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Possibly one of the biggest education stories of the year was the publication of the much awaited Qualifications Review. The Report, published at the end of November, was the result of consulting many stakeholders in Wales and beyond. The presence of four Department of Education officials on the Review board makes it unlikely that its recommendations will be rejected by the Ministers.
The Report is not a reply to the big questions being posed elsewhere about grade inflation, international comparisons, or the very purpose of high stakes testing at 16. It is rather a route map for qualifications in Wales over the next few years. Having decided overwhelmingly that we do not wish to follow Mr Gove into his English Baccalaureate Certificates Wales will now need to go its own way and plough its own course.
There is much in the Report that teachers will accept: youngsters in Wales will continue to study GCSEs until 16, and then proceed to A levels or suitable vocational qualifications; GCSEs will be made more rigorous; there will be two maths GCSEs one for numeracy and one for ‘mathematics techniques; the Welsh Bacc will be augmented and strengthened; introductory vocational qualifications will still be available pre-16 but their uptake will be restricted. Finally, the regulation of standards will be given to a new arm’s length body, Qualifications Wales, which will regulate, accredit and award qualifications.
The Report has been broadly welcomed by teachers who like its incremental approach – far more palatable than the scorched earth policy across the border. GCSEs are well known, and largely well regarded. So the theory of the report has received little adverse criticism from the profession. It is the practice and implementation of that vision that are now causing some concern. Not so much the three Rs this time as the three Ps.
Firstly, there is the perennial Welsh problem of pounds and pence. Until the present Minister started to reverse the trend our education system compared to other countries in the UK has been starved of cash. Even now we spend far less than our neighbours. Qualification development and its concomitant curriculum reform can be costly. With the going rate being about 5,000 takers or more to break even it looks as if choice could well be narrowed for students.
Secondly, there are concerns about preparation. Teachers know that any qualification change and concomitant curriculum reform takes time and has to be prepared for. There was quite a bit of anger when GCSE English specifications were abruptly revised earlier in the term. Hopefully, that was a one off but teachers will need to feel they have time to bed in any reforms. It would be wise if the two ‘extra’ inset days which have disappeared from the calendar were quickly restored to facilitate the change in specifications – and also the introduction of the new Literacy and Numeracy Frameworks. The ‘extra’ maths GCSE will need careful role out in particular.
Finally, quite a number of teachers have expressed concerns about portability – this new qualifications regime has to be accepted and respected across the UK, especially in England. This will require far more than the communications strategy talked about in the Report – though it will require that too. The qualifications will have to show their own inherent value to an employer and university market that will run far beyond Wales. The English universities, especially the ‘blue chip’ ones, will need to be convinced of their worth and value. No amount of flag waving will cover shoddy goods. And make no mistake about it some will want to rubbish what we do; there are already those on the Tory right who have labelled then as second class.
So, an interesting few years are ahead. There really was no other option open to us but to plough our own furrow on this one – we could not follow Mr Gove into the darkness. But if we are to ensure that our youngsters get a better deal some real hard work and real hard talking lies ahead.
Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru