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Education plays an important role in the Curriculum for Wales, developing the relationship of children and young people to their community, which is captured in the Welsh word ‘cynefin’ (Sarjeant & Egan, 2023). As the standard history of education in Wales recognises, achievement in education is also the most significant determinant of an individuals’ employment prospects, income and lifestyle, and social class and wealth were the main determinants of this. However, repeated attempts to close the ‘attainment’ gap that exists between learners from low-income households and their more fortunate peers, have had limited success (Egan, 2022). In recent years the impact of the ‘cost of living’ crisis has deepened poverty in Wales and inevitably worsened this situation (Bevan Foundation, 2023).

At the outset of the current term of the Welsh Parliament (the Senedd), the Welsh Government renewed its ongoing commitment to eradicate inequality in Welsh society. In education this has led to ‘tackling the impact of poverty on attainment and ambition’ (Welsh Government, 2023, p. 5) being identified as the key policy priority. Politicians and policymakers often claim that such priorities are evidence ‘based’ or ‘informed’ with limited substantiation that this is the case (Gorard, 2020).

The two most prominent aspects of Welsh Government policy are the importance of high-quality learning and teaching for learners disadvantaged by poverty and the need for schools to work with their parents/carers and communities. The former is based on a corpus of research evidence made available to schools in guidance on the use of the Pupil Development Grant, which provides additional funding in proportion to the socioeconomic disadvantage in a school’s population. While the latter may be a more contested area, it is strongly supported by the influential Welsh inspectorate, Estyn, and by many schools who see in it the embodiment of the Welsh commitment to the concept of cynefin.

There can, however, be no room for complacency about the limited progress that Wales is making in the key policy area of eradicating inequality. This was graphically demonstrated in a report by the Education Policy Institute that compared GCSE attainment in England and Wales up to 2020. The progress made in Wales in reducing the attainment gap associated with poverty was not only, overall, behind that of England, but 7 of Wales 22 local authority areas had the largest attainment gaps across the two nations (Cardiam-Diaz & Sibieta, 2022).

These outcomes, inevitably reflect the extent of socioeconomic disadvantage that Wales has experienced historically, made worse by the destruction of its traditional economies in the 1980s and 1990s and the lack of control over economic planning in the existing devolution settlement (Davies, 2022). In truth, when like-for-like comparisons are made with the regions of England which also suffered from de-industrialisation, Wales does not come out well.

‘In truth, when like-for-like comparisons are made with the regions of England which also suffered from de-industrialisation, Wales does not come out well.’

A recent book setting out the 30+ year journey that has taken place to transform the education system in Chicago (Bryk et al., 2023) has important messages for Wales. The approach adopted in Chicago was based on an evidence-informed transformational framework with five elements: high-quality learning and teaching; leadership as the driver for change; student-centred learning; professional learning; and strong parent/community ties. While Wales has found to its cost that ‘policy borrowing’ does not work, learning from this example the importance of having a whole-system theory of change is likely to be crucial in bringing about the step change it seeks in improving the education and life chances of its most disadvantaged children.


Bevan Foundation. (2023). A snapshot of poverty in winter 2023.,skipping%20meals%20in%20their%20entirety.

Bryk, A. S., Greenberg, S., Bertani, A., Sebring, P., Tozer, S. E., & Knowles, T. (2023). How a city learned to improve its schools. Harvard Education Press.

Cardiam-Diaz, J., & Sibieta, L. (2022). Inequalities in GCSE results across England and Wales. Education Policy Institute.

Davies, G. (2022). Economic development in Wales: Evolution and revolution. In J. Williams &  A. Eirug (Eds.), The impact of devolution in Wales. University of Wales Press.

Egan, D. (2022). Education in Wales Since Devolution. In: Williams, J. and Eirug, A. (eds.) The Impact of Devolution in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Gorard, S. (Ed.). (2020). Getting evidence into education. Routledge.

Sarjeant, S., & Egan, D. (2023, September 26). The importance of engaging families and the wider community in children’s learning: A Welsh perspective. Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. 

Welsh Government. (2023). Our national mission: High standards and aspirations for all.