Tuesday, 31 May 2011

More on those Welsh GCSE results

Over the weekend I discovered that BBC Wales had also acquired the data for the average spend per pupil for each Local Authority — which, following on from my last post, means it is possible to see what effect increased or decreased education spending had on actual GCSE results in each Welsh county (the updated rankings with average spend is here). The results are very interesting:

GCSE results compared to Average spend per pupil
(click to enlarge)

As the above chart shows, outside the clump in the centre, there appears to be very little correlation between increased spending and better GCSE results. The county which achieved the highest average GCSE results (Vale of Glamorgan) actually spent the least (£5,001 per pupil), whereas one of the highest spending counties (Blaenau Gwent) achieved some of the poorest general results. Clearly there is a great deal of difference between the general prosperity of those two particular counties, which led me to plot the results versus the average percentage uptake of free school meals in each county:

GCSE results compared to uptake of Free School Dinners
(click to enlarge)

This chart shows a very clear negative correlation between the 2010 GCSE results and the uptake of Free School Meals. As Free School Meals are offered to children from low income families, it is therefore no surprise that these GCSE results also correlate to the total out of work claimant rate in each county too:

GCSE results compared to total out-of-work benefit claimants
(Click to enlarge)

Of course it has long been accepted that academic performance is a function of relative prosperity therefore these results are not surprising, but it is informative to test the actual Welsh GCSE results in this way. If you are so inclined you can see how the Welsh GCSE results correlate to several other factors here.

So what does this mean?

  • A lack of correlation between spend and academic performance seems to suggest that as long as education spending is above a certain threshold, additional spending will not necessarily yield better results.
  • The clear negative correlation between prosperity and results indicates that unless something is done to break this link, it could lead to a downward spiral of ever poorer educational attainment linked to ever decreasing prosperity levels (education levels being one of the major functions of economic performance).

So what can be done? As I suggested in my previous post, clearly radical changes are needed to our education system in Wales if we are to break the link between prosperity and school performance. As not all children are academically minded, my personal preference would be to stream pupils earlier into either academic or vocational schools as per the German model. It is pointless to enforce an academic one-size-fits-all approach when clearly not all children have an equal aptitude for academic subjects — in fact this turns the more vocationally-minded children off school altogether, meaning they can't wait to leave school at 16 rather than move on to doing vocational courses.

Education is of critical importance to Wales if we want to turn around our economic prospects. Will this new Assembly show any boldness in its policy making? I for one will not be holding my breath.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Those "crude" school league tables Leighton Andrews doesn't think you should have.

League tables comparing the academic results of secondary schools in Wales were abolished ten years ago in 2001 by Jane Davidson. Recently, in response to a number of FOI requests by BBC Wales, WAG has revealed the GCSE results of all Welsh schools in 2010 — however as Education Minister Leighton Andrews still believes that league tables are "crude" these results were banded into twenty "families" of 10 schools where pupils have similar levels of family income and special needs. Separately WAG has also released 'value added' scores for schools which show whether each pupil's GCSE results are better or worse than was predicted for them at the age of eleven — thus showing to what extent a secondary school has contributed to a pupil's progress either positively or negatively.

So, how did Ynys Môn's secondary schools perform? See below:

It appears that Menai Bridge's Ysgol David Hughes and Llangefni's Ysgol Gyfun deliver the best academic results on the Island, with pupils also passing crucial English/Welsh and Maths GCSEs – the key performance indicator for GCSEs. The results for the Amlwch and Holyhead schools are some way behind. Holyhead however has a very high Value Added score meaning that despite these poor results it is apparently delivering better results for its pupils than they were predicted to receive at age 11. With a value added score of -7 it appears that the opposite is true of Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones in Amlwch.

How do these results compare with the rest of Wales though? See below to see how each Ynys Môn school performed in terms of % pupils achieving a A*-C GCSE including English/Welsh and Maths against the average attainment in each Wales county:

% 5 A*-C GCSEs inc. English/Welsh and Maths
Ynys Môn schools (in black) compared to average results in each Welsh County
Click to enlarge

When put into context like this, it is clear that pupils in Menai Bridge and Llangefni are on average achieving some of the best results in Wales. However the performance of some of the other schools on Ynys Môn clearly demonstrate cause for considerable concern — even taking into account the fact that schools in poorer catchment areas tend to under-attain academically.

If interested, you can see the complete "crude" league table of the GCSE results of each of Wales's 222 schools used to generate the above chart here.

