Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks seventy-two national educational systems from across the world. The United Kingdom originally appeared on the list as a whole, and it scored respectably. However, when the results separated the four UK home nations in 2006, they showed that Wales was performing very badly.
Beginning in 1997, with the introduction of Welsh devolution, the nation enacted significant reforms to its education system. According to PISA, these measures hadn’t worked: Welsh children lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom — and indeed much of the world — in literacy, numeracy, and science.
There hasn’t been much improvement since then. Wales scored poorly in in 2009, 2012, and again in 2016. Successive low scores created an existential crisis within Welsh education and within the country more generally. The idea that our kids are thick and our schools are useless has rapidly become the national common sense.
The PISA rankings represent just one more pillar of failure in a country that only ever appears in the British news as a representative of poverty and decline. A BBC Wales headline about the 2013 results illustrates how fully the country has internalized this narrative: Wales braces itself for PISA results.
The PISA release has become something of a political tradition in the Welsh parliament. Every three years, the scores embarrass the Labour government, and the opposition parties gleefully promote them as statistical evidence of the ruling party’s incompetence.
The media participates by enviously comparing Wales to countries with semi-militarized education systems, which, despite their success in literacy and numeracy, push children to breaking point. The fact that many of the top-performing countries score very poorly in student happiness and well-being seems irrelevant.
Labour’s Welsh enemies are not the only ones who benefit from the country’s educational decline: like the National Health Service, Welsh education has become a convenient stick that Tory-controlled Westminster can use to beat the Labour Party: “This is what will happen to English kids if Labour ever gains power at Westminster!”
Shortly after the latest PISA results came out, the Welsh parliament held a special debate that illustrated the country’s current political landscape. Labour defended its record on the basis of an internal report that it hadn’t made public, so no one could fact check them. AMs (assembly members) disingenuously claimed that any attack on Welsh education was really an attack on Welsh teachers — their standard method for shutting down criticism.
The Tories looked jealously at England’s march toward more selective schooling. Plaid Cymru, the center-left Welsh nationalist party, highlighted PISA’s inherent problems and unrealistic targets before jeers shut its line of discussion down. UKIP, the far-right party, didn’t bother to turn up.
The beleaguered new education secretary, Kirsty Williams, who had only been in the position for a few months, stated that Wales must follow PISA’s recommendations and announced that the Welsh government had invited PISA to monitor and guide Welsh education. AMs met her plan with sage nods — she was in a room of true believers.
What Neoliberalism Wrought
PISA appears to have entirely benign goals.
Its introductory video explains that the program determines “whether fifteen-year olds are acquiring the social and emotional skills they will need to thrive, like knowing how to work and communicate with others.” Its ranking system helps PISA identify good practices in education in order “not only to show how these systems are constructed, but to encourage countries to learn from each other’s experience in building fairer, more inclusive school systems.”
This façade masks a number of serious issues. First, the program suffers from quite basic and well-documented sampling problems, including its use of imputed scores and the fact that it doesn’t produce truly longitudinal data.
More than that, PISA simply doesn’t measure like with like. Is it valid to compare an extremely deprived country of three million to an economic powerhouse of fifty-three million? This question becomes especially urgent in Wales, where many children are classed as either deprived or in need of special education.
Professors Gareth Rees and Chris Taylor came up with an alternative model for measuring educational attainment. When they compared Wales to a composite nation comprised of English counties facing similar social problems, Wales did relatively well.
PISA’s issues run deeper than sampling or method. For all its egalitarian rhetoric, it perfectly aligns with the deep structural changes that have occurred within world education since the neoliberal turn.
Starting in the 1970s, the basis of the world economy shifted. Advanced capitalist economies moved away from manufacturing and resource extraction, and those sectors migrated to poorer countries. Places like the United Kingdom and United States began to measure their economic growth and success on knowledge, which they subsequently transformed into a commodity. The population’s intelligence and skills became a country’s main natural resource, and governments started prioritizing information, technology, and education over production.
Meanwhile, as capitalism spread across the globe, advanced capitalist countries pushed to remove as many barriers between their economies and the rest of the world as possible. Trading partners from different countries needed to communicate effectively, so they standardized everything measurable.
