Examinations reform and the limits of Welsh devolution

Malcom Prowle says the conflict between the English and Welsh Education Ministers is exposing the limits of devolution

The UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has, in recent months put forward a raft of reforms to the school examination systems in England. In September, he announced that GCSE examinations in England were to be replaced by a single examination (the English Bacculareat) and five days ago he also announced a shake-up of the A-level system with plans to introduce the principles of the international baccalaureate (IB) to schools in England. Both of these changes will have implications for Wales.

Mr Gove’s proposed reforms have caused turmoil and furore, in equal measure in Wales particularly in relation to the proposed abolition of GCSEs . The Welsh education minister described it as a ““backwards step” and a “solution designed for the 20th Century”. A spokesman for one of the teaching unions in Wales says that Gove’s plans devalued the GCSE qualification.

Wales already has its own GCSE review underway but no decision will be made until November. However, given the rhetoric and the limited time available it seems unlikely that Wales will follow the English proposals of a single more rigorous examination model. There are too many vested interests in the retaining the current system.

However, something does urgently need to be done in relation to schools education in Wales. In an article entitled Bottom of the Class (Journal of Public Finance April 2012) I commented that:

  • The PISA statistics produced by OECD showed that in 2010 the UK school system as a whole slipped several places down the international league table. Within the UK, Wales was bottom of the pile, a ­situation Leighton Andrews admitted was unacceptable.
  • The Welsh OFSTED (Estyn) ranks local authority education services on a four-point scale from ‘unsatisfactory’ to ‘excellent’.  In recent years there have been no ‘excellent’ services, a high number of ‘adequate’ ones and quite a few ‘unsatisfactory’ ones.
  • The Welsh Government’s own schools banding system shows that only 13% of Welsh secondary schools are performing well and more than 25% of Welsh LEAs have no schools in the top band.

Curriculum and qualifications in a future Wales and UK


IWA Conference

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Parc Thistle Hotel, Cardiff


Publication of the Welsh Review of Qualifications 14-19 at the end of November 2012 comes in the wake of a row between the Welsh and UK Governments about examination results and a potential divergence of the examination system at age 16. Questions addressed by the conference include:

  • What is the purpose of qualifications at age 16 when 80 per cent progress onto further education or training?
  • How are we serving those young people who do not do well at 14-16 (defined as achieving 5 GCSEs at A*-C, including English, Welsh and Maths)?
  • Should there be a new regulator in Wales, and what should its powers be?
  • Should we reform GCSEs or institute a new, perhaps baccalaureate-style, award that is unique to Wales?
  • How do we ensure that any distinctive Welsh qualifications are valued across the UK?


Keynote Speakers: Huw Evans, Chair, Welsh Review of Qualifications 14-19; Professor David Reynolds, Southampton University; and Professor Ken Spours, Co-Director, Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation, Institute of Education, University of London.

For more information and to register click here


For many years now endless comments have been made (particularly at the time of examination results) that school examinations in England and Wales have been “dumbed down”.   Politicians and teaching unions vigorously deny this but the evidence has mounted with research done by University of Durham, Kings College London and by the Royal Society of Chemistry strongly suggesting that dumbing down has taken place in school examinations. The reality is that many employers, parents and others now firmly believe school examinations have been dumbed down and only substantial changes to the examination system will restore confidence among parents and employers. We have to improve standards across the board. Leveling down is not an option in today’s global economy.

Now Mr Gove’s policies may not be the complete solution. Many people think it madness to impose an academic curriculum on non-academic pupils without an alternative route being available. They would argue that any new qualification system for the future should also include high quality vocational/technical pathways for the less academic.  The idea of just introducing more rigour and simultaneously insisting that all pupils will sit the new hard exam are contradictory, and setting up loads of children to fail.

However, even if Mr Gove’s policy is incomplete or flawed, the reality is that Wales is still a part of the United Kingdom. Now under devolution it may be possible for Wales to have different policies from England in some areas such as health, transport, social care etc, since these are largely self-contained issues. However, in other areas such as economic policy and education policy it is different matter for Wales to stray too far from English policy since there are clear inter-relationships between the two countries and, at the end of the day, England is 14 times larger than Wales.

