2014 review: Is the tide turning in pupil performance?

Image caption Expect big curriculum changes early in 2015

Which subjects should get most attention on the curriculum?

Are we equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they need for the 21st Century?

They are questions which schools in Wales have had to consider this year.

After several reviews into different subjects from the arts to IT reported back to the Welsh government last year, in March, the education minister decided to look at the whole lot.

Prof Graham Donaldson was tasked with carrying out a root and branch review of our curriculum and will publish his report in February

While details are sketchy right now, we've been told to expect big things.

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Media captionOctober 2014: Prof Graham Donaldson on the curriculum challenge

When Prof Donaldson was in Cardiff recently he told a conference of head teachers: "What I design will challenge you. You will need to decide if you're up for that."

No pressure then.

The other challenge on the minds of many of our head teachers this year was the Welsh government's new flagship policy: Schools Challenge Cymru.

As well as a share of the £20m budget, the 40 schools included in the scheme have been given an expert advisor who has drawn up an improvement plan with the school leaders and will then bring in extra support to raise standards.

The extra support is in the form of experts or teachers from successful schools willing to share their staff.

Those involved with Schools Challenge Cymru expect to see an improvement in GCSE exam results within the first year, so we'll see whether it's been a success or not in August.

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Media caption1 May 2014: Schools selected for Schools Challenge Cymru

If there have been improvements in next year's GCSE results it will build on the relative success of this year; once again, pupils in Wales narrowed the gap with their counterparts in England.

There are certain subjects where Wales outperforms other parts of the UK now, such as chemistry. But while that was a cause for celebration, maths continues to be a cause for concern.

Image caption GCSE comparisons between Wales and England

Last year 52.8% of pupils in Wales achieved an A*-C grade in maths, but by this year the figure had dropped to 50.6%.

But in England the figure went up.

It means that, last year, in those getting good grades, Wales was around five per cent behind England.

But by this year, that figure shot up to over 12%.

This time last year those involved with education were still reeling from yet another set of Pisa results.

It seemed pretty much impossible that Wales would succeed in reaching its target of being in the top 20 Pisa countries after next year's tests.

In October the target changed. Now the aim is to achieve a score of 500 by the tests in 2021.

So where would a score of 500 have left Wales in last year's ranking?

  • In maths it would have led to a rank of 22nd, above Denmark
  • In science, Wales would have ended up in 26th place, just ahead of Germany.
  • And in reading, we would have been in 23rd position - just behind the Czech Republic.

However, it's also quite close to where other parts of the UK were in last year's tests. The question was asked: is the new target ambitious enough?

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Media captionOctober 2014: The Pisa tests target is changed in Wales

Welsh government officials are really starting to feel that the reforms to schools are really starting to deliver, and that next year, we'll see bigger improvements.

Education Minister Huw Lewis went so far as to say Wales might even overtake England next year in the proportion of pupils gaining five A*-C grades in core subjects.

That's a bold claim, but one which wouldn't have been made over the past few years.

The feeling is that 2015 could just be the year the tide really turns.

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