How Wales can ensure the successful implementation of its reforms

By Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Wales is committed to providing high-quality and inclusive education for all its citizens. The disappointing 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment results however showed Wales was far removed from realising this commitment, which sparked a national debate on the quality and future of education in Wales. This resulted in a broad consensus on the need for change. In 2011 Wales embarked on a large-scale school improvement reform and introduced a range of policies to improve the quality and equity of its school system.

Creating lasting change however is hard, and reports of unaccomplished educational reform efforts continue to come in from around the world. But there are also many examples of successful reforms from which lessons can be drawn. The OECD is there to support countries in translating these lessons to different contexts and extending global knowledge on how to make reform happen – and ultimately improve the learning outcomes of students.

In 2016 the Welsh Government invited the OECD to take stock of the policies and reforms adopted since the 2014 OECD review, Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective, which provided a number of policy recommendations for further improvement with a longer term perspective. The recently released report The Welsh Education Reform Journey: A Rapid Policy Assessment analyses the strengths and challenges of policies and reforms, with a particular focus on their implementation processes and provides concrete recommendations for improvement.

This report comes at a key moment in Wales’ education reform journey as the country finds itself in the midst of a number of important changes, including a large-scale curriculum reform, a reform of initial teacher education and the revision of its education strategy. Since 2014, the OECD has witnessed progress in several important policy areas, including the various measures taken to support the professional learning of teachers, the increase in school-to-school collaborations and participation in networks, the rationalisation of school grants and the steps taken in developing a 21st century curriculum.

The latter has allowed for refining Wales’ education vision in that all Welsh learners are to develop as ambitious capable and lifelong learners, enterprising and creative, informed citizens and healthy and confident individuals – this vision resonates with the preliminary findings of OECDs Education 2030 project which is constructing a framework to help shape what young people should learn in the year 2030. Realising this vision of the Welsh learner however calls for further strengthening of and bringing further coherence across key policy areas:

  • the development of a high-quality teaching profession
  • making leadership a key driver of education reform
  • ensuring equity in learning opportunities and student well-being, which among others calls for a review of governance and school funding arrangements 
  • moving towards a new system of assessment, evaluation and accountability. This is important also to determine the effectiveness of reforms and policies. 

A key finding of the report is that the Welsh approach to reform has moved from a piecemeal and short-term policy orientation towards one that is guided by long-term vision and is characterised by a process of co-construction with key stakeholders. The commitment to improving the teaching and learning in Wales’s schools is visible at all levels of the education system. Sustaining this commitment and the general support for the reforms Wales has embarked on in recent years will be central to realising the country’s ambitions for education and society over the long term. However, Wales risks reverting to a piecemeal approach, with different actors going their own way. It is therefore vital that Wales consolidates the process of co-construction of policies, and strengthens their implementation through better communication and use evidence on the Welsh education reform journey.

This rapid policy assessment report will be of value not only to Wales but to policy makers around the world looking to ensure the successful implementation of reforms and policies in their education system.

The Welsh Education Reform Journey: A Rapid Policy Assessment
Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Education 2030 project

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Doctors and nurses are from Venus, scientists and engineers are from Mars (for now)

By Francesco Avvisati 
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

There is little doubt that in OECD countries, the chances for boys and girls to succeed and contribute to society have become more equal over the past century. Every International Women’s Day, however, we are also reminded of the remaining obstacles towards gender equality. This month’s PISA in Focus illustrates both the progress that enables girls today to aspire to roles once exclusively reserved for men, and the remaining obstacles on the road to closing gender gaps.

The progress can be readily seen in the health sector. Only a generation ago, in most countries, women represented only a minority among doctors; today, in many hospitals, the majority of young doctors are women. That trend is likely to continue, if you trust current patterns of enrolment in tertiary health-related programmes and in girls’ expectations for their own future careers.

