The road to reform

Philip Blaker considers the options for a different approach to GCSEs in Wales

The Curriculum for Wales White Paper has sparked a range of debates, including how Wales’ children will demonstrate their educational achievement at the age of 16.


As the independent regulator, it’s a question we’re focused on and are keen to hear people’s view as we design the future. To help answer it, it’s useful to rewind the clock for context.


The current reforms to GCSEs and A levels were as much a response to qualification reform elsewhere as a reflection of the findings of the 2012 Review of Qualifications. It was a stark choice for Wales: accept the rationale for the major changes made to GCSE and A level design in England, or do something different.


Wales chose to do something different, oddly enough by doing many things in the same way as before, retaining the A* to G grades for GCSEs and keeping AS qualifications as part of A levels.


But Wales’ decision to follow its own path marked the point at which, for the first time, the GCSEs and A levels developed and awarded in Wales would be different to those taken in England.


All of this was before Professor Donaldson’s review and the subsequent development of a new Curriculum for Wales. The response to the new curriculum will see the emergence of a genuinely different approach to GCSEs in Wales.


The new curriculum is for 3 to 16-year olds, with the final two years envisaged as the ‘qualifications phase’. We might see more choice and opportunity for students to specialise and focus in more depth on specific aspects of the curriculum. It’s too early to say what that will look like in practice.


What we do know is that GCSEs are a trusted measure of achievement that command a high level of public confidence. So it’s likely that GCSEs will still exist, but they will need to change to reflect the new curriculum, and may look quite different from today’s GCSEs.


There are many questions that we will need to answer over the next 12 months, but here are three of the key ones and my thoughts on them…



  • Focus, size and structure – breadth or depth?


It’s one thing to keep the GCSE model, but what will individual GCSE qualifications focus on, how will they link to the six “Areas of Learning and Experience” and what depth and breadth of knowledge and experience should they include?


GCSEs currently offer a balance of breadth and depth. They aim to provide learners with a good introduction to a subject area, develop interest in the subject, contribute to a balanced education and provide a basis for further study or employment. Laudable as these aims are, they’ve been undermined by the extensive use of qualifications results in school performance measures.  This means in practice that much curriculum time is prescribed centrally by Government. Does that ensure a balanced education or undermine it? The jury’s out. What is clear, though, is that there’s only so much time available in school, so a balanced education will always require creative solutions and trade-offs.


Given the general aims of GCSEs, it seems strange that there are so few offered in vocational areas of learning. This autumn sees the launch of a new GCSE in Health and Social Care, following our review of qualifications in this crucial employment sector. But more generally there’s been a trend in recent years to move away from GCSEs in vocational contexts and towards GCSEs in traditional ‘academic’ subjects only.  


This seems wrong, and redesigning GCSEs for the new Curriculum for Wales might well be a chance to address this anomaly.  Bringing vocational contexts back into the GCSE fold will go some way to addressing the long-standing issue of parity of esteem between vocational and academic subjects.



  • Grading – A* to G or 9 to 1?


A key recommendation of the Review of Qualifications was to maintain the existing A* to G grade scale. This was when the alternative 9 to 1 grade scale was still only an idea. If asked to keep what’s known and understood or change to something new and poorly understood it is no surprise that most opted to stick with the familiar. But over time – and just through the sheer number of grades awarded – the 9 to 1 grade scale will become dominant across the UK. This may well affect opinions if asked again. So, is now the time to re-think this?


It’s too early to tell whether there is a great upswell of demand for the greater differentiation offered by the 9 to 1 scale, so I don’t see an urgent need for change. Which means I’m inclined towards retaining the A* to G scale and keeping a weather eye on the option to change later – building the option to change into the design of new GCSEs. The issue where I’d rather see a focus is valuing all grades awarded in GCSEs and not reinforcing the misperception that anything awarded below grade C is failure. It only undermines achievement that will be hard fought for some.



  • Fairness v freedom – how to strike the right balance? How to secure fairness for learners without undermining the principle of flexibility intended by the new curriculum?


For GCSEs, the knowledge, understanding and skills that students must cover are set out in the specification and the assessment materials produced by the awarding body.


A fundamental test of fairness for a qualification is that teachers and learners understand what is expected of them. A qualification needs a specification otherwise learners may be presented with questions covering areas that they have not been taught. The key is to find a balance that prescribes enough detail to satisfy fairness, but leaves space for teachers to tailor the curriculum to suit their learners. Ultimately a good education is about far more than exam results. None of us want a reductive model of education, where only what’s in the test gets taught.


As reform moves forward, and Wales chooses the best route for the journey, I’ll be returning to these fundamental questions. They’re open for more exploration and debate and I’d welcome the thoughts of others.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Philip Blaker is Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales, the independent regulator of publicly funded qualifications, including GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications.

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