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.

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