Cardiff bins a swathe of qualifications
For a decade, the pressure has been on for Welsh schools and colleges to offer a wider range of qualifications to 14 to 19-year-olds, but fears have now been raised that quantity is harming quality.
A fall in the number of Welsh students gaining top grades at A-level and a growing GCSE results gap with England has prompted education minister Leighton Andrews to launch a major review. He wants the system to be overhauled to make it simpler and cheaper and has warned that those failing to provide value could see their funding slashed.
The move comes as the quality of 14-19 education is under increasing scrutiny. Earlier this year, Professor Alison Wolf published a groundbreaking review of vocational education in England, which found that many students are on dead-end courses that do not lead to higher education or good jobs.
The Wolf review recommended a radical change of direction and a dramatic simplification of the system. The Welsh Government shares some of the same suspicions and concerns. It wants to find out which qualifications have the greatest value, which are most relevant and should be encouraged, and which may need "health warnings" or need to be scrapped.
Deputy minister for skills Jeff Cuthbert, who has been put in charge of the process, said nothing is being ruled in or out and there are no restrictions on who can give evidence. "We want to be as rational as we can be about the qualifications on offer because we know there is a multitude of vocational qualifications out there that are doing the same thing," he said.
"I don't particularly like the phrase `too much choice'; it has to be informed choice. We are not going to dragoon young people into certain areas of study. We want them to be able to make informed choices and understand what's going to lead to educational progression or employment."
While the review will focus on vocational options, it will also consider assessment more broadly, including the future role of modular GCSEs and whether the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate should be graded.
But the scale and scope of the exercise is causing concern. Robin Hughes, national manager for awarding body OCR Cymru, said there was not enough time to conduct a thorough review. "We expected this to be led by the Wolf report in England and for it to look at vocational options only," he said. "Whether it's by design or by accident, this is a beast of a thing. My concern is that it will approach so many issues all at once that a series of very important questions becomes concertinaed into too short a space of time."
The Database of Approved Qualifications in Wales lists almost 17,000 qualifications currently available to those aged 14 or over, all of which are eligible for public funding.
Mr Hughes said he suspects that a "huge number" of those are lying dormant, "clogging up the system" without any candidates.
"Over the last decade, a swathe of bodies has received funding to develop standards for qualifications, often with little or no consultation or engagement with employers or the people who deliver them," he said. "We put in place mechanisms to support these qualifications, but ultimately nobody wants them."
The review will encourage input from industry in a bid to create a more joined-up approach that will ensure the qualifications students take are valued by employers.
Gareth Pierce, chief executive of Cardiff-based exam board WJEC, said it was essential that Wales had a "coherent" strategy for 14-19 study, especially with the growing popularity of the Welsh Baccalaureate, which incorporates academic study and work-related education.
Given the problems besetting Welsh education in terms of GCSE and A-level results and its ranking in international league tables, the pressure will be on for the review to be at least as radical as that of Professor Wolf.
One thing at least seems certain: in future, if awarding bodies want to get funding, they will have to work harder and jump through more hoops to prove the worth of their qualifications.
THE WOLF REVIEW
The Wolf review of 14-19 vocational education in England:
found that many 14 to 16-year-olds are on courses which lead to dead ends, and a quarter to a third (300,000-400,000) of 16 to 19-year-olds are on courses that do not lead to higher education or good jobs;
recommended incentives to help young people take the most valuable vocational qualifications pre-16, while removing incentives to take large numbers of vocational qualifications to the detriment of core academic study;
suggested enabling FE lecturers and professionals to teach in schools, ensuring that young people are taught by those best suited to their needs.
The UK Government accepted all the review's recommendations.