Let us take a couple of examples. The CBI is on record as saying that GCSEs are “not fit for purpose” and are not delivering the key skills needed in the workplace. The Institute of Directors stated that in their survey of company directors that 53% believed the quality of school education had deteriorated while only 19% believed it had improved. The directors also commented that they had observed a decline in student’s basic skill proficiencies such as writing, reading, oral communication etc. Then we have the universities. Will admissions tutors looking at the academic record of potential students in the future and worry that maybe the Welsh GCSEs are not as rigorous as the English Bacculareat and should be weighted accordingly.

This is a serious concern. The Director of the CBI in Wales made the comment that:-

A priority for Wales should be to strive to protect the portability and recognition of Welsh qualifications across the UK. Joint working with the UK to maintain a level playing field will help maximise the life chances of Welsh students by ensuring any made-in Wales qualifications are readily recognised, understood and trusted by employers across the UK.”

A former head of school improvement in a large Welsh local authority warned against cross-border divergence and said:

School qualifications are too serious an issue to be allowed to degenerate into inter-governmental bickering and playground politics. There is really only one issue of substantive difference between Mr Andrews and Mr Gove over the future of GCSEs, as both clearly agree on the centrality of reforming GCSEs. They should sit down and argue out, like educated adults, whether modular courses are desirable, fair and capable of rigorous assessment – and engage in deep public consultation on this. A continued unified Welsh and English GCSE system is in everybody’s best interests.”

The message is clear. These comments illustrate the dangers of Wales “going it alone” on school examinations reform. They also illustrate the limitations of devolution.

However, the key question for me is whether the Welsh Government will be prepared to take on the strong vested interests of education providers in Wales in order to deliver reforms that are really needed to improve educational standards in Wales. Rhetoric is insufficient. Change is needed.

Professor Malcolm J Prowle is professor of business performance at Nottingham Business School and visiting professor in accounting and finance at the Open University Business School. He was born in Wales and still resides there.

21 thoughts on “Examinations reform and the limits of Welsh devolution

  1. Everyone knows that Wales is a partially devolved nation; therefore I am at a loss to understand frequent and often vociferous statements mainly coming from the nationalist camp that Westminster is stifling Welsh made policies and laws and until such a time if ever people of Wales choose independence all effort should be made in achieving cohesion and cooperation between England and Wales.

    Leaving politics aside Education is of immense importance to be a ‘political game’ and Prof Prowle makes many valid points, but in Wales under any definition Education is a Political Game and the main ‘culprit’ is no other than Leighton Andrews.

    The legacy of Leighton’s approach to Welsh education is in the public domain and Wales has lowest standards in numeracy and English language literacy than any other part of the UK and has lowest PISA ranking in the EU under the same criteria.

    Are the Welsh children really dense compared to our English, Scottish and N Irish Cousins or do we have some other problems in Wales that are not openly discussed and debated either by Leighton Andrews, WAG or the media at large?

    As I see it Leighton Andrews and WAG are using education as a political tool to create what they call a ‘Bilingual Nation’ and to the best of my knowledge the Bilingual Road has been imposed on Welsh people some 10 years ago with no mandate from the Welsh people and the popular demand often used as a pretext to justify the said policies by the WAG is a fictitious and an inaccurate statement under any definition!?

    Welsh language has been elevated beyond what can be considered reasonable or sensible and parental choices or wishes simply ignored and if anyone has a problem with this assertion, please read the following extract from Leighton Andrews publication titled “Promoting Linguistic Progression between key stages 2 and 3” issued in February of this year (Page 19):

    “During the project, a number of fun activities were created for use with Years 5 and 6 learners to raise their awareness of the benefits of bilingual skills, including the social, educational and economic benefits.
    One example is to have two dolls that are similar in appearance, and present a story about the dolls to the learners. They are twins who have been brought up as Welsh speakers. Both had a Welsh-medium education at primary school. One went on to receive a Welsh-medium education at secondary school, but the other followed her friends and chose an English-medium education. One went to college in Wales while the other went to college in England. One of them retained her Welsh while the other lost the language after spending years working in London. By coincidence, years later both applied for the same job – a senior job with a good salary in an area of Wales with a high number of Welsh speakers.
    The learners are told that one twin has bilingual skills, and is therefore able to speak to everyone, in either English or Welsh. The other twin can only speak English. There is a discussion on the importance of giving customers a choice of language and on the rights of Welsh speakers. Learners are asked to choose which candidate should be given the job. In all cases, without exception, the learners chose the twin with bilingual skills. The result of the exercise is that the learners themselves realise the benefits of having bilingual skills”.
    I personally find this statement abhorrent and to my mind its nothing other than a blatant use of social engineering to create a new society to fit with whatever agenda Leighton Andrews and the WAG have for our children.
    We now had 10 years of relentless Welsh language promotion but is it working and is there any evidence that Welsh children are relishing opportunity to learn Welsh and have become ‘bilingual’.

