Minister to resurrect regulator in shock U-turn

14th December 2012 at 00:00
Wales will have independent body to oversee exams again

Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews delighted teachers and pupils this summer by ordering a regrade of thousands of GCSE English papers affected by the marking fiasco. Now, however, he is giving up the power that allowed him to make that call.

Having spent months insisting that he would remain as the country's education minister and its exams regulator, Mr Andrews has made a U-turn and decided to reinstate an independent regulator.

The move follows repeated clashes between Mr Andrews and his opponents in both England and Wales, who claimed that his decision over the regrade was politically motivated. Mr Andrews strongly denied that was the case and robustly defended his decision. For months, he has insisted that Wales does not need an independent regulator, but after a major report into the future of 14-19 qualifications was published earlier this month, he has had a change of heart.

A new body, to be called Qualifications Wales, will be based on the Scottish Qualifications Authority and act as both regulator and awarding body.

The news was welcomed by many in the education sector who had called for the return of an independent body to restore confidence in the exams system. The previous Welsh regulator, the ACCAC, was abolished six years ago as part of a wider cull of quangos and its powers were handed to the Welsh government.

Cardiff-based exam board WJEC, which was at the centre of this summer's row, said it welcomed a "strengthened" regulator separate from government. "Our view is that this body also needs to be independent of awarding organisations, especially as it manages the risks associated with the ambitious development agenda set out by the review of 14-19 qualifications," a spokeswoman said.

OCR Cymru also welcomed the news. Its national manager Robin Hughes said: "Qualifications Wales will immediately have a lot to do, with many new qualifications and arrangements to manage. It will have a better chance of getting that right if it isn't also trying to do all the other jobs that come with awarding the qualifications. And getting this right is key to having qualifications that people have confidence in."

Teaching unions were also pleased. NUT Cymru secretary David Evans said it was necessary to "divorce the minister's regulatory function from the future operation".

But opposition parties in the Welsh Assembly accused the government of a U-turn.

In August, a government spokesman told TES it had "no plans" to bring back ACCAC ("Welsh exam board calls for tougher regulation", 3 August), saying the body's regulatory functions were now fulfilled by the government. In September, Mr Andrews said that Wales' regulatory system "worked" and that Welsh ministers did "not need to hide behind an external regulator".

Angela Burns, the Conservative shadow education minister, said: "This U-turn dramatically reduces the ability of the minister to interfere in the regulation of qualifications.

"We have consistently called for an independent examinations regulator, which can operate at arm's length from government and take decisions in the best interests of students, untainted by political agendas."

Mr Andrews said: "We are clear as a government that this is the right way forward for us. We will now study and learn from the model that has been in operation in Scotland for some years, and works well there. Considerable thought will be given to the governance, remit, structure and operation of Qualifications Wales."

Former college principal Huw Evans, who chaired the qualifications review (see panel, right), will advise the government on the creation of the new body. Mr Andrews wants to see a detailed proposal and business case in the first half of 2013.

Testing times

The man who led the review of the future of qualifications in Wales warned teachers that they would be "tested" by his proposals.

Speaking at an event held by the Policy Forum for Wales in Cardiff last week, Huw Evans said his 42 recommendations would mean a "major shift" from a knowledge-based qualifications system to a skills-based one.

"That will really test teachers across the country but that's the way forward if we are to survive in the modern world," he said.

Mr Evans also warned the Welsh government not to "cherry-pick" his recommendations because it would risk weakening their overall impact.

The review recommended that Wales keep GCSEs and A levels within a strengthened Welsh Baccalaureate framework.

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