A credit path for us all

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The proposed English diploma and Welsh bac need a common currency, writes Gareth Pierce

The Tomlinson proposals for reform of the 14-19 curriculum and qualifications in England need careful consideration in Wales - even though education is devolved to our own government.

But the existence of a "Tomlinson diploma" should not mean that Wales is irredeemably driven to the same curriculum and assessment structures as England. Indeed, there are features of the Tomlinson proposals which would allow each of our two nations to develop its own system of curriculum and qualifications, underpinned by a common standard.

The need for a common standard is important because of the two-way flow of people between Wales and England in the higher education and employment sectors. The National Qualifications Framework for England, Wales and Northern Ireland recognises the concept of "portable" qualifications, and a common currency of learning "credits" seems the appropriate next step for 14-19 qualifications.

Such an approach is at an early stage of development in Wales (the credit and qualifications framework), while Tomlinson proposes a credit system for measuring the amount of learning undertaken and for aggregating chunks of learning into whole diplomas.

Within a common credit framework, governments would be able to emphasise important differences in curriculum content.

For example, the Welsh Assembly's guidance on 14-19 reforms, Learning Pathways, sets out a "core" that all learners should study. This includes Welsh language skills; Wales, Europe and the world; and community participation opportunities and creative experiences.

These meet the needs of a bilingual society on the periphery of Europe with particular social and economic needs - but do not feature in Tomlinson's core (of functional literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology skills, and an extended research or practical project).

This would likely mean that Wales's learning core might be larger than the illustrative 60 core credits in Tomlinson's 180-credit diploma (complemented by 120 credits of A-level, GCSE or vocational-style learning).

But a common currency would still ensure that a Welsh baccalaureate, requiring a total of 180 credits, represented the same amount of learning as a 180-credit diploma in England.

While pioneering work is needed to establish a robust common credit regime to measure the volume of learning across the successors to GCSE and GCE study modules, awarding bodies are experienced in comparing the level of the chunks of learning that generate those credits.

This would allow both an English diploma and a Welsh baccalaureate to be constructed from programmes of study that are equivalent in volume and level, while reflecting potentially different curriculum emphases and accommodating individual pathways chosen by learners.

There might also be good reason for differences in the proportion of teacher assessment in the two countries. Wales would already seem to be placing greater emphasis on teacher assessment as key stage tests at 11 and 14 are discontinued. Meanwhile, England might retain a largely external system.

In the interests of overall balance, and taking account of teacher workloads, there might be a case for a greater proportion of external assessment at 14-19 in Wales.

Awarding bodies are familiar with the need to establish comparability across options having different proportions of internal assessment, so this discretion in assessment design can also be accommodated.

Tomlinson prudently refers to the need for robust evidence that a system predominantly based on teacher judgement can operate effectively and fairly.

Experience suggests there are implications for teachers' workload in having a system that ensures internal assessments are reliable.

Likewise, there are well-known dangers in the statistical use of external tests to moderate teachers' assessments. The high premium placed on external marks can distort an element's importance way beyond its intended weighting. Rather than having to accept a pre-determined mix of internal and external assessment, Wales should develop a framework based on its own view of the balance between complementary forms of assessment.

Wales also needs to respond to the challenge of raising the profile of assessment within the profession. There are alternatives to Tomlinson's proposed "chartered assessor" structure and Institute of Assessment based in England.

There is the potential for developing a strong, Wales-based coalition for professional development relating to assessment. The key players would need to include universities providing teacher training and professional development, the General Teaching Council for Wales, local authorities and Estyn, and the WJEC, the Welsh exams board.

With Learning Pathways as the policy framework, and with early practical experience of the Welsh baccalaureate, we should be confident that Wales can develop 14-19 curriculum and assessment arrangements that can co-exist with, and not be overshadowed by, the implementation of Tomlinson.

Gareth Pierce is chief executive of the WJEC

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