Emyr George recounts the route taken to ensure qualifications in Wales keep up with curriculum changes
It may sound like a cliché, but Wales is on an exciting journey when it comes to education and reform. The Curriculum for Wales introduced this year means that qualifications have to change to reflect how, and what, learners are taught.
That gives us the biggest opportunity for more than a generation to reshape and reimagine the qualifications studied by our young people. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but this is devolution in action, with Wales forging our very own unique path in a rapidly changing world. Cliché after cliché, I know. But it’s all true.
Before I go any further though, let’s rewind a little. Last September, schools across the country began teaching the Curriculum for Wales. The curriculum sets out the requirements and guidance that each school must follow when designing its own broad, balanced curriculum. At its core lie four purposes, to produce learners who are ambitious and capable; healthy, confident individuals; enterprising, creative contributors, and ethical, informed citizens. The first learners following the new curriculum will finish their compulsory education in 2027.
We want all learners to be able to choose from a fully bilingual and inclusive range of qualifications that will help them get the most from the Curriculum for Wales
Qualifications Wales has been closely following the development of the curriculum from the start. Our staff were embedded across the co-construction groups that developed the curriculum itself, to give us an in-depth understanding of its principles and aims. When the draft curriculum was published in 2019, we established Qualified for the Future, a major reform programme to create a qualifications offer that matched the ambitions of the curriculum. Our aim was to reshape and reimagine the full qualifications offer, not only GCSEs – but all qualifications taken by learners aged 14 to 16.
That’s what we’ve been working on over the past three years, in collaboration with hundreds of contributors across dozens of working groups and stakeholder forums. Those groups have included voices from right across Wales, including teachers, lecturers, employers, learned bodies and of course learners themselves, who have told us what they’d like to see from the qualifications of the future.
The result is a brand new set of Made-for-Wales GCSEs that will help realise the ambitions of the Curriculum for Wales and meet the needs of future learners. These new qualifications will reflect the knowledge, skills and experiences gained by learners so they can move forward confidently into the next chapter of their lives.
These new GCSEs will include:
- flexible content and assessments to help schools design their own curriculums that meet the needs of their learners
- a broader mix of assessment methods, with less emphasis on exams and more opportunities for learners to be assessed during their course of study
- more effective use of digital technology in assessments
In addition, Qualifications Wales has just launched a new consultation on proposals to reshape what we call the ‘Full 14-16 Qualifications Offer’. Our aim is to streamline the qualifications offer, to make it easier for schools and learners to understand the choices available to them. We want all learners to be able to choose from a fully bilingual and inclusive range of qualifications that will help them get the most from the Curriculum for Wales, and help prepare them for life, learning and work.
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As well as the new Made-for-Wales GCSEs, the Full 14-16 Offer will include a suite of flexible and unit-based qualifications to help develop skills for life and work – an area that learners and employers have told us is important. A comprehensive range of pre-vocational qualifications will offer learners a chance to gain practical knowledge, skills and experiences in work-related contexts. Whilst, for learners who aren’t ready to take GCSEs, a choice of Foundation qualifications at Entry Level and Level 1 will recognise their achievements and give a solid basis for progressing successfully to post-16 learning.
We believe that this simpler, more inclusive qualifications offer will help learners to make better informed choices and gain a broader, more balanced and engaging mix of achievements. It will broaden horizons with more variety and opportunities to explore future aspirations and career pathways. And it will enhance personal development, health and wellbeing, helping learners to overcome barriers.
There is, however, still a way to go. Our recent public consultation on the proposed content and assessment of new Made-for-Wales GCSEs generated a wealth of rich, qualitative feedback. Proposals for new combined GCSEs in the Sciences, Cymraeg, English and Mathematics gained particular attention.
Continuing with our collaborative approach, our working groups are currently considering all points raised through the GCSE consultation. They are helping us to review and refine our proposals to make sure these qualifications are everything they can possibly be.
During the summer term we will publish the final design requirements for the new Made-for-Wales GCSEs, along with a report on the consultation and the decisions we have taken. Right now, we’re working hard on getting the detail right. For example, on how we balance the different forms of assessment included in each new GCSE and how those assessments will work in practice. And making sure that these qualifications will include genuine opportunities for learners to engage with important cross-cutting Curriculum for Wales themes such as diversity, cynefin and sustainability.
For over 30 years, schools in Wales have adhered to an off-the-shelf, rigid and prescribed curriculum. That is about to change into something more organic, dynamic and school-led.
With any major education reforms, there will always be questions about what effect the changes will have on learners. One key issue that’s been discussed, both inside and outside Wales, is the currency and value of the new Made-for-Wales qualifications. Will they, for instance, be valued by colleges, universities and employers across the UK, not to mention overseas?
Qualifications Wales has, and is continuing to do, a huge amount of work with employers, universities and further education bodies across the UK to explain why these changes are happening and what they could mean in practice. It’s fair to say that the response so far has been extremely positive.
Employers are excited to be involved in the design of these qualifications, to help learners gain the skills they want to in future employees. Colleges and universities support the idea of learners gaining a broader and more balanced mix of qualifications at 16, before deciding on the pathways that are right for them. They also recognise the importance of our role as the independent regulator in ensuring that qualifications will provide fair and reliable measures of attainment. We’ve not heard anything to suggest that these new qualifications will disadvantage learners when applying for future courses or jobs. Indeed many of those we’ve spoken to are excited by the potential advantages and benefits they see. Much of that, I believe, is because we have involved so many different stakeholders early and continuously in the conversation.
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It’s at times like these that Wales’ size, or rather lack of it, works to our advantage. Throughout this process, we’ve been able to get everyone around the table – sometimes figuratively speaking, sometimes in person – to really work out the best ways of tackling these reforms. That closeness, that intimacy, enables people to be clearer about the ways in which they agree, as well as disagree. It helps us to bounce off each other, share ideas and think about the future. It is also – and we’re back to the clichés here – what has made us come to think of this as a journey.
For over 30 years, schools in Wales have adhered to an off-the-shelf, rigid and prescribed curriculum. That is about to change into something more organic, dynamic and school-led. As schools become more familiar with the Curriculum of Wales, so you can expect their own individual curriculums to evolve, with the focus being around what is right for their learners. Welsh Government plans to overhaul the school evaluation and improvement system will further support this shift.
While these reforms represent the culmination of several years’ hard work and collaboration, they are not the end of the road. They are more a significant milestone on a longer journey.
While we can’t predict the future, you don’t need a crystal ball to know one thing for certain – no matter how good these qualifications are, they will need to adapt and change to remain fit-for-purpose in a fast-moving world. The curriculum will evolve as schools gain more experience and confidence in designing and adapting their own curriculums. The pace at which digital technology shapes how we live, work and learn will keep accelerating. And our knowledge and understanding about how young people learn and develop, and the barriers they face, will continue to grow.
If I’ve learned anything from working on qualifications reforms for the past 15 years, it’s that achieving meaningful change takes time. Often, the qualifications we gain in life have a very real impact on our sense of self and aspirations. When young people’s futures are at stake, it’s right that any changes are carefully planned and thought through. But that is also why it’s crucial that we continue exploring new ideas. Challenging conventional wisdom, and seek out new ways of doing things.
Over the next couple of years, we will be commissioning research to ensure our qualifications system keeps pace with social and economic change. This research will allow us to look more broadly at the role that qualifications play in the system to support learning and enable progression to future life, learning and work. We’ll share our findings and ideas as we go so that, together, we can co-create a longer-term vision for a qualification system that’s truly fit for future generations.