Qualifications Wales faces tough test

Robin Hughes addresses the difficult questions surrounding the new body that will regulate the Welsh examination and qualification system

The Review of Qualifications for 14-19 year olds published at the end of November made 42 recommendations that plot a distinctive new course for Wales. In many ways this was the easy bit. Now we have the harder task of implementation. So it is encouraging that the Welsh Government has already begun. It will respond in detail next month but has already moved quickly to accept one of the Review’s recommendations, the creation of Qualifications Wales to be responsible for the regulation and quality assurance of all non-degree level qualifications available in Wales.  In a Written Statement on 5 December, it said a new body to regulate qualifications would be established:

“In time, Qualifications Wales should take responsibility for developing and awarding most qualifications for learners 14-16. For learners post-16, Qualifications Wales should develop and award most general qualifications and should also regulate qualifications from other awarding organisations. The Welsh Government and Qualifications Wales should work together to shape the national qualifications system for Wales and to rationalise and strengthen the processes for regulation and continuous improvement, learning from the model in operation in Scotland.”

Curriculum and qualifications in a future Wales and UK

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Keynote speakers: Huw Evans, Chair of the Qualifications Review, Professor Ken Spurs, University of London; Professor David Reynolds, University of Southampton

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. In England Education Secretary Michael Gove is demanding a return to an Ebacc ‘O-level’ examination-based system. In Wales Education Minister Leighton Andrews is defending the GCSE approach that includes valuing continual assessment and parity of esteem for vocational subjects.

The chair of the Review, Huw Evans, has now been tasked with leading the work to establish Qualifications Wales and detailed proposals are expected by mid-2013. Among the critical factors that now need to be considered are:  capacity, complexity, comparability and courage.

Capacity  Not-for-profit exam boards (like OCR and WJEC) use the money received from exam fees and other sources to develop qualifications and to support teachers who deliver them. The Report has recommended that new GCSEs and new variants of the Welsh Baccalaureate be developed. Who is going to foot the bill for developing the new qualifications identified by this Report if the qualification – or the exam board – is going to be nationalised in the near future?

The new qualifications are meant to reflect a vigorous focus on literacy and numeracy. This is a shift towards a skills-based curriculum. How will teachers be supported to adopt this change, especially as the regional support services remain in flux?

Complexity  In recent times large-scale reform of qualifications have disappointed, to say the least. Why? Perhaps too much was hoped for, and too many purposes were attempted all at once. Too many stakeholders were involved in excessive checking and counter-balancing (too many or too few are both undesirable). Whatever good that was intended got lost and money was wasted.

There’s already some complexity emerging here. There is talk of ‘subject panels’ doing something alongside the new agency, and employers second guessing teachers on qualifications for the classroom. Meanwhile, another part of Welsh Government is developing a funding programme for post-16s that includes totally separate panels selecting which qualifications will be funded (and therefore used) from lists that the aforementioned panels have already passed as fit for purpose.

Comparability  Will all this deliver qualifications that are valued and which secure progression for young people? This is the most important test of all. As a parent of a child who will be starting her GCSEs in September 2015, when all the reforms are meant to bite, I’m as keen as anyone that learners in Wales will be able to achieve qualifications that are ‘world class’. Above us in all respected international rankings are countries like Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong – some of whom depend on teacher-led assessment and some on qualifications like the GCSE. These approaches and these countries are not very evident in the recommendations, although Scotland is.

A clear commitment to pegging the new Welsh qualifications to a robust international standard would help create confidence in what our young people are achieving. Such confidence, and using recognised branded qualifications where appropriate, would make the certificates our young people achieve acceptable anywhere, from Rhondda to Surrey Heath.


Courage  We’ve all been asked if we have the courage to have our 16-year-olds achieving many qualifications that are different here to those done in England.  You can understand why the question is asked. However, the debate now needs to move onto the practical steps that ensure that ‘home grown’ qualifications are respected both here and abroad. Ignore the extremes – ‘it has to be good/it has to be bad, if it’s made in Wales’ (delete as appropriate).  This really is about getting the implementation right.

Robin Hughes is National Manager of OCR Cymru, a provider of GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications in Wales

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