

Diverging paths

Step in Michael Gove once more, and his announcement of a plan to scrap GCSEs in core subjects in England, like Maths, English and Science and replace them with the English baccalaureate certificate.

We now know the recommendation is that no such system should be introduced here. But that has prompted concern that whatever way becomes "the Welsh way" is as respected, as robust, as the system emerging in England.

2012 has been a turbulent year for local authorities in Wales. A review is currently assessing, amongst other things, whether they should be stripped of their responsibilities for running schools. The education minister believes many simply are not up to scratch. Inspection reports from Estyn this year have still failed to find an authority that achieves top marks. Three now require special measures.

To merge or not to merge?

Don't be fooled into thinking that the higher education sector escaped the headlines this year.

Cardiff Metropolitan University Cardiff Metropolitan University resisted the merger

All the talk was of mergers. While Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David joined forces, plans to join three universities in south east Wales did not go quite so smoothly.

The education minister has always supported the idea that a smaller number of stronger universities is what's needed in Wales.

But Cardiff Metropolitan University had reservations about being part of a plan for a "super" university in the region. In February, it threatened legal action if it was forced to merge with the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport, without seeing a business case.

Despite pressing ahead with consultation in July, a surprise development in October. The minister gave Cardiff Met a reprieve.

Expect a new university to emerge between Glamorgan and Newport though, as early as next April.

Banding

Back to the classroom and as secondary schools prepared for the Christmas holidays, there was one parting gift from the Welsh government. The ranking system that places schools in one of five bands was published.

The results revealed some success in the lowest bands, but not enough to prevent the teaching unions uniting against it.

The Welsh government defends it - the system is at the heart of its school improvement agenda.

An agenda driven by a man who's dominated the headlines this year. Leighton Andrews has undoubtedly made his mark on the education system.

2013 brings plenty more challenges. Another dramatic year ahead.

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