Wales makes declaration of independence over exams

The country could go it alone with bespoke GCSEs and A levels

Darren Evans

A major shake-up of qualifications in Wales could lead to GCSEs and A levels being scrapped in their current form.

A wide-ranging review of qualifications was launched by the Welsh government earlier this year in an effort to simplify the system. More than 17,000 qualifications are currently available to those aged 14 or older in Wales, with 6,500 considered "live". All are eligible for public funding.

The review board, led by Huw Evans, former principal of Coleg Llandrillo Cymru, announced its initial findings last week and launched a consultation containing more than 50 points for discussion.

One of the suggestions up for debate is an overarching qualification for Wales, possibly developed from the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate, to make sure pupils receive a "well-rounded and coherent education".

The report suggests that in the short to medium term, GCSEs, A levels and recognised vocational qualifications should be retained. But in the longer term, it says, "there is a case for considering new types of qualification".

Wales has already distanced itself from England in its approach to GCSEs, keeping modular exams while England reverts to an entirely linear system. But the consultation document goes further, saying: "In the longer term there may be a case for rethinking the emphasis on external qualifications at 16... The board believes that GCSEs in Wales may well, in future, need to be different in content and assessment from those offered in England."

The document says further divergence between the two countries should be allowed in order to meet the needs of Welsh learners, adding: "Changes in England do not necessarily reflect the policy objectives of the Welsh government, such as social and educational inclusion."

Another major line of inquiry is the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification. Ministers have already agreed with an early recommendation from the board that the Bac be graded at advanced level to help with higher education admissions.

Currently, the advanced diploma is worth 120 Ucas points, but not every university accepts it. A study published last month by Cardiff University, for example, brought the value of the qualification into question when it found that students without the Bac generally performed better at university than those with the qualification.

The consultation document asks whether changes are needed and whether the Bac should become a general qualification across Wales.

Speaking to TES, Mr Evans said: "The qualifications system isn't broken by any means. But it was a system that was designed 25 years ago and modified along the way.

"This review gives us the opportunity to take a long, hard look at where we are going. The kind of tram tracks we lay down here will lead to Wales having a global standing and will contribute to a significant increase in educational standards."

The consultation document has been generally well received by teaching unions, but there is disagreement over how much Wales should diverge from England.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru, said: "We are now in a position to develop collaboratively a curriculum and qualifications system fit for the 21st century, as opposed to the changes being imposed in England, which seek a return to the mythical golden age of the 1950s."

But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "It is critical that the Welsh government does not develop an isolated examinations system that has no currency outside Wales."

Gareth Jones, secretary of heads' union ASCL Cymru, congratulated the review board on identifying the right questions for debate. "Following its own path on what is the best qualifications framework for Wales has risks, but it is the needs of the young people now and in the future that must guide our planning and decisions," he said.

The consultation will run until August and the review board's final recommendations will be presented to the government in November.

Teacher training

Huw Evans, leader of the qualifications review, suggested that teachers and lecturers in Wales might need more training to better prepare them for assessment and testing.

"I think the volume of assessment (that) teachers and lecturers have to face, and the burden of that work, is too great," he said. "I don't think we have spent enough time providing them with assessment skills and there is a need to invest in those capabilities. We should support and help our teachers with ongoing CPD (continuing professional development)."

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Darren Evans

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