Wales needs qualifications that measure educational attainment

Simon Thomas argues for greater regulation of the Welsh examination market

As the Olympic torch winds its way through Britain, outrage has been expressed about those taking part in the ceremony selling off their torches on Ebay. To some, this is the latest manifestation of what the American political philosopher Michael Sandel (in his What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets) has called the development of the market economy into the market society: where everything is for sale.

However, in Wales we also have an example of where we may have allowed competition and markets to crowd out intrinsic values and dispassionate judgements. Has our examination system become too much about selling and marketing exam courses and too little about measuring true achievement in basic skills and skills in applying learning to new situations?

The various recent scandals involving examination boards has shown why we need to rethink how we test Welsh school pupils and a return to first principles. Last year it was revealed that some WJEC examiners had revealed too much to teachers what was going to be in exams during training courses on their examinations. These courses raise money for the WJEC.

More recently, a survey by the English qualifications watchdog Ofqual found that some exams had become easier to pass over the last decade. For example, an A level Biology exam was found to have a high percentage of short structured questions, which reduced the amount of information pupils had to read and take in. This made the papers ‘less demanding’, although overall they were found “sufficiently demanding for this level of qualification”.

At the same time the Welsh Baccalaureate, touted by many as being a far wider judge of pupils’ skills and adaptability, has just been found to be detrimental to their performance at university according to research by the Welsh Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD).

In England, the response by Michael Gove has been to seek stronger influence by universities on the A level syllabus and examination system and to summarily re-evaluate vocational qualifications. Following a review by Professor Alison Wolf, Gove stripped out thousands of vocational qualifications from inclusion in the English school league tables.

The evidence, and the story being told in England, is that exams are getting easier and schools are choosing courses that reflect best on their pupils rather than courses that genuinely test learning.

Where does this leave Wales, which shares the same exam market with England? I believe there is evidence that the plethora of examinations and qualifications available are starting to have a similar effect here. School banding may add to the distortions, as it has in England.

The concern is that the marketisation of the qualifications system can lead to schools being tempted into choosing the ‘easiest’ courses rather than those that test their pupils’ abilities. Schools are increasingly finding that they need to ‘market’ themselves to parents and therefore they are looking for the courses that will bring the results. Rather than a pick and mix approach from schools, examinations should be about testing our young people’s abilities.

This increasing marketisation of the examination of our young people is in danger of driving down standards. Markets don’t always work the way you want them to do. They often act for short term gain. That’s why markets – from gas to water to supermarkets – need regulation.

It’s time to ask whether a wholly market based approach is really in the best interests of pupils, of schools or of wider society. The Welsh Government has an opportunity to take clear and decisive action to reform the education system, to make it fit for purpose rather than fit for the market. In order to provide qualifications that measure pupils’ abilities, we need to measure educational attainment. In particular we need a system that ensures that qualifications are only awarded to students with appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy.

The Welsh Government, under Deputy Minister Jeff Cuthbert, is currently reviewing qualifications in a process that is supposed to report back later this year. The review seemed originally to be concentrating on vocational qualifications but I believe it is widening, and I certainly think it is appropriate that we consider a new approach for the qualifications system in Wales.

The core question is how we can ensure some choice in the system without the shopping around which seems to have narrowed learning and failed pupils over the last few years.  I would prefer one examination system for Wales, but as we are part of a wider market, perhaps a way forward is for a kite mark system that approves the best exams in each subject for Welsh pupils and encourages schools to utilise them.

And finally, who examines the examiners? In England and Northern Ireland, independent bodies act as a regulatory defence against market perversion, in theory at least. Here in Wales, the Minister sets the curriculum, the Minister sets the banding and the Minister will decide on qualifications. Doesn’t market regulation demand a Welsh examination regulator?

Simon Thomas is Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales.

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