Of course these results are only a snapshot in time of just a single measure — performance in one set of exams. As these figures are not produced annually it is impossible to see if schools are on average improving or declining — as I noted at the beginning these figures were only obtained this time due to FOI requests from BBC Wales. However, thanks to the OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) programme which compares 10,000 15-year-old students worldwide in reading, maths and science, we are able to see how Welsh pupils compare internationally over time. Conducted every five years the 2009 results for Wales were the lowest in the United Kingdom and clearly shows that a considerable gap has opened up between the attainment of Welsh students and those from other regions in the UK, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland:

2009 Rankings in the PISA tests

As Education is one of the key functions of economic performance, the above poor PISA results show that we are just storing up further economic problems in the future for ourselves here in Wales. In order to compete as a small country on the periphery of Western Europe, educational levels are one of the most important tools in our armoury to attract new businesses here. Why would any company want to set up in a region which not only is further away from the major markets, has higher business rates than the rest of the UK, but also has lower average levels of educational attainment? Education is absolutely crucial to both Ynys Môn and Wales if we are to create and sustain better, well paying jobs in the future

My personal view is that our current education system needs to be radically overhauled in Wales — merely tinkering around the edges will not produce the vast improvements necessary to ensure future economic success. Our school system, throughout the UK, is one-size-fits-all and overly focussed on academic subjects and funnelling more and more students into a university education. The problem is that not all children are necessarily academically minded. In my view Wales would be far better served by introducing an education system more similar to that in Germany where pupils are streamed around ages 10-11 based on their aptitude into either academic-based schools (called Gymnasiums in Germany) which will prepare them for university, or into more vocational-based schools (Hauptschules and Realschules) which lead to full apprenticeships or further vocation training.

The German Education System

It is not by accident that Germany has the largest manufacturing base in Europe and is home to some of the largest and most successful engineering and manufacturing companies in the world. There is clearly a lot that we can learn from the German eduction system (amongst others) if we want to transform our future economy — but unfortunately that requires our Welsh Government to be bold...  But what is the point of devolution if we are merely going to continue doing the same as the rest of the UK?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

UK Interim report into Fukushima disaster concludes Wylfa B can continue

The UK Government's Chief Nuclear Inspector has today released his interim report into the implications to the UK's nuclear fleet in light of the Fukushima disaster.

He clearly states that the UK is highly unlikely to suffer a similar situation to the one which gave rise to the meltdown in Fukushima:

"The direct causes of the nuclear accident, a magnitude 9 earthquake and the associated 14 metre high tsunami, are far beyond the most extreme natural events that the UK would be expected to experience. We are reassuringly some 1000 miles from the edge of a tectonic plate, where earthquake activity is more common and severe."

He also goes on to point out that we do not use the same reactor types in the UK or plan to do so in the future:

"UK nuclear power plants, both operational and those planned, are of a different design to the BWR [Boiling Water Reactor] reactors at the Fukushima-1 site."

He report then makes the following 11 conclusions for the UK:

Conclusion 1: In considering the direct causes of the Fukushima accident we see no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK. Once further work is completed any proposed improvements will be considered and implemented on a case by case basis, in line with our normal regulatory approach.

Conclusion 2: In response to the Fukushima accident, the UK nuclear power industry has reacted responsibly and appropriately displaying leadership for safety and a strong safety culture in its response to date.

Conclusion 3: The Government’s intention to take forward proposals to create the Office for Nuclear Regulation, with the post and responsibilities of the Chief Inspector in statute, should enhance confidence in the UK’s nuclear regulatory regime to more effectively face the challenges of the future.

Conclusion 4: To date, the consideration of the known circumstances of the Fukushima accident has not revealed any gaps in scope or depth of the Safety Assessment Principles for nuclear facilities in the UK.

Conclusion 5: Our considerations of the events in Japan, and the possible lessons for the UK, has not revealed any significant weaknesses in the UK nuclear licensing regime.

Conclusion 6: Flooding risks are unlikely to prevent construction of new nuclear power stations at potential development sites in the UK over the next few years. For sites with a flooding risk, detailed consideration may require changes to plant layout and the provision of particular protection against flooding.

Conclusion 7: There is no need to change the present siting strategies for new nuclear power stations in the UK.

Conclusion 8: There is no reason to depart from a multi-plant site concept given the design measures in new reactors being considered for deployment in the UK and adequate demonstration in design and operational safety cases.

Conclusion 9: The UK’s gas-cooled reactors have lower power densities and larger thermal capacities than water cooled reactors which with natural cooling capabilities give longer timescales for remedial action. Additionally, they have a lesser need for venting on loss of cooling and do not produce concentrations of hydrogen from fuel cladding overheating.