Neoliberal ideology holds that the education system — like world trade — should become borderless. Academics and students must be able to move between institutions with ease; tests and qualifications must become internationally comparable.
As part of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development’s educational component, PISA fills this need. Incidentally, the program makes a lot of money, too, having spawned a cottage industry of consultants and companies that sell PISA solutions to countries in need.
Thatcher famously claimed that neoliberal economic policy was not the end in itself, but rather a way of changing a society’s heart and soul, of altering its values. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in education, where neoliberalism’s seductive logic has altered both its purpose and its nature.
While education has always been linked to the economy, society’s understanding of why education matters has fundamentally changed since the neoliberal turn.
Today, people believe that the sole purpose of education is to grow the economy, which helps explain why bosses’ organizations routinely weigh in on school reform. Individuals are encouraged to accrue qualifications to build capital that will help them find a job. Education no longer appears as a public good in its own right; if it doesn’t benefit the economy, narrowly defined, it is pointless. Notions about cultural development, personal fulfillment, and civic participation seem outdated.
If education’s function has changed, so too has its content. Subjects that add no tangible value to the economy — like art, music, and sociology — are marginalized in favor of hard sciences. The world needs engineers and web developers, not sculptors and theorists.
In a world where everything is quantifiable, teaching and education now focus on producing data. Schools test children to track their progress, and schools and teachers themselves must be tested to ensure that they are delivering high-quality services.
This culture forces schools and schoolchildren to compete with one another. It discourages solidarity and encourages overwhelmed teachers to begin “teaching to the test.” In this standardized model, coursework is designed only to prepare children to pass exams. It no longer imparts an in-depth understanding of or deep interest in the topic. These unquantifiable achievements don’t improve league-table standings, after all.
In Britain, as the economy moved toward services, innovation, and culture, Tony Blair and New Labour enthusiastically embraced the knowledge economy and became obsessed with using education to drive growth. Although New Labour retained residual elements of the “first way,” its approach to the school system faithfully followed Tory reforms, espousing a managerial ethos.
They retained school league tables to ensure efficiency, and launched the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to allow private providers to enter the educational sector. (The Conservatives have since ramped these programs up.)
Under New Labour, education focused on delivering higher standards to consumers, and teachers buckled in for a tougher life. Parental choice — which often set parents against teachers and staff — became the new mantra. The government and media began treating educators as a vested interest that selfishly refused to be held accountable for their performance.
Blair’s education minister, David Blunkett, made the continuities between New Labour’s moralizing communitarianism and the Tories’ policies impossible to ignore. He attacked progressive instruction, insisting that schools return to traditional, whole-class teaching and emphasize the “three Rs” to raise standards.
The Welsh Path
Wales was supposed to be different.
In 1997, the country voted narrowly for devolution and established its own national assembly. In many ways, voters were reacting to the depredations of Thatcherite neoliberalism. Campaigners told the Welsh people — devastated by deindustrialization and sick of being used as a policy laboratory for some of the prime minister’s most hardline allies — that increasing local control would protect them from Westminster and allow them to create a social-democratic enclave.
Although Blair made devolution a central plank of New Labour’s state modernization program, Welsh Labour rhetorically distanced itself from its English counterpart’s neoliberalism. In its attempt to create “clear red water” between it and New Labour, the Welsh government rejected many of the market-oriented policies the Blair government favored.
Despite its very limited powers, the Welsh parliament embarked on a distinctly — albeit moderate — social-democratic path. It rejected PFI in hospitals and initiated a number of progressive policies, including free prescription drugs and free or concessionary public transport travel for the elderly.
Wales also tried to chart its own progressive course in education. Before 1999, the Welsh education system, with some significant exceptions, closely resembled England’s. After devolution, however, Welsh ministers became responsible for every element of education except for teachers’ pay. They made the most of their new freedom: Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning from 2000 to 2007, explicitly linked education to social justice.
The Welsh government began by establishing a children’s commissioner, stating that it intended to put children and education at the heart of society. In 2001, it abolished school league tables and, in 2004, got rid of the national standardized test, a move that teachers unions welcomed.
