The qualifications systems in England and Wales are set to dramatically diverge after a major review recommended that Wales retain GCSEs and A levels and ignore developments over the border, including the return of O-level-style exams.
Instead, Wales should strengthen its own skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate qualification and launch a UK-wide campaign to promote the value of its exams, according to a government-commissioned review published this week. It also proposes a wholesale shake-up of the way qualifications are regulated following this summer's English GCSE debacle, which resulted in public rows between Ofqual and the Welsh government, the current regulator of exams in Wales.
Led by Huw Evans, former principal of Coleg Llandrillo Cymru, the review of qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds has involved an "extensive and thorough" consultation with educationalists since September 2011. Its report contains 42 recommendations for the Welsh government, setting out a framework for the qualifications system in Wales and addressing the need for "rigour and confidence".
Wales already has a skills-led Welsh Bac, which pupils study alongside GCSEs and A levels and which includes vocational study, work experience and community service. The review suggests that a revised and more rigorous Welsh Bac should be at the heart of the qualifications system for full-time learners aged 14-19 in the school and FE sectors.
Despite the recent controversy over GCSEs and the subsequent announcement in England that they will be scrapped in favour of English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) in English, maths and science, the review found that GCSEs were "overwhelmingly supported" in Wales.
It not only recommends that they should be retained, but also that new GCSEs should be established in English language, Welsh first language, numeracy and mathematics techniques. Where suitable, the review says some GCSEs should be allowed to be modular or tiered, although early entry should be discouraged. A levels should also be retained, but variation should be permitted when necessary to meet the needs of learners in Wales. It says employers and universities should have a role in developing and accrediting some A levels.
The review controversially concludes that a single body should be set up to regulate all qualifications available in Wales, taking regulatory decisions out of the hands of the government. The new body, called Qualifications Wales, would be based on the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
The report was widely welcomed by teaching groups. Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said the Welsh Bac proposals were "very welcome". Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said it was "good" to see recommendations that GCSEs should be retained and the Welsh Bac augmented.
"As Wales and England diverge over the next few years, this incremental approach to change has much to recommend it," Dr Dixon added.
Angela Burns, the Conservative shadow education minister, said: "After a series of damning league tables and statistics laying bare failings in the Welsh education system, we need robust qualifications to restore confidence and drive up standards to meet the best in international comparisons."
The Welsh government will respond formally to the recommendations by the end of January. Deputy minister for skills Jeff Cuthbert called it "an extremely thorough, well considered and valuable report".
"Our young people deserve to have confidence in their qualification system," he added. "The purpose of this review was to ensure that the qualifications available to learners in Wales are relevant, valued and understood.
"An important part of this is making sure that qualifications available in Wales are recognised and valued not only in Wales, but also across the border and worldwide."
SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Recommended changes to GCSEs in Wales:
- Modular GCSEs in January and June sittings should be allowed, but only one resit per unit.
- Tiered GCSEs and controlled assessment should be permitted when there is a clear case for doing so.
- At least 40 per cent of assessment should take place at the end of a course.
- Short-course or double-award GCSEs should only be allowed when justified on a subject-by-subject basis.
- Early entry (pre-Year 11) should be discouraged.