GCSEs live to see another day in Wales and NI

12th October 2012 at 01:00
Devolved nations say they may keep 'fit for purpose' exams

The GCSE may soon be consigned to the history books in England, replaced by Michael Gove's English Baccalaureate Certificates, but in Wales and Northern Ireland there are signs that the exam could live on.

The education ministers of the two devolved nations have each signalled that they are willing to keep the GCSE as the academic qualification of choice for 14- to 16-year-olds.

Last week, both Leighton Andrews in Wales and John O'Dowd in Northern Ireland said they considered the exams currently being sat by their pupils to be "fit for purpose".

Mr O'Dowd also said that past GCSE pupils should be "proud" of their achievements. However, the two education ministers have pledged to review both GCSEs and A levels to make sure that they remain relevant for pupils.

The Welsh government's probe is part of a wide-ranging review of 14-19 qualifications. A report is due next month, but no changes will be made until at least 2014.

Mr O'Dowd last week announced that he was commissioning Northern Ireland's Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment to conduct a "root and branch" review of GCSEs and A levels. A final report is due in June next year.

Both ministers claim they have pitched their approaches to reform in direct contrast to that taken by Michael Gove: research and consultation against political philosophy and unilateralism. They had already vowed not to follow England's lead in phasing out the modular element of GCSEs in favour of a purely linear approach, with Wales consulting on the matter in the qualifications review and Northern Ireland allowing its schools to decide what is best for pupils.

Last week, Mr O'Dowd said it was "regrettable" that Mr Gove had chosen to break away from the "three jurisdiction" ownership of GCSEs. It is clear that both ministers are growing increasingly frustrated with the approach of the Westminster education secretary. Earlier this summer, they wrote to Mr Gove to say they were concerned at a lack of prior notice on decisions regarding jointly owned qualifications, and requested a meeting to discuss future communication arrangements. Last week, Mr O'Dowd said that request had been refused.

He told fellow members of the Northern Ireland Assembly: "We may not be on the same page on many things, but he has refused to meet me, and I understand that he has also refused to meet the Welsh education minister on the subject of exams.

"He has offered me a meeting with one of his junior ministers and, setting my ego aside, I may well take him up on that offer. However, I believe that Michael Gove, as secretary of state for education in England, should meet his counterparts."

A spokesman for the Welsh government confirmed that Mr Gove had refused to meet both education ministers.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education in Westminster said: "The ministers of state for Wales and Northern Ireland requested a meeting to discuss exam reform. They have been invited to meet with the minister for education and childcare, Elizabeth Truss. As minister responsible for qualification reform, she is best-placed to discuss this."

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, the Welsh government has taken control of the English language GCSE following this summer's regrading controversy. It follows its decision to force the WJEC exam board to regrade thousands of papers after a review found serious issues with the marking methodology.

The changes, which affect current Year 10 candidates who will sit the exam in 2014, will see a direct switch in the balance of assessment, with 40 per cent controlled and 60 per cent external. A requirement to study spoken language will be dropped. The government said it has a "working assumption" that the WJEC will be the only exam board to offer the qualification in Wales.

Anna Brychan, director of the NAHT Cymru heads' union, said the decision was a "sensible way forward" and would start a debate between the three countries on GCSEs."


New statistics have revealed that more than half of pupils in Wales reached the coveted level 2 threshold this year.

Figures released by the Welsh government show that 50.5 per cent of entrants gained five A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English or Welsh first language and maths. The figure is 0.4 percentage points higher than in 2010-11.

This year, only 1.2 per cent of 15-year-olds achieved no recognised qualification, a decrease of 0.6 percentage points compared with 2010-11.

Equivalent figures for England are set to be released on 18 October.

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