But not all science-related occupations saw similar progress for women. Very few women have top academic positions in physics, for instance, and the last time a Nobel prize in physics was awarded to a woman was in 1963. Meanwhile, new occupations in the emerging information and communication technology industries are often, and overwhelmingly, dominated by men. These trends are unlikely to reverse in the near future, in the absence of targeted efforts. In 2015, when PISA asked students about the occupation they expect to be working in when they are 30 years old, boys were more than twice as likely as girls to cite a career as scientist or engineering professional. Only 0.4% of girls, but 4.8% of boys, said they expected a career as software developer or information and communication technology professional.

Occupational segregation – the fact that women and men work in different occupations, even in closely related fields – is a leading cause of the persistent wage gaps between the genders. Countries that support boys and girls alike in the pursuit of science-related careers may not only reduce pay gaps between men and women, but also ensure that no talent for innovation and growth is wasted – to the benefit of all.

Look at the contributions to society made by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (who was involved in the work that identified the human immunodeficiency virus [HIV] as the cause of AIDS), Grace Hopper (a US Navy Rear Admiral and computer scientist who was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language) and Marie Curie (a pioneer in research on radioactivity and winner of two Nobel prizes – in two different science disciplines), to name just three women who were innovators in their chosen fields of science. An International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated earlier this month, serves as an annual reminder that women do have a place in these fields and that they should be encouraged to occupy it. But wouldn’t it be more beneficial to everyone if we acted on that understanding every single day?

PISA in Focus No. 69: What kind of careers in science do 15-year-old boys and girls expect for themselves?
PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
Education at a Glance 2016
Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now
Health at a Glance 2015
International Women's Day

Knowing what teachers know about teaching

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

In modern societies, most professionals become knowledge workers. Their professional practice is increasingly fuelled and inspired by various forms of knowledge. A good example is the medical profession, where the continuously growing body of scientific knowledge finds its way into professional practices. An important dimension of what constitutes an effective doctor today is the ability to incorporate scientific knowledge within one’s own experience and to translate this into a professional encounter with patients through adequate communication, advice and empathy. Is something similar also happening within the teaching profession?

Teachers are also knowledge workers. To effectively stimulate students’ learning, teachers constantly draw on a vast repertoire of knowledge. And of course, teachers work with subject knowledge. Maths teachers must have a good grasp of the mathematical content, and feel confident in using mathematical concepts. But maths teachers’ knowledge goes beyond that of a mathematician.  They must mobilise the subject knowledge, transforming it into an engaging and enriching teaching and learning experience. Going beyond subject-specific knowledge teachers also must have a profound understanding of the learning process, of what students with their different talents and backgrounds can motivate and inspire. This type of knowledge – pedagogical knowledge – is unique to teaching.

The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has launched the Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning (ITEL) project to better understand the pedagogical knowledge of teachers: how it is developed, how teachers acquire it, transform it and put it to use in their teaching practices. The project doesn’t look at pedagogical knowledge as a static characteristic of individual teachers, but as a dynamic, ever changing aspect of the profession. The project delves into questions regarding the knowledge dynamics of the teaching profession to which there are no simple answers. Is pedagogical knowledge up-to-date and well-adapted to the needs of 21st century teaching practices? Through which channels can teachers acquire pedagogical knowledge? Is knowledge continuously updated and improved by new research findings? How do teachers and teacher educators share their pedagogical knowledge? And can we assess the quality of the pedagogical knowledge base in the teaching profession across countries?

CERI’s most recent publication, Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession, looks into these questions, presenting research and ideas from multiple perspectives on pedagogical knowledge as a fundamental component of the teaching profession. It also looks at knowledge dynamics within the teaching profession alongside the changing demands on teachers and investigates how teachers’ pedagogical knowledge can be measured.