A firm belief in its comprehensive school system means that Wales has no so-called free schools, no selective grammar schools, and no academies. In 2005, the government introduced school councils to give students an active role in their school’s management.
On top of this, the Welsh government developed initiatives, including Flying Start (2006–7) and the pupil deprivation grant (launched in 2012), designed to help the most deprived students. And Davidson, herself a former teacher, adopted a more conciliatory tone with teachers and teaching unions than her English counterparts.
Davidson also oversaw curricular revisions. Drawing on progressive experiments from across the world, the government introduced their flagship Foundation Phase for children aged three to seven, a play-based program meant to replace the more formal Key Stage 1. In 2003, Wales piloted its new baccalaureate qualification, which offered a broader curriculum that encouraged community service and “soft skills.”
Rees claims that this distinct approach to education springs from “deep-seated social democratic values,” a worldview that calls on the state to deliver equal opportunities to all through universally provided public goods.
Rees may well be right, but we should not have any illusions about Welsh Labour’s reforms. They are, at best, the minimum that citizens should expect from a self-styled social-democratic government: child-centered, non-market oriented, and relatively teacher friendly.
PISA changed all of this. In 2006, following the Daugherty Review’s recommendations, Davidson entered Wales into the program. Before the first report came out, however, Jane Hutt had taken over as minister.
Wales didn’t score exceptionally well, but it also didn’t rank significantly lower than the other home nations. Hutt reacted to the news coolly. She claimed that her priority was “to secure better outcomes for learners, not just to score highly in Pisa rankings,” but she also acknowledged “the importance of Pisa as a yardstick against which we can measure our progress.”
During her two years in office, Hutt didn’t make many changes to Davidson’s programs, explaining that she wanted to give her predecessor’s policies time to work.
Her short tenure was the calm before the storm. In late 2009, the combative Leighton Andrews replaced Hutt. The PISA results that came out in 2010 — in which Wales once again scored poorly — had a profound impact on Andrews’ time as education minister and on the Welsh educational system.
In contrast to Hutt’s sanguine reaction, Andrews called the results “a wake-up call to an education system in Wales that has become complacent, falling short of being consistently good and not delivering the outcomes our learners deserved.”
PISA created a sense of urgency — if not quite panic. Rather than consider the low baseline from which Wales started or focus on relatively high levels of student wellbeing, Andrews became fixated on climbing the league tables. He ambitiously promised that Wales would become one of the top twenty nations for reading by 2015.
Andrews set about his task with a fanatical sense of purpose, initiating a wide-ranging set of reforms and dismantling many of Davidson’s initiatives. He introduced a twenty-point plan, “driven by performance” and guided by the OECD. Advisers who disagreed with him left the government quickly. Andrews prioritized performance, which he narrowly defined as literacy and numeracy scores measured against international peers.
Crucially, two years into Andrews’ tenure, Labour won a majority in the assembly elections. As a result, Andrews no longer had to appease coalition partners Plaid Cymru, who had been dragging Welsh Labour to the left, giving him free rein to implement his vision.
Shortly after Labour began to govern alone, Andrews reintroduced the hated school league tables, now called banding. He also reinstated literacy and numeracy tests and frameworks, with the explicit aim of driving up Wales’s PISA score.
While these reforms were very much neoliberal in cast, Andrews successfully deployed progressive rhetoric to justify them. One of Wales’s sharpest politicians since devolution, Andrews memoirs are sprinkled with references to Raymond Williams, the anarcho-syndicalist The Miner’s Next Step, and Noah Ablett. He dismissed initiatives he did not agree with as “libertarian,” contrary to Wales’s “communitarian” Labour traditions.
He applied this logic selectively, however. Allowing children to develop at their own pace (pupil choice) counted as a libertarian program, while league tables, which foster parental choice, were progressive because they inform working-class parents about their child’s education.
Indeed, Welsh Labour often appeals to a radical tradition to mask straightforwardly Blairite reforms. Many Labour members of parliament in Wales are disciples of the Labour historian Dai Smith (father of Owen), who provided a generation of moderate Welsh politicians with a rhetorical toolbox to explain all their actions. Wales’s nebulous radical tradition can justify almost anything. Want to invade Iraq? Just reference Welsh anti-fascists’ participation in the Spanish Civil War!
