Welsh education sails away from England by staying on course

Philip Dixon says yesterday’s Qualifications Review means incremental change that will build on the current system

The much awaited Qualifications Review was published yesterday. Chaired by Huw Evans, former principal of Llandrillo Further Education College, the Review team spent 14 months gathering evidence and discussing their findings. Although ostensibly independent of the government the presence of no less than four officials from the Department for Education and Skills makes it unlikely that many of its recommendations would be too out of kilter with the views of the Education Minister. Stakeholders the length and breadth of the country have been consulted and there was also some engagement with those beyond Offa’s dyke.

The resultant Report is focussed, workmanlike, and sensible. It does not really tackle some of the big questions posed by the raging debate across the border – grade inflation, dumbing down, ‘micky mouse subjects’ and the like. But then it was never meant to. Instead it provides a reasoned, practical plan for the future direction of qualifications in Wales – a future that will see the final divergence of Wales and England as Mr Gove’s English Baccalaureate Certificate takes hold from 2016 onwards.

IWA Conference

Curriculum and qualifications in a

 future Wales and UK

Wednesday 12 December, Parc Thistle Hotel, Cardiff

Huw Evans, Chair of the Welsh Review of Qualifications will be the keynote speaker at this important conference which will examine the content and implications of his report. Other speakers include professor Ken Spours, Institute of Education, London University; Professor David Reynolds, Southampton University, Mark Dawe, Chief Executive OCR, and Gareth Pierce, Chief Executive WJEC. For more information and to book download the conference flyer here.

In a nod towards concerns about rigour, the Review urges the development of new specifications for some GCSEs, more external assessment, and a limit to the resit culture of recent years. Echoing widely voiced concerns about Literacy the Review recommends more focus on spelling and grammar in assessing English GCSEs. And in addressing numeracy concerns it suggests the development of two maths GCSEs – one to do with numeracy and the other to do with what it calls ‘mathematics techniques’. There will be no such radical departure for our exam system in Wales. Rather there will be incremental and gradual change building on the current system. Youngsters will continue to study GCSEs until 16, and then A levels or suitable vocational qualifications thereafter. The Welsh Baccalaureate will be at the heart of the new system. Although at one point the Review suggests the Welsh Government should merely “encourage the universal adoption” of the Bacc, in a section on the Measurement of Performance the Welsh Bacc is posited as the performance indicator against which schools and colleges should be measured. This indicates that it will become obligatory.

The Review recommends that the use of vocational qualifications be restricted until post-16 study, and that such qualifications become more rigorous. It hopes that by doing so it will finally arrive at the holy grail of so-called ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic which has eluded all other reforms of qualifications for over a century. It also attempts to tackle the ‘gaming culture’ that has emerged in recent years, in which schools try to maximise the ‘scores on the doors’ by using vocational qualifications in a way that many think is detrimental to the needs of the individual learner. Its most radical move is to urge that the regulatory function of the Welsh Government be removed and given to a new body dubbed Qualifications Wales. This would be a new arm’s length body responsible for the regulation, accreditation and, eventually, awarding of qualifications. The visit to Scotland where such a system currently prevails was obviously worth the fare.

There is much to welcome here. The recommendations reflect a broad consensus within Welsh education.  It is good that GCSEs are to be retained as parents, pupils and employers know their worth and understand them. The Welsh Bacc has now established itself as a respected qualification and its universal roll out would again be good news. Keeping A levels is also a wise move at the present time, though future conflict with the Westminster Government over their nature, content and form could be imminent.

The Review is correct in judging that the current regulatory system has not worked well and that this function should be independent of government. On the other hand, its recommendation to lump together regulation, accreditation, and awarding into one single body will need careful scrutiny. That the model works in Scotland is no guarantee that it will work here. As has been shown time and again you simply cannot import the features of one system into another. Context has to be taken into account. The Scots have not had to contend with the bruising debacle of this summer’s GCSE English grading fiasco. It would probably be in the interests of all children within the UK if the exam system was rapidly and permanently depoliticised, and regulation handed to a truly independent body manifestly beyond the reach of any of the governments in these islands.

