Why the Welsh Baccalaureate is a soft option

Gareth Williams gives a pupil’s eye view of a qualification that he says is failing badly in its current flawed design

Poster advertising the Welsh Baccalaureate

More than 8,000 pupils across Wales studied for the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification last year. Originally devised as a Welsh equivalent of the International Baccalaureate, unfortunately it now effectively resembles an extra A Level without the value. A number of different components, ranging from voluntary work and work experience to modules on the place of Wales in the wider world are encountered by students over two years. If all are successfully completed, students receive the qualification and 120 UCAS points-equivalent to an A grade at A Level.

In contrast to A-levels where only 23.9 per cent of Welsh students gained an A/A* grade last year, 83.5 per cent of those who studied the WelshBac passed it and received equivalent UCAS points. The rationale behind it is therefore clear – to provide a qualification with the value of an A-level but with a broader focus. However, its effectiveness in accomplishing these goals is extremely questionable.

While many universities technically accept the Baccalaureate, many are generally unaware of its content, while many more do not accept it on a par with A-levels. The Baccalaureate title makes some assume that it is simply a version of the International Baccalaureate. One of my university interviews included a question on what exactly the WelshBac was. This prompted an awkward explanation of how the Welsh Bac was a Baccalaureate in name only, and that I was not the academic Hercules studying both the IB and three A-levels at the same time.

More worrying than this, however, is the trend of students who, already taking only three A-levels, drop one in the hope that the WelshBac will substitute for it. The promotion of so-called ‘soft’ A-levels has already resulted in considerable numbers of students being shunted on to subjects which unfortunately have less credibility with universities.

Providing an incentive for students to drop an A-level in this way is likely to place them at a disadvantage when competing for university places with those who have four academic A-levels. Indeed, many of the most competitive courses and universities do not accept UCAS points and instead demand three A-levels. Many simply refuse to take the WelshBac as a third A-level.

Even if it is accepted, the students who study it with only two A-levels are at a clear disadvantage. In addition, UCAS points themselves are now likely to be abolished, which makes determining what the independent worth of the Baccalaureate is to universities even more essential. It is difficulties such as these that have led to significant criticism of the current qualification from students as well as from those who originally devised the qualification.

Its popularity with universities aside, is the Welsh Bac useful for students? Does it genuinely equip them with needed skills, encourage community involvement and broaden minds as its proponents claim? As someone who studied and completed it, the answer to all of these questions is, in my opinion, sadly, no. The course had more to do with literally ticking boxes than being stretched academically. Too often Bac lessons consisted of filling in forms and printing off documents to ‘prove’ you had completed the work you claimed. Lessons which could have been used to study a fourth A-level, which would have been accepted by all universities and which would have helped develop the kind of research skills needed for a degree course, were instead spent on completing tasks for a qualification very few universities value in the same way.

A recent study also confirmed that the WelshBac often failed to equip students with the skills needed for a university degree. While focusing on students at one university, it does indicate underlying problems in terms of its effectiveness as a university preparatory course. As a researcher concluded, the study does “at a minimum, raise a question mark over how effective the WelshBac core is”.

We are therefore left with a qualification which many universities do not accept in terms of parity with A-levels, prevents many from studying another A-level, which encourages many to ditch further A-levels, and which may not even equip students properly for the demands of a university course.

There are however deeper issues raised by the difficulties associated with the Bac. In many ways the Bac is functioning as a last-minute solution to more fundamental problems in Welsh education, particularly with earlier secondary education. International rankings place Wales last in the UK for secondary school pupils’ performance in all key skills. A quarter of school leavers in Cardiff have a reading age of less than ten. Simply bulking up students’ university applications with a qualification of disputed value does nothing to address these issues, which limit both pupils’ chances of gaining university places and being sufficiently prepared for them. The answer to these problems is to hold schools accountable for poor performance, ensure that extra provision is made for students who are struggling academically and to ensure that academic qualifications such as A-levels are front and centre.

The Welsh Baccalaureate itself is in serious need of reform. If it continues to be promoted as having equivalent value to A-levels, and to divert time away from the study of academic subjects, Welsh pupils will be disadvantaged even further than they are now. It does not need to be scrapped. Instead, it should be optional, At the same time, those who would benefit from taking a fourth A-level should be encouraged to do so. In conjunction with a sustained drive to improve the performance of secondary schools this would greatly enhance the prospects of Welsh pupils after leaving school, enabling them to put in far more competitive applications to universities than the status quo allows.

Gareth Williams is studying History and Politics at Oxford University.