Conclusion 10: There is no evidence to suggest that the presence of MOX fuel in Reactor Unit 3 significantly contributed to the health impact of the accident on or off the site.

Conclusion 11: With more information there is likely to be considerable scope for lessons to be learnt about human behaviour in severe accident conditions that will be useful in enhancing contingency arrangements and training in the UK for such events.

Based on conclusions 1, 6, and 7 above, it is clear that the disaster at Fukushima will not prevent the continued development of Wylfa B here in Ynys Môn.

Read the whole report below:
Japanese earthquake and tsunami: Implications for the UK Nuclear Industry

Monday, 16 May 2011

Anglesey Aluminium Statement Today (UPDATED)

The owners of Anglesey Aluminium will be making a statement at lunchtime today — probably to reveal to which company or companies they will sell their Penrhos site to. The 184 acre site was put up for sale back in November last year with an expected price tag of £10m. More later.

The beach at Penrhos Coastal Park
UPDATE: Anglesey Aluminium has announced it has signed an option agreement to sell agricultural land and a portion of the Penrhos Coastal Park to a company called Land & Lakes who plan to create a holiday leisure resort there, which could create up to 600 full time jobs (though its not clear how many of these will be construction jobs). Furthermore they promise to sorce 70 percent of their 'produce' from the local area. More information here.

As this announcement relates to agricultural land and parts of Penrhos Coastal Park, this means that the fate of the actual Penrhos site of Anglesey Aluminium is still to be announced.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

A new Leader for Ynys Môn (Updated)

Tomorrow is a big day in the Council's calendar: its the day of the Annual General Meeting (AGM). Leader Clive McGregor will step down and a new Leader and Deputy will be elected — though the likely term of office will be just one year (as the local elections will be next May) and neither will enjoy the normal powers or monetary reward of their new positions due to the intervention of Commissioners. Despite this four hats have been thrown into the ring.

Of course, had the January plotters simply decided to wait until today's AGM to install a new Leader, the Commissioners would never have been sent in...

UPDATE: The new Leader is Bryan Owen of the Original Independents with Plaid Cymru's Bob Parry retaining his Deputy post.

Friday, 13 May 2011

"Even more effective"

Despite quite a bullish podium speech following his election a week ago today, this afternoon Ieuan Wyn Jones announced the inevitable, i.e. that he is to step down as leader of Plaid Cymru "sometime within the first half of this Assembly term". This is actually good news for Ynys Môn as it means that, when he does relinquish the leadership sometime over the next 2.5 years, he will be able to devote 100% of his time and energy to actually representing Ynys Môn rather than to running a political party — a fact he himself tacitly admits by pledging at the end of today's announcement to "being an even more effective" Assembly Member for the Island.

About time.

P.S. To my readers from the early 19th century, this post is also available in semaphore here.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

No regrets.

How coming second looks like:
IWJ's votes on the left, mine second from right (click to enlarge)
Many, many thanks to each and every one of the 7,032 Anglesonians who cast their vote for me on Thursday. I'd also like to express my gratitude to everyone who has supported and helped out in the campaign — it has been particularly moving to discover that some of the greatest support during the campaign came from some of the most unexpected quarters...

I gave it my best shot and have no regrets.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Probably the...

Probably the best tasting pint of my life...
After six months of hard work as a candidate, and having visited 56 polling stations on Ynys Môn today, I've just had probably the very best pint of my life (actually, the best three pints of my life.)

Whatever the result tomorrow, thanks to all readers and commenters of this blog. I've given it my best shot and whatever will be will be.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

"This politician deserves your trust"

Many of you may have received the following leaflet from Ieuan Wyn Jones over the past few days:

...it includes the following bullet point:

If you are wondering why it doesn't name the 'Political Editor' or the 'National Newspaper' from which the quotation is taken, its probably because this is the original quote:

"Ieuan Wyn Jones is not the sort of leader to inspire adulation, but his role as Deputy First Minister has lent him more gravitas and allowed image makers to present him as a decent man who cares deeply, if not passionately, about his country. This was most apparent in the video unveiled at [Plaid Cymru's 2010] conference in which there are lingering shots of him looking thoughtful and concerned. This uncharismatic politician who used to be a country solicitor deserves your trust more than the flashy showmen who seduce you with their smarmy wiles until you recognise them for the shallow vessels they are, is the subliminal message."

Deserves your trust...? You decide.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Googling Anglesey

In case there was any doubt that the Royal Wedding was a giant advert for Ynys Môn, see the below graph of the volume of searches for "Anglesey" on Google for the past three years:

Relative volume of searches for 'Anglesey' on Google from 2008-present

See more detail here.