    As a parent of two children ages 14 and 8, who are living and being educated in North Wales I can say it with absolute confidence that there are no bilingual kids in North Wales from English speaking homes after 10 years of Welsh language immersion by 100% Welsh speaking teachers and children themselves are not seeing the ‘bigger picture’, have no interest in the Welsh language and see it as irrelevant and boring – A message to Mr Andrews, please, please for the sake of Wales and its future LISTEN TO THE CHILDREN and give them opportunity to learn and develop without a straight jacket and political dogma that you are currently using to make them into something they do not want to be and create a fair and an open society where people have choices to live and work irrespective whether they speak Welsh, English or both!

  2. Its going to take a long time for the ‘gamble’ on devolution to be assessed as being good/bad for Wales, however if its bad then whole sections of our society will be affected,and in particular the current children who live here. The whole exercise was based on a fear of centre right politicians in England, and the movement of policies toward placing more emphasis/responsibilities on individuals to act properly and think about their futures etc etc. This power is currently exercised through the internet and other means, however the concept was an anathema to Welsh socialists who love 1945 models of state provision, and nationalists who had a different agenda in wanting us out of the UK, and into the arms of German/French politicians. It is only in Wales that our political classes thought that could create a separate world where we are attached (for how long I wonder) to a dynamic economy which is rooted in the free market, so naturally attuned to more ‘competition’ in provision of public services. Perish the thought that the total overhaul of English education in the public sector works, as increased REAL standards will arise,whilst our children/young people will fall further behind. The one thing thing we know is that nothing will change here short of a collapse due to cuts in public funding. In conclusion, Cambridge University is changing its access ‘systems’ to drive up standards of people get in there in the first place, so competition is increasing everywhere, except in Attlee’s world this side of the border(as beloved by BBC Wales).

  3. Jacques Protic and Howell Morgan perfectly exemplify the line that British nationalists, such as themselves, take on education and devolution. They start off with an English-orientated free market view of public policy. They then insert the obligatory splattering of anti-Welsh rhetoric – essential to any London-centric agenda – before finishing up by capitalising their puerile generalisations: Jacques’ “LISTEN TO THE CHILDREN” and Howell’s “REAL standards”. Sadly, as is the norm with these two bloggers, any useful points that they may make in their contributions are buried under a sea of vituperation.

  4. Luke
    While what you say about the other two bloggers may or may not be true, my analysis suggests there are some really difficult issues to consider here. Wales cannot operate in a bubble however much we may wish it to be so.

  5. I am not sure which former head of school improvement Malcolm Prowle is quoting but the comments are naive in the extreme. I am sure that Leighton Andrews would be delighted were there any prospect of Michael Gove sitting down with him and agreeing a joint way of proceeding but Gove’s mind on these issues has long since been made up. The idea that he would be willing to compromise on any part of his agenda in order to present a united front with Wales (and Northern Ireland) is laughable. From his perspective, the views and actions of Ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland are irrelevant. The Welsh Government would be better off working with Northern Ireland and possibly Scotland to develop a way forward. Divergence from England’s examination system is inevitable but that needn’t be detrimental – it certainly doesn’t seem to do the Scots any harm.

  6. P,Williams
    I am sorry but I think you are missing the point. The former head of school inspection may be naive but the key issue is the danger of setting up an school examination system in Wales which is (or is perceived to be) inferior to that in England and the impact that will have on jobs and HE entry for Welsh students.

