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.

9 thoughts on “Wales needs qualifications that measure educational attainment

  1. Broadly speaking Simon Thomas is right. Having private, profit making companies, like AQA, Edexcel and WJEC competing for business alongside schools competing with each other on the basis of GCSE results is a recipe for grade inflation. This was in the Telegraph recently:

    “Figures show that British examinations are roughly two grades easier than those in Hong Kong – one of the world’s top-performing education systems.
    Pupils achieving an A may score the equivalent of just a C in the city state, it was revealed, while a C in GCSE exams – considered a “good” pass – would only convert into an E.”

    What is disturbing for Wales is that WJEC is increasingly viewed as the easiest option of all exam boards, particularly in Modern Foreign Languages where one English school reportedly switched to WJEC and improved their results by 20%.

    The only sensible solution is to have one Nationalised exam board for the UK (I’m sorry but we can’t “Go it alone” on this). This statement however:

    “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).” is probably confusing cause and effect. I don’t think that the Welsh Bacc is causing underperformance at University; it is more that Welsh students have unrealistically high points scores as a result of taking the Welsh Bacc.

    Welsh Bacc is given the same UCAS points as an “A” at Advanced GCE level…120 points. However this is a pass or fail examination and 83.5% of entrants pass and gain 120 points. In Wales the average percentage of pupils passing ordinary A levels at A*-A is 22.5%. If we compare difficulty in achieving an A level grade, 83.5% of pupils get somewhere between a C and a D pass.

    It is only a matter of time before the better universities ignore the Welsh Bacc. but in the meantime schools push pupils into taking it because it “Bumps Up” the school’s average points score at A level.

    Pupils themselves view it as “Useless” or “Just ticking boxes” or worst “You just need to turn up” and they resent time spent on it that could be used in studying proper A levels.

    Why hasn’t it been junked? Easy, its got “Welsh” in its title. It would be politically disasterous to admit that it was overrated.

  2. If I ruled the world I would be demanding to know why WJEC, Estyn and the massive number of consultants making a living telling teachers what they should be doing, have not been able to give a true reflection of what education is like in Wales.

    Why has no-one told Leighton Andrews that the Welsh Bacc is not fit for purpose?

    Why has no-one complained that the amalgamation of CSE and O levels into GCSE’s has failed for twenty years?

    Why has no-one realised that if you alter A levels so they are more accessible, the numbers passing will go up?

    Why has no-one made it clear that examination boards are there to make money? (Which is why they love course work and controlled assessment. They don’t have to pay to get them marked because the teachers have to do it.)

    Why has no-one pointed out that the greatest educational driver is the home, not the school?

    Why has no-one mentioned that the present cohort of teachers are the most qualified, best trained and least respected that they have ever been?

    In fairness, teachers have been saying these things for years. It’s just that teachers get drowned out by those who make their money telling others what they should be doing.

  3. There is a puzzle here. Obviously exam boards will be tempted to increase their customers by making it easier to pass. But why don’t the people appointing on the basis of qualifications favour the tougher ones? Jon Jones suggests this is happening with universities losing respect for Welsh Bacc or WJEC qualifications. But that should halt the deterioration; if universities and employers discriminated among qualifications, the incentive to degrade them would disappear.

    Billy Pilgrim is no doubt right that teachers know best what to do but Welsh experience shows they cannot be left alone to do it. We have had a controlled experiment in recent years in Wales where schools were not graded and teachers were left alone compared with England. The results are unequivocal. The less cosy English system worked better. Let the teachers decide on educational matters but record the results and hold them to account. We’ve seen what happens when you don’t.

  4. “Jon Jones suggests this is happening with universities losing respect for Welsh Bacc or WJEC qualifications. But that should halt the deterioration; if universities and employers discriminated among qualifications, the incentive to degrade them would disappear.”

    The best Universities are already ignoring some qualifications such as the Welsh Bacc. but you have to remember that the Universities themselves are operating as businesses whose well being depends on full quotas of students.

    My personal feeling is that the “Market” is best kept out of education. Grade inflation is attractive to politicians who always want to prove that they are successful. Schooling is a long term affair…measures taken today bear fruit in a decade; that sort of thing is unattractive to politicians who are elected every 4-5 years. International measures like PISA are the only way that we know that something is wrong but politics still gets in the way of putting it right.

  5. Changing qualifications from a position of strength and leadership is understandable. Surely, in Wales, we face the immediate challenge of ‘catch up’ with international standards, a position from which we should only then take decisions on ‘where next’? Is this another diversionary tactic, a plaster to cover an already seeping wound, or a another defiant, unproven pathway towards ‘Welsh is Always Best?.

  6. But Jon, if there is to be no market in education and politics won’t put it right, how is it supposed to improve? The Welsh government, under strong union influence, tried leaving it to the teachers, who resist any public accountability. What happened? PISA tells the story. I don’t think that ending the teaching of Welsh will solve the problem either, though you might think so.

  7. I agree with your analysis of what went wrong, R Tredwyn. I don’t believe that an unfettered market can be trusted any more than an un-monitored teaching establishment. Politicians CAN act responsibly but so far have’nt, although Leighton Andrews has done some of the things that are necessary. The introduction of Secondary School Banding, although inevitably a faulty system, has brought much needed focus and analysis to that sector but I maintain that the main fault lies with Primary school education. As for your suggestion that I support the ending of the teaching of Welsh I defy you to find a place where I have suggested this. No more have I suggested the ending of Welsh Medium Education although I strongly believe that many pupils from English speaking backgrounds do not do well in WM schools and, for that reason, Parents should have the RIGHT to English Medium Schooling wherever they live in Wales.
    Politicians in Wales need to be pragmatic; they can go their own way by all means but they mustn’t be afraid to look at the policies that they have put in place critically and decide whether they have the best possible solutions. I notice that the Welsh Bacc is now going to have grades instead of just pass and fail. A sensible amendment.

  8. I agree with 99 per cent of what you say. We may differ only on the extent of the RIGHTS of parents in the Fro Gymraeg. They certainly have a right to a good education for their kids that does not leave them at a persistent disadvantage. Whether that is a question of school quality or language medium is perhaps where we differ.

  9. Perhaps I could enlarge a bit: I lived abroad for many years and had a child educated in the local language that was not their own, speaking English at home. When we returned to the UK my child was only very briefly disadvantaged, the catch-up was swift. And the huge benefit of being bilingual remained, enabling passes to be achieved in languages at A and at first-class degree level. The fact was, though, that the foreign schooling was excellent, superior in some respects to the UK standard. We are all coloured by our experience but it left me with the conviction that if the education is good it is no imposition for a young child to be taught in a language other than that of the hearth. After all if Gwynedd has to provide English medium schools why not Punjabi or Hindi medium? Where do you stop? Is using the community language such a problem? But, of course, the schools must be good.

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