Wales turns its back on Gove's exam revolution
While the government in Westminster presses ahead with controversial plans to scrap GCSEs, ministers in Cardiff Bay have announced that they have no intention to follow suit, signalling the first major break with England's qualifications system since devolution more than a decade ago.
Reforms to A levels in England - which will stop AS levels counting towards final grades - are also likely to be ignored in Wales, ministers have suggested. Instead, Wales will create a more rigorous version of the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate, which will encompass GCSEs, A levels and vocational options.
Jeff Cuthbert, Wales' deputy minister for skills, said: "Unlike (education secretary Michael) Gove, we and our stakeholders have confidence in these well-established and recognised qualifications, which command respect with employers and universities around the world."
Not only will GCSEs be retained but new exams in English language, Welsh first language, numeracy and maths techniques will be developed. In England, GCSEs in core subjects are due to be scrapped for pupils starting courses in 2015 and replaced with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). A further announcement on the future of AS and A levels is expected soon but Mr Cuthbert said there was "little appeal" in Mr Gove's recent "unilateral announcements" on the matter.
However, the Welsh government knows it could face confusion and even scepticism about the value of its qualifications, particularly from employers and universities in England. Later this year it will launch a major UK-wide strategy to raise their profile and promote their benefits.
"We will provide clarity for learners who cross the Welsh border from their home to their place of learning, in either direction, about what the changes mean for them," said Mr Cuthbert.
The announcement on exams revealed that the Welsh government had "broadly accepted" all 42 recommendations of an inde- pendent review of 14-19 qualifications published last November.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, praised the decision in the face of "uncertainty" in England. "We are already starting to see the implications of rushed changes in England," he said. "We welcome the Welsh government's considered decision to retain and strengthen the GCSE brand, which is understood and appreciated across the world."
But Mr Lightman acknowledged that the government will have to be proactive in promoting the changes. "It will need to make sure universities and employers know about the qualifications and that enough information is available for them," he said.
"However, we are a long way from the EBCs being implemented and accepted, so the Welsh government has plenty of time to show it has a stable and high-quality qualifications system."
Anna Brychan, director of NAHT Cymru, the school leaders' union, said making sure Wales' qualifications are understood beyond its borders would be a "significant task". "It will not simply be a matter of getting it right; it will be a matter of persuading many others, some of whom may be reluctant, to accept that we have," she said. "This report does plot a different path for Wales over coming years; certainly divergence from England is now much more clearly defined.
"We are happy with that - not as an end in itself but because our members here, and in England, have considerable doubt about the proposals for change there and their effect on learners."
Northern Ireland could soon follow Wales' lead. Last October John O'Dowd, Stormont's Sinn Fein education minister, began a "root and branch review" of GCSEs and A levels. He asked the region's Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment to look at the benefits of keeping the qualifications and said he did not want to initiate "change for change's sake". The review is expected to report back in June.
A war of words has broken out between the head of Wales' leading exam board and the Welsh government over plans to make major changes to the country's qualifications system.
Gareth Pierce, head of WJEC, said plans to merge exam awarding and regulatory functions into a new body, Qualifications Wales, could cause "immense damage" if handled incorrectly.
But a government spokesman accused the Cardiff-based exam board of being in denial. "Either the WJEC plays a constructive role in these discussions or the government may have to take another course of action," he said.