    What compounds this is that Wales is starting from a point of weakness hiwch would mean a weak negotiating position with Westminster on this issue. In the 2009 PISA statistics, out of 67 countries taking part, Wales was ranked 38th for reading, 40th for maths and 30th for the tests for science. It is now below average on all three measures and has scored worse than before in every category.

    On the other hand, Scotland was the best for reading and maths of the UK nations, ranked 15th and 21st, while England was top for science in the UK, ranked 16th. Therefore Scotland is perceived to have a better schools examination system than Wales (and possibly England) and it is twice as large as Wales. This puts them in a much stronger position to have an exam system distinct from England.

  7. The recent turn of events is what we might call a bout of English separatism. That said, one cannot but welcome a new fluidity of thinking on both sides of the border on the examination system. Many will remember that the IWA did ten years of detailed work in the 1990s on a Welsh Baccalaureate proposal, much of which was highly regarded by objective and expert observers. At the same time I recall a Labour education minister, Baroness Blackstone, a few weeks after the Labour victory in 1997, saying that Labour was “going down the baccalaureate road”, that is until Tony Blair bowed to the golden calf of A leveis and called a halt. The U turn was in deference to the alleged views of middle England who, it seems are now demanding change.

  8. As a current Oxford student from a welsh-language state comprehensive in South Wales, I can’t help but regard these raging debates – conducted by people who seem to have more interest in wielding an ideological baton than in doing the best with a bad set of circumstances – with some bemusement.

    Mr. Prowle, there is no a priori reason for a system serving a country Scotland’s size to be any better than one serving a country Wales’ size. Indeed, although there might be dangers involved in ‘thinking Wales’ there are as many dangers involved in ‘thinking UK’; the (here) much lauded English system, with its plethora of exam boards, school types and educational models, doesn’t serve the inhabitants of West Yorkshire, say, as well as it does those of Buckinghamshire. An argument based on ‘one size fits all’ has as many inherent dangers as one based on a wish to go one’s own way.

    I agree however with what seems to be the thrust of the essay; the Welsh Government needs to be pragmatic, ambitious and realistic. Whether it will is a different matter.

  9. Carwyn

    I never suggested that the size of Scotland was, a priori, a factor for giving it a better educational system. What I suggested was that Scotland already has a better education system than Wales (presumably for policy, resource and historical reaons) but also that its greater size than Wales gives it more clout in terms of negotiation with England.

  10. Professor Prowle – I didn’t miss your point. I just disgreed with it. There is no point slavishly following the same path as England if we do not believe it is right for learners in Wales. I am fully aware of the current weaknesses in the Welsh education system – including those which relate to the examination system which we share with England and NI. We will of course have to put those right if we are to retain and indeed regain confidence in our system. But I do not believe that the Michael Gove solution is the right one and do not think that we need follow it. More importantly, neither does Leighton Andrews. You have suggested that this issue exposes the limitations of devolution. I suspect that in due course it will actually illustrate just how far reaching the impact of devolution can be.

  11. Carwyn, I think the fundamental issue for our education system is that Wales is much more closely integrated with England than Scotland is. Half the Welsh population live within 25 miles of the Anglo-Welsh border and there are 100,000 commuters crossing it every day – three times the number commuting between England and Scotland. Therefore we need a qualifications system that, while not necessarily the same as England, is intelligible to and credible with employers and universities on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

    P Williams, unlike Wales, the Scots have always had a separate education system and it has long enjoyed a reputation for relatively high quality (at least in a British context). I suppose that Wales could import their qualifications wholesale if it wanted, but they are unfamiliar to educators and parents here so it would seem to me a rather unlikely and left-field solution.

  12. Carwyn, The only ideology in Welsh education comes strictly from Leighton Andrews and Welsh nationalists and where education is used as a tool to create a ‘Bilingual nation’.

    Perhaps all well and good if this ideology is shared and widely accepted by people of Wales but no matter what spin or dressing Leighton Andrews and similar use to justify the current policies, the facts is that the vast majority of Welsh children do not have any interest in Welsh language and as long as the Welsh language dominates Welsh curriculum the longer it will take for Welsh educational standards to improve.

    No politics, ideology or whatever just look at time at task issues and I am sure everyone would agree if school teachers used all the available time to promote numeracy and English language literacy we’d see a lot different and a lot better outcome.

