Just before Christmas I had the rather daunting privilege of chairing a conference in Cardiff convened by the ever-busy Institute of Welsh Affairs and sponsored by the OCR exam board. Its title was: ‘Curriculum and Qualifications in a future Wales and United Kingdom’. A pretty wide brief therefore but it did strike me more than once as the day went on that we might have added ‘the world’ to the geographic description and ‘past and present’ to the temporal label. Qualifications in Wales must be understood and respected way beyond the boundaries of the United Kingdom; considering the future without learning the lessons of the present and the past won’t work either.
The impetus for the conference was of course the publication of the 14-19 Qualifications Review. We will hear the Minister, Leighton Andrews’ response to the majority of the recommendations at the end of January, but the broad outlines appear to be agreed. We will keep but strengthen GCSEs, retain A-levels and deliver them under the umbrella of a wider qualification, a refined (and graded at advanced level) Welsh Baccalaureate. Our proposed new qualifications structure will also include vocational qualifications within the Welsh Baccalaureate umbrella post 16, leaving pupils able to choose a vocational or an academic Welsh Baccalaureate or a Bacc that includes elements of both.
There is general agreement in Wales that these proposals make sense and will allow a clear progression route for all students leading to an accredited outcome that will speed them on their further educational or employment journey. The majority of delegates at the conference considered it entirely appropriate to celebrate the level of consensus achieved; it was after all forged over twelve months through detailed engagement with all who have an interest in these matters. One dissenter, a Western Mail columnist who provides a regular (and necessary) corrective to educational consensus, condemned it as a display of ‘rampant self-congratulation’ but most of us would frankly rather do it this way than the Michael Gove school of policy making; I will tell you what I want done, then you tell me how you’ll do it.
So far so good therefore. We have our direction of travel; the qualifications bus, as the 14-19 Review’s indefatigable chairman, Huw Evans has helpfully taken to characterise it, has taken on passengers and is ready to go. Journey’s end is five years away.
Wednesday’s conference was largely concerned with the detail of the map and, critically, how to avoid potholes and unprofitable side roads on the way.
Between them conference delegates and speakers provided a broad spectrum of the kind of voices and experiences that can help us on that journey. Professor David Reynolds (another Western Mail contributor who helpfully voices a contrary view when we risk excessively comfortable agreement in Wales) questioned whether the Review had sufficiently addressed the implications of PISA testing and the economic imperative of ensuring a better position for Wales in the international league table. Two examination board Chief Executives (Gareth Pierce from WJEC and Mark Dawe of OCR) explained the context in which they operate. I was mischievously moved to point out that other exam board bosses were on that day otherwise engaged in the High Court trying to defend their role in this summer’s GCSE English grading scandal but that said, what exam boards have to say should matter to us.
So what of the detail for eager map readers? Very shortly after the publication of the Review recommendations, Leighton Andrews announced that he was taking forward one of the proposals immediately – the creation of Qualifications Wales, the body that will, in time, become responsible for regulating, accrediting and awarding post-14 qualifications in Wales. Huw Evans will drive this bus too and will get into the driving seat in January.
There is no doubt that many issues raised at Wednesday’s conference will be further debated over coming months. One of these issues is the creation of this new body. That regulating our examinations should become a function apart from Government is universally accepted. Although the swift action on GCSE regrading in Wales this summer was effectively enabled by having the Government as regulator, it is not sustainable in the longer term. In order to demonstrate the rigour of our Welsh qualifications over time, our regulatory structure will have to be seen to be independent as well as being independent in practice. It is for this same reason that some of the contributors in Wednesday’s conference were more cautious about giving the new body the accreditation and awarding powers as well. How easy will it be to persuade the dubious and downright reluctant that there are no potential conflicts of interest inherent in this range of responsibilities which might damage the credibility of our qualifications?
The second question concerned the design and delivery of the qualifications themselves. Much of this was new territory for me. Examination Boards, such as OCR and WJEC create qualifications to service largely politically-driven curricular imperatives. The design and development of qualifications does not come cheap; most exam boards subsidise less popular (but very important) subjects through funds raised by qualifications that attract a larger market share. OCR argued that 5000 learners need to take a qualification to make it viable. That’s a big number in a Welsh context. We will have to ponder the implications of that.
Equally important was the question of how universities respond to different assessment arrangements, particularly at A level; will some consider modular assessment a less reliable predictor of student skill levels than the linear English model? Most people working in our school system believe that judging an individual’s ability in one all-or-nothing exam at the end of a course, as is planned in England, is a pedagogical nonsense (and it should be remembered that universities themselves use modular assessment). But if there is something in this argument, we will have to address it.
Then there was PISA. David Reynolds questioned whether our qualifications will be sufficiently mindful of the need to enable pupils to deal adequately with PISA-style questioning. There is widespread acceptance that PISA and our ranking in its international league table is important but Prof Reynolds outlined a continuously changing PISA landscape; what they test and how they test it is not fixed. He also conceded that in many respects success in PISA describes a culture at least as much as it does an education system; Finland is a nation of readers, Shanghai parents are uniformly and overwhelmingly engaged in their children’s education. PISA does not illustrate the effect of education or an education system; it describes a culture whose education system is part of the whole. So is it feasible to drive Welsh success in PISA simply by improving the education system?
At the end of the conference, we all decided that we would like to reconvene in a year’s time to see whether we had in intervening twelve months, together, contributed to a process that deserves a renewed bout of ‘rampant self-congratulation’. We all hoped so. Importantly too, everyone in the room seemed willing to play their part in making that happen.