The Institute for Fiscal Studies recommends Welsh Labour rethink education reforms

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recommends Welsh Labour rethink education reforms

Major challenges for education in Wales

Key findings

  1. PISA scores declined by more in Wales than in most other countries in 2022, with scores declining by about 20 points (equivalent to about 20% of a standard deviation, which is a big decline). This brought scores in Wales to their lowest ever level, significantly below the average across OECD countries and significantly below those seen across the rest of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland also saw declines in PISA scores in 2022, whilst scores were relatively stable in England.
  2. Lower scores in Wales cannot be explained by higher levels of poverty. In PISA, disadvantaged children in England score about 30 points higher, on average, than disadvantaged children in Wales. This is a large gap and equivalent to about 30% of a standard deviation. Even more remarkably, the performance of disadvantaged children in England is either above or similar to the average for all children in Wales.
  3. These differences extend to GCSE results. In England, the gap in GCSE results between disadvantaged and other pupils was equivalent to 18 months of educational progress, which is already substantial, in 2019 before the pandemic. In Wales, it was even larger at 22–23 months in 2019 and has hardly changed since 2009. The picture is worse at a local level. Across England and Wales, the local areas with the lowest performance for disadvantaged pupils are practically all in Wales. There are many 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.
  4. A larger share of pupils in England are from minority ethnic or immigrant backgrounds than in Wales. Such pupils tend to show higher levels of performance. However, even this cannot explain lower scores in Wales, as second-generation immigrants also tend to show lower levels of performance in Wales than in England.
  5. The 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.
  6. There are 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.
  7. The explanation for lower educational performance is much more likely to reflect longstanding differences in policy and approach, such as lower levels of external accountability and less use of data.
  8. There are important lessons for policymakers in Wales from across the UK. The new Curriculum for Wales is partly based on the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, with both having noble aims to broaden the curriculum, improve well-being and focus on skills. However, there is now evidence arguing that these quite general skills-based curricula might not be effective ways to develop those skills. 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. 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 a return to school league tables.


Responding to the damning report on education in Wales from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Laura Anne Jones MS, Shadow Education Minister, said:

“The state of education in Wales is incredibly concerning and this report highlights how badly Labour have got it wrong with their reforms.

“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.”

Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council

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