The Welsh and English GCSE fiasco

Philip Dixon says some student’s career paths might well be blighted all because of a D rather than than a C grade

Some might call it poetic justice while others might describe it as grim irony, but this summer the adults behaved badly and caused trouble for the teenagers. Not binge drinking and loud music you understand but something more arcane and yet more destructive: the slight moving of boundaries in GCSE English grades. The dip in results was noticeable, and outside the bounds of reasonable prediction. The result was that thousands of youngsters who were expecting a C got a D.

What is perhaps not immediately apparent is how that slight under achievement can blight someone for life. Students could be denied places on FE course, stopped from progressing to A levels, lose out on apprenticeships, and later on down the line find university barred to them. For some even certain career options like teaching might now be no go areas. All because of a D not C grade.

In England there has been uproar as parents and youngsters cried foul, and school heads realised that their students’ future, not to say their League Table positions and jobs, were in jeopardy. A powerful alliance of headteacher and other unions, independent schools, and academics have called for an independent inquiry. All so far to no avail.

Michael Gove, the English Education Minister, has hidden behind the independent regulator Ofqal, which stubbornly refuses to budge from the initial assessment that nothing much is wrong. In Wales, the dip was even greater, the percentage of pupils from Wales gaining an A* to C in GCSE English language fell from 61.3 per cent in 2011 to 57.4 per cent this year.

The Minister, Leighton Andrews, whose officials currently exercise the regulatory function exercised by Ofqal in England, has ordered a re-grading from the WJEC. This was on the back of a report from his regulatory officials that the dip was “unjustifiable and almost certainly unfair”.

Ofqal has refused to re-grade in England and escalated matters on Wednesday by publically disagreeing with the Welsh re-grade and threatening with the thinnest of veils to de-recognise the WJEC as an awarding body in England. This would be a bitter blow for the WJEC which does a great deal of trade with English schools. Ironically it examines more children in English in England than in Wales.

At the House of Commons on Tuesday the Chair of Ofqal, Amanda Spielman, a keen supporter of Michael Gove’s ‘reforms’, accused Leighton Andrews of trying to mask the underperformance of the Welsh education system. In turn he denounced her as a political appointee and took to Newsnight to outline the Welsh Government case. On Wednesday morning Michael Gove waded in during the Select Committee’s proceedings to denounce Mr Andrews’ action as “irresponsible and mistaken”. He suggested that Welsh results were now not worth the same as those in England. Mr Andrews has countered that, “Clearly it suits him to try and turn the deepening crisis in England into a political spat’.

At the moment we are awaiting a high level meeting between the Welsh Government, Ofqal and the WJEC sometime in the next few days. Oh to be a fly on the wall!

Whatever happens it is now clear that the two exam systems will separate and cross-border comparability will become much less of a concern. Ironically, both Governments have been responding in different ways to concerns raised about the quality and future of qualifications, GCSEs in particular. In England there has been sustained talk about a ‘return’ to O levels.

In Wales the Review of Qualifications which has been taking place has even more relevance. Many commentators think that the position whereby the Welsh baccalaureate will in some way replace GCSEs will simply speed up. Even more of an irony is the fact that while England’s independent regulator has come under sustained scrutiny for its alleged political bias no one seriously believes that the Welsh Government can keep the regulatory function ‘in house’. An independent regulator will have to come sooner – much sooner – than later. When ACCAC the independent regulator in Wales was abolished in the bonfire of the quangos by Rhodri Morgan a few of us then questioned the wisdom of such a move.

This is a row that was inevitable. The educational agendas, topography, and direction are now becoming so diverse that it was always going to prove a Herculean task to keep the qualifications system together. They are moving apart ever faster. This year’s GCSE students will have a ‘souvenir’ of the date when the tectonic plates finally shifted for ever. At some stage pupils in Wales will presumably have two certificates: one with their all their GCSE results, stamped with the logo of the Welsh Government and Ofqal, and one with their re-graded English with just the Welsh Government logo. Students in England will get just the one piece of paper.

As I said at the start the rowdy behaviour this year has come from the adults. The poor teenagers caught in the cross fire must be glad to be back to school and get on with their work.

Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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