    To improve Welsh education Leighton Andrews must respect parental choices and separate Welsh Medium and English Medium education and then leave it to the Welsh people to choose how they wish to educate their children.

    Finally what Llareggub had to say makes a great deal of sense!

  13. Mr Williams

    I dont think Michael Goves approach is the correct one but neither do I think the Welsh approach is correct either. Both are driven by vacuous ideology not pragmatism. What we need is a twin track examination system with a properly resource vocational route.

  14. The world is large and Wales is small, hardly visible to many outside these islands. However there is no doubt that Wales and the Welsh have much to offer in terms of wit and creativity both in arts and science.
    If Wales is to thrive it must have a competitive education system which it clearly does not have at this time. The relevance of Gove and co is unavoidable and Leighton Andrews and his chums ought to stop posturing about Welsh independent mindedness and get on (urgently) and ensure Wales offers a demanding, effective system of education first, and one that nurtures the Welsh language second. Any system must create opportunities for young Welsh folk worldwide.
    It is fair to argue that any system should offer academic as well as vocational streams, this is where Wales perhaps can provide some positive aspirational ideas. Perhaps an innovative system parallel and alternative to the IB.
    Can the Welsh assembly escape its parochial straightjacket and keep in mind that the future of Welsh youth is the future of Wales? I hope so, but Mr Andrews’ early responses do not encourage me at all.

  15. I suppose that it’s inevitable that Jaques Protic and Howell Morgan are immediately rubbished on this site, but they both percieve an essential problem in Wales….bi-lingualism in education. The examination system, which is designed to accurately reflect what education pupils have been given and how well each pupil has done within that system, is vitally important. You often hear people (mostly teachers) saying “It’s not weighing the pig that makes it fatter”. A truism that has done irreperable damage in Wales where we stopped accurately “Weighing” our piglets at the end of key stage 2. Now we are looking at diverging from recognised standards once again. The “Welsh Bacc.” is such a foolish divergence. Not that it hasn’t any merit, but to put it on the same value rating as attaining an “A” at A level is a farcical situation. When only 23% of A level pupils in Wales can pass the Bacc, that’s when it should be taken seriously.

    What has worried me for a long time is the utter stupidity of the push for Welsh Language and Welsh Medium teaching in Wales. Jaques Protic cites an example above; “Linguistic Progression between key stage 2 and Key stage 3″ It’s hard to imagine a more ruinous, perverse and utterly harmful document than this. It’s is based on a strategy jointly undertaken by the late (unlamented) Welsh Language Board and the “Welsh in Education Department” of the WAG and the pilot was administered and evaluated by a private firm, “Sbectrwm” who reported on its success.

    Its sole objective was to stop the “Drop out” of pupils who enter Welsh Medium Primary schools but then revert to English Medium streams or schools at Key stage 3. Now any rational person would start from this position:- “Why do pupils leave Welsh Medium Education?” “Who are these pupils?” “What would be best for their educational future in Secondary School?”

    Not in Wales! Because we set up two bodies that have only one aim….the increase in the number of pupils who can speak Welsh, this, to provide more Welsh speakers, was the only imperative. We now have a department within the Education department that has no remit at all to improve education….only to increase the use of Welsh.

    Wales has become blind to the deterioration of standards in Welsh Medium schools. It’s no good saying that “I went to a WM school and I’m in Cambridge!” or “Look at the international research, that “PROVES” that bilingual education is best.” The truth is very different; many pupils founder in WM Primary schools and many of them don’t recover in English streams in bi-lingual secondary schools. There is just a wilful blindness to the failure of the bilingual system amongst teachers, educationalists and politicians.

    Take a long hard look at assessments and GCSE results for Welsh Medium and bilingual schools. Don’t bother with a straight comparison of all WM schools against all EM schools, we all know that the massive levels of socioeconomic deprivation in the South and SE. give the middle class WM schools an advantage. Try comparing like with like and then look at “Adult literacy and numeracy in Wales”. That’s where the true measure of the disaster in Welsh Education lies.

  16. There seems to be a bit of a parallel debate going on here.

    As the author of the original blog my aim was to point out the dangers of the Welsh Government taking a macho “we will do our own thing” approach while ignoring the implications of having a different (and perceived inferior) system to England.