The Welsh media adored Andrews, smitten by his confrontational style. Every fight he picked gave them good copy, and they enthusiastically backed his reforms, claiming that Davidson had removed key “accountability mechanisms” and had given “complacent” teachers too much autonomy. The BBC billed Andrews’ agenda as “one of the most radical and ambitious reform programmes that Welsh education has ever seen.”
Surrounded by special advisors like former Blair adviser Robert Hill and David Reynolds — a leader in educational reform research who believes that schools can singlehandedly compensate for society’s ills — Andrews became obsessed with the notion that better teaching could solve all the nation’s problems. His school improvement program, which focused on reforming teaching, crystallized these illusions.
Andrews’ initiatives put immense pressure on beleaguered teachers, who began to suffer from “initiative fatigue.” The government impatiently introduced, then quickly revised, new programs before they had a chance to take root.
Unions argued that the increased workload, pressure, and scrutiny was crushing morale and pushing teachers to the breaking point. Schools felt stigmatized by the league tables, and teachers shelved community engagement and extracurricular activities in order to teach to the test and get children to meet the new standards.
Most available evidence suggests that you cannot teach your way out of inequality. Wales is completely and utterly locked into poverty, and many residents have abandoned any hope of improvement. This national attitude has a profound effect on education.
Teachers cannot tell students that school will help them when the child knows that it cannot. Wales has very few jobs, and the available ones do not require formal qualifications.
Of course, this is not to say that education cannot make a positive difference in pupils’ lives — quite the contrary. The point is simply that educational policy that forces educators to focus entirely on narrowly defined goals cannot help students escape poverty.
Many factors that impact a child’s life fall outside a school’s influence, particularly in places like Wales, where adult literacy and numeracy is so low. Therefore, education needs to also focus on the family and the community if it wants to have any positive impact. Further, different government measures — such as improving the local economy — need to lift these communities out of poverty before any education initiative will work.
Andrews disregarded all of this, choosing instead to hold teachers accountable. Unsurprisingly, his reforms failed to raise standards. In fact, when the 2012 PISA results came out, Welsh scores in math and science had actually decreased.
Andrews had banked on winning political capital by improving the nation’s educational system and taking on the so-called vested interests. As each passing year brought no miraculous breakthroughs, his tone became more confrontational. He angrily blamed teachers for letting his project down.
Eventually, Andrews suffered a farcical demise, a hubristic fall from grace that could only happen in Wales. He was forced to resign after being caught protesting the implementation of his own policies — a not-unusual phenomenon in Wales, where a lack of media coverage has ingrained hypocrisy in the ruling party. His devotees in the press mourned the loss of a man who wasn’t afraid to stand up to those lazy teachers.
Andrews may have left government, but he managed to fully shift the nation’s educational paradigm. Wales had started its “education improvement journey.” His senior allies expressed their gratitude that reformers could now stroll past the doors that Andrews had kicked down by breaking teachers’ will.
Another “modernizer,” former teacher and Blairite Huw Lewis, took over for Andrews in June 2013, pledging to continue his reforms. Teachers unions and local authorities breathed a sigh of relief when faced with someone less dictatorial than Andrews, but, tellingly, Lewis soon began criticizing Davidson and Hutt.
Reports were leaked that cited problems under their leadership. These documents described positive learning environments but criticized the lack of standards. Like Hutt, Lewis seemed generally content to let his predecessor’s programs stand.
Promisingly, he commissioned a review of the Welsh curriculum, led by Graham Donaldson. Nonetheless, he responded to complaints about Andrews’ “banding” initiative by rebranding it again. He hilariously insisted that his color-coding system did not constitute league tables. Then he dropped hardship funds for poorer students.
Lewis stood down from education in 2016. His replacement, the Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams, got the position thanks to a deal brokered to keep Labour’s Carwyn Jones first minister after a stalemate election.
Predictably, Williams has claimed that the solution to Wales’s education woes lies in improving teaching and in developing “educational leadership.” She writes, “without enthused, valued and skilled teachers we can’t achieve anything,” yet refuses to pay them more. She will retain the league tables and testing, but scrap the much-lauded financial assistance for Welsh university students.
