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.

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