    The second debate appears to be about the merits of EM and WM schools. Although an interesting and important debate it is a different issue to the point I raised.

  17. You are quite wrong Malcolm; the clearest divergence between Wales and England is compulsory Welsh in schools and Welsh Medium/English Medium Education. Think it through; how do we compare ourselves with England when it comes to GCSE results and key stage assessments? We use Core Subject Indicator and we use Level2 + English&Maths…..except that in Wales CSI includes an either/or option Welsh L1 or English and Level2+ English &Maths also has a Welsh L1 option. So for many years now we have actually gone our own way. It seems like common sense doesn’t it; Welsh is equal to English and so obviously that’s how we have to measure school success…either/or. Except that maths doesn’t recognise ideological decisions such as this. Welsh Medium Primary schools have long benefitted from being measured against CSI when half of the pupils can fail to get level 4 at Key stage 2 in English, but as long as they pass Welsh L1 the school can still claim 100%. Wales has allowed itself to be lulled by assurances from the Welsh Language Board and the WAG and several tame academics that pupils in Welsh Medium schools do as well in English as pupils in English Medium schools. The only trouble is that it’s nonsense. Not only that but in adulthood people who speak Welsh as a first language are not only less likely to be literate in English than first language English speakers, they are also less likely to be numerate.

    Last year Welsh Medium and bilingual schools benefitted by 2% on the Level 2+ E/W&maths. This year they benefitted by 3% on that measure. That is 356 pupils in two years alone who didn’t get English A*-C but were counted as Level2+…….no wonder WM schools look good even while they are failing!

    At every stage of education in Wales, Welsh medium schools are behind comparable English Medium schools when it comes to English and Maths. Nevertheless we have the Welsh in Education department and several Local Authorities, primed by decades old WLB propaganda, still telling the same old lies to parents about the superiority of Welsh Medium education.

    There is only one way for Wales to protect this “House of Cards” where nothing is as it seems, they have to have an examination system that hides failure. In Wales the Political parties are all between a rock and a hard place…they all have to pay lip service to the Welsh Language totem but they can’t allow anyone to question whether the drive for complete bi-lingualism in Wales is actually good for Wales.

    Imagine this; we have a minister that has two responsibilities Welsh Language and culture and Education. Let’s assume that neither Leighton Andrews nor the civil servants in the department of Education are stupid. They therefore KNOW that either Education or Bi-lingualism is going to fail…given this the only trick is to hide that failure.

    Today Simon Thomas for Plaid has openly questioned the sense of Compulsory Welsh Second Language in schools. Lord help us, it has taken a PLAID AM to say what 88% of Parents have known for a long time!

    But do you know what the next least successful academic subject was in Welsh Medium schools last year and this? Welsh First Language! Do you know what percentage of pupils in WM and Bi-lingual schools attained Welsh first Language at A*-C this year? Out of 6658 15 year old pupils in WM schools 3711 scored GCSE at A*-C……56% . About the same as last year.

  18. Yes, but who’s being ‘macho’ ? Wales, Northern Ireland and England have had shared qualifications for what, fifty years or so? That’s been dismantled unilaterally by Michael Gove with little or no consultation. By calling the new qualification the ‘English bacc’ he has deliberately shut the door on any discussions on a common way forward.

  19. Curious to know what evidence there is to support the claim that Welsh first language speakers are less literate and numerate than their non Welsh speaking cousins. This assertion is patently ridiculous. Are the Dutch less numerate? The Germans?

    To debate the failings of the Welsh education system and strive for continuous improvement is healthy. To scapegoat the language is not. Only in Britain is being bilingual seen as a hindrance!

    As for giving children choice – I agree up to a point. One of my sons often says maths is “boring”. Is Jacques suggesting he should be allowed to forego a rudimentary mathematical education? Many of the posters here are clearly operating from an English standpoint, demonstrating both a fundamental lack of understanding as to why one would ever need or would want to communicate in Welsh, and a disregard for the educational needs of children who are first language Welsh speakers.

    The debate should be around how we create a first rate Welsh medium education system rather than what I appear to be reading here, that Welsh schools are failing therefore make them less Welsh for them to succeed. Are we really saying that native Welsh speaking children are doomed to an English education because of the bigotry of English parents?

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