The history of Welsh education over the last decade demonstrates the difficulty of sustaining progressive initiatives against the global transformation of education. Devolution gave Wales an opportunity to do things differently, and in the early years there was a clear attempt to chart a distinct course that eschewed the Blair government’s neoliberal reforms.
Nevertheless, Wales gradually but inexorably abandoned this less-traveled path because it didn’t conform to the hegemonic image of education. Wales’s education system claims it adheres to different principles than Tory England, but it has increasingly adopted neoliberalism’s norms and methods: more testing, more ranking, more pressure on teachers and students.
Many in Wales have overlooked their country’s increasing convergence with England and, indeed, the rest of the world. This is in large part thanks to Westminster’s succession of education villains — Michael Gove in particular, whose deeply reactionary programs make all of Wales’s education secretaries look like Francisco Ferrer.
Tory attacks on the Welsh education system allowed Andrews and Lewis to portray themselves as victims of a Conservative “war on Wales” and to play up their country’s communitarian traditions. Of course, Andrews did this at the exact moment he was steering his country closer to England’s system.
Finally, the media also deserves some of the blame. The British press’s general ignorance of Wales’s distinct policy context and the Welsh media’s love affair with Andrews and PISA have helped pushed this social-democratic experiment closer to neoliberal orthodoxy.
The Pitfalls of PISA
PISA offers a case study in hegemony. It does not force its reforms on countries; it does not make anyone sign up for the program or follow its advisers’ suggestions. Everything PISA produces is, simply, advisory.
In this way, the program represents an all-pervasive hegemonic ideology, a commonsensical understanding of how education should work. There is no alternative. This soft power, imported through advisers and experts, smooths out the hard edges of neoliberal hegemony.
Wales’s convergence with the rest of the world should serve as a warning to progressive educators everywhere. Like globalization, new educational norms are not forcibly imposed, but actively implemented by reformers.
Lest we demonize Leighton Andrews, we should remember that he would appear progressive in an American or English context. He is committed to equality, state education, and helping the poor. As education minister, he launched many worthwhile projects, including the pupil deprivation grant and the Welsh-medium education strategy, which popularized Welsh-language schools in Anglophone areas of South Wales.
His reforms cannot be conflated with those of Gove or the Tory government. But he nevertheless believed in a particular way of ordering and organizing education, which entailed measuring his country against the rest of the world.
It’s easy to understand this impulse: when PISA publishes its league tables, even high-achieving countries internalize the belief that their education system is failing. They feel pressure to steer their national education systems toward an internationally recognized standard.
But all radical educators should resist PISA’s political pressure. In Wales, many view Davidson and her attempt to abolish league tables and testing as dangerously naive: a “toxic legacy.” Her martyrdom shows that nontraditional approaches to teaching and curriculum will face accusations of lowering standards. Critics will argue that giving teachers more autonomy removes accountability and refusing to rank schools keeps parents in the dark.
As Peter Maas Taubman notes in Teaching By Numbers, teachers and teacher-leaders have been complicit in this process, gradually accepting the alleged need for standardization and increased accountability mechanisms. Challenging what has become commonsensical will be difficult. Only a very strong leader could withstand the political fallout from pulling out of PISA, scrapping league tables, and reducing testing.
The irony, of course, is that no one wins under this system. While Wales faces incredible pressure to move up in the rankings, top-performing countries must ensure that they don’t slip down. Even if Wales climbed the ladder, it would simply trade one kind of stress for another.
Today, Welsh education still has relatively egalitarian principles guiding it, but the government organizes it along neoliberal lines. Its curricular review contains some genuinely progressive ideas, pledging to develop young people as “ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world” and “healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.” These promises come with commitments to focus on the arts and humanities alongside science and math.
At the same time, Wales wants to fly up the PISA rankings, and individual schools want to move up the league tables. The government will continue to downplay those aspects of education that cannot be quantified or do not contribute to standardized measures. It will continue to introduce new policies without giving old ones the chance to work.
Fundamentally, the tension at the heart of contemporary Welsh education cannot be overcome so long as the nation’s political leaders remain wedded to neoliberal forms of organization.