Most important, the report lays the conceptual groundwork for an empirical study on teachers’ pedagogical knowledge that will be published this summer. Over the past two years, the ITEL project has developed a pilot study assessing the pedagogical knowledge among teachers, student-teachers and teacher educators in five OECD countries. The findings from this pilot study will provide a very important starting point for a more ambitious and bigger ITEL Main Study.

Some people define teaching as an art. If this means that teaching takes ingenuity, creativity and artisan-like skillfulness, they’re certainly right. But acting as a creative craftsman is not enough to be an effective teacher, one who leaves a mark on students’ minds and lives. This requires a sophisticated body of knowledge that teachers can employ in everyday practice. Good teachers do not teach from a book, ‘applying’ textbook knowledge. They do something far more challenging: integrating a body of knowledge into their teaching behaviour and constantly mobilising those bits and pieces of knowledge that can steer their professional practice towards the best possible learning experiences for their students. Only by understanding and valuing how this process happens, we will truly understand what it means to be a ‘good teacher’.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

photo credit: Katalin Vilimi, Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession

Mind the Gap: Inequality in education

by Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us “… 
Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Almost two centuries later, his words remind us of what a very serious challenge inequity is.
Inequality has been growing in most OECD countries since the 1980s and is currently at its highest level in 30 years. Forecasts for 2060 suggest that gross earnings inequality could continue to rise dramatically across the OECD if current trends persist.
The widening income gap between the rich and the poor raises economic, social and political concerns. High inequality hinders GDP growth and reduces social mobility. Unequal opportunity results in a talent loss for the individual as well as for society. It also gives rise to a sense of injustice that can feed social unrest and decreasing trust in institutions and political systems. 
Inequality in education plays out in many ways. Disadvantaged students are three times as likely to be among PISA’s poor performers as children from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds. Students from advantaged families are more likely to come from home environments that are conducive to learning, including a quiet place to study and access to the Internet. In addition, their parents are more likely to have the time and ability to help them with their homework and encourage them to study. Students without these opportunities are thus disadvantaged before entering school, and continue to be disadvantaged as they go through the education system.
It has been said before but it bears repeating: greater equity in education does not come at the expense of excellence. Some of the top performers in PISA 2015 had the highest levels of equity, such as Estonia, Hong Kong (China) and Macao (China). Working to improve the educational opportunities of all students, regardless of background, is an important element in the fight against inequality. 
So what exactly can be done? An important first step is providing access to high quality early childhood education (ECEC) for all children. There is now a wealth of evidence, including longitudinal studies, that investing in ECEC yields high returns in boosting cognitive and non-cognitive skills, as well as later success in the labour market, especially for disadvantaged children.
Once in school, the quality of instruction and available resources matter. Improving the performance of disadvantaged schools is crucial: On average, advantaged schools in the OECD have lower student teacher ratios, meaning more individualised attention to each student. They also tend to have more qualified and more experienced teachers. This means that novice teachers are more likely to be placed in lower achieving and more challenging schools. 
This is a real concern. In addition to being in the classroom for the first time, new teachers can find themselves faced with the highest needs students and in the lowest achieving schools. This can lead directly to frustration and burn-out. Mentoring programmes can play a key role in supporting new teachers and school leaders on the job. But so does addressing systemic biases that work against disadvantaged schools.
The latest Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at what education providers can do to create school systems that provide equal opportunity for all students, regardless of their background. It offers interesting examples of how systems and schools tackle the inequality challenge. It also identifies where more effort is needed, and some common policies that should be avoided or fine-tuned, such as grade repetition and certain kinds of early tracking.
Education is and will continue to be a critical tool to ensure growth and inclusiveness in our societies. Workers’ skills, educational attainment and ability do not only determine employment and income but are also crucial for health, social and political participation and living standards. Our education systems need to ensure that all students, irrespective of social background, have equal access to opportunity in schools and in the labour market. This means shifting the focus of our schools to academic excellence as well as strengthening equity, because only when excellence and equity go hand in hand will we be able to reduce inequality.

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