In some ways the production of the Review has been the easy part. The real challenges in the future do not come from getting the route right but from getting the bus serviced, functioning and respected. There are real challenges to implementation, including:

  • There will need to be more investment from the Welsh Government in upskilling the school workforce. The extra GCSE in maths, for instance, will require more resources and cannot impact on the already heavy workload of teachers.
  • The capability and capacity of the Education Department, sorely tried during this summer’s GCSE fiasco, will be crucial to successful delivery. Thirdly,
  • Most importantly, the new regime must equip our youngsters with qualifications which are portable across the UK and beyond. The universities, especially the ‘blue chip’ ones will need to be convinced of their worth and value, and the same is true for employers.

As we set sail into unchartered waters we will encounter a number of sharks. Michael Fabricant (whether in his capacity as Tory party vice chair or cheer leader for UKIP is unclear) has already tweeted that these new qualifications will be second-class. Others will be less crude but will certainly share his doubts. They will have to be convinced that our system has rigour, that our qualifications do what they say on the tin, and that they are comparable to others in the UK. There needs to be a communications charm offensive, but it has to be underpinned by substance. We are heading into choppy waters, the ship will have to show that it is seaworthy.

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

7 thoughts on “Welsh education sails away from England by staying on course

  1. Anyone who is interested in the UK education will know that UK universities have fallen down within international league tables, putting the nation’s reputation for higher education at risk, it was suggested.

    While the UK currently still has the second best university system worldwide, a number of leading institutions have tumbled down the rankings this year.
    In total, 10 UK universities are in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2012/13, compared with 12 last year and 14 in 2010/11.

    The implications are that beyond the very best institutions, UK universities face “a collapse in their global position within a generation”. The latest table shows that the UK has three universities in the top 10, with Oxford taking second place, up from fourth last year. Cambridge was in seventh place, down one from sixth last year, while Imperial College London took eighth place, the same as in 2011. The UK has seven universities in total in the top 50, and 31 in the top 200, down one from 32 last year.

    The similar situation exists for secondary education and the most recent tables place UK at no 6 in the rankings. Within the UK we have the Welsh education and through its abysmal standards at all levels it can be argued it is dragging down the overall UK rating and perhaps time for the rest of the UK to look closely at the Welsh situation and if the proposed changes are implemented and by such creating a different educational qualification system Wales must be excluded from the UK educational performance tables and stand on its own – Only then Leighton Andrews and others who are pursuing change to suit their political ends will be made accountable but sadly it’ll be too late for Wales.

    Leighton Andrews will be farmed off to history at the end of this year as he’ll be taking a new post within the Welsh Government but his legacy in Welsh education will be there to haunt Wales for a long time to come!

  2. The Review is very welcome; it describes the route map towards the creation of a distinctive Welsh qualifications system based on the needs of 14-19 year old learners in Wales. It is the result of detailed engagement with those who have an interest in how to progress: learners themselves, education professionals from schools to further and higher education institutions, individual employers and business groups.

    In a sense however, achieving the confidence and support of those who have been engaged in this process is the easy part. We think that retaining and refining GCSEs and A levels is a sensible move; we have faith, based probably on our more detailed knowledge of it, in the value of the Welsh Baccalaureate albeit with some caveats about the rigour of some elements.

    But we’ll need more than that. Making sure that our qualifications are well understood and respected in Wales and well beyond its borders is critical. This is a not insignificant task, a fact which the report recognises.

    Getting it right is the first part – and that will be challenging even in the context of general agreement that the fabled bus is sufficiently roadworthy to set off; selling it well will be a bigger test of our map reading skills. And we’ll have to do that in the teeth of the unpersuaded and the downright reluctant.

  3. I don’t understand where all the support for the Welsh Bacc comes from?

    At Advanced level the only words of praise for the Bacc in the review are for A levels. Everything else has to change. Out goes the application of number and communication skills, the filling in of bureaucratic forms, dependence on ‘evidence’, IT, the independent investigation, language module, internal marking and it is now to be graded.

    For the past 5 years we have been told that the WBQ is the envy of Europe. It now turns out the only decent bit was the A levels.

    Mind you, the kids, parents and staff have been saying this all along.

  4. I am not an educationalist, or even educated but it does seem to me that if the English decided to ‘drive on the right’, then we would decide to ‘drive on the left’ just to be different. Thats perfectly fine and dandy when the policies relate only and specifically to little Wales, however in the big bad world we have to interact and thats where we fall down. I am sure that parents of bright children who wish to go to the top universities over the border will be very concerned if their qualifications are not accepted as being as good as those obtained elsewhere. We’ll have to see where all this SEPERATION politics is taking us, but if we get it wrong then our prospects (not good on an even playing field) will be dire!

  5. I’m quite surprised that the report is so enthusiastic for the Welsh Bacc. I recently spoke to the careers advisor at my daughter’s school who explained that the school didn’t provide the Welsh Bacc because they saw it as an irrelevant diversion from necessary qualifications. As he said; “if your daughter has three good A levels then she will get a good university place, if she hasn’t got three good A levels then the Welsh Bacc isn’t going to help.”

    The decision to make an advanced level Welsh Bacc equivalent to an A at A level (120 UCAS points) was a laughable mistake. About 83% of pupils attain the pass in Welsh Bacc, but only 23% get an A at A level.

    Overall I am worried that Wales will have nothing but the PISA assessments to judge itself against once we diverge from whatever happens in England. Do I understand it correctly? Is one body going to have responsibility for producing GCSE and A level papers, marking them, moderating them and providing a guarantee of quality?

    The greater question is this: will the education of Welsh children improve with these changes to the evaluation of that education?

    Michael Gove in England seems to have engaged in a kind of Ideological insanity with the rapid and diverse changes that he has introduced there but he hasn’t got everything wrong. GCSE (the brand) has been devalued by competition to provide the easiest papers between providers, coupled with the need for schools to comply with the measures used in crude league tables. League tables have also resulted in a drift away from “hard” academic subjects, again in response to the demands of League table status. The re-introduction of compulsory Modern Foreign Language teaching is very welcome and the “English Bacc” has already moved schools towards a greater emphasis on traditional academic subjects.

    Whilst schools probably don’t perform at their best whilst under continuous threat, some degree of pressure is desirable. Before School Banding was introduced in Wales our schools were altogether too complacent.

  6. Michael Gove is quite frankly Wrong. So is Welsh Education. Scrap both of them and everything will be alright.

    Cambridge and Oxford are the worlds 2nd and 3rd top universities. How many of students there are Welsh? Very few. The Welsh Education system should aspire to be like the English. My best teacher in school is English, he comes from Witney in Oxfordshire. The worst, a teacher from Bridgend, who is head of those crap PSE “Key Skills”.
    The Welsh Education system is quite frankly mucked up. The introduction of this bilingualism is silly as Primary Schools are focusing on Welsh Skills rather than English skills, one of the most widely used languages in the world. This hinders pupils, such as myself, further in life as they do not have the qualifications that English Students do (I am currently doing a Welsh GCSE – It is compulsory). The grades achieved have also been proved to be worse.

    Grow up Wales…

  7. Indeed they were too complacent. As a matter of fact they are still too complacent. The IWA’s original work on and proposal for a Welsh Bac, based on the IB with some technical bits added, was coherent. It was thoroughly gutted and the least rigorous bits introduced alongside A-levels, which were retained. As others have pointed out, that largely defeated the object. Now we are keeping GCSEs, A-levels and the corpse of the Welsh bac. And we are congratulating ourselves on our prudence in retaining this dogs’ dinner. Complacency is not an adequate word. However, until we restore standards, I fear Wales cannot afford its own qualifications. No-one will believe them. Perhaps our schools should just adopt the international bac for the academic streams.

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