Qualified for what?

ViewsMarch 17th, 2022

In a guest article, Mary van den Heuvel of the National Education Union looks at changes to the examinations system 

What are qualifications for? It is a simple question, but one which is important right now, as young people prepare to be the first year to actually take exams in the summer since 2019.  It’s a tough time for everyone in education. The virus is still with us, and causing higher levels of absence amongst staff and pupils alike.

Young people have had the last two years of their education disrupted by Covid-19; have seen their predecessors take on Centre-Determined Grades to gain their qualifications; and are now more than aware of the power of the algorithm. Their teachers are working flat-out to support them, to do the best for these young people, who have had more struggles than most who sat exams before them. Perhaps it is no surprise then that we consistently see the highest absence levels from schools amongst those sitting exams this year.[1]

But whilst everyone in education rightly rallies around to make sure that those young people are supported, we cannot avoid this opportunity to have those difficult conversations about exams more widely.

Qualifications Wales is looking at what qualifications will look like in the future, and how they will fit with the new curriculum. The Welsh Government / Plaid Cymru Co-operation Agreement rightly includes the pledge to:

“Focus on experiences and wellbeing as we reform qualifications, in line with Wales’ new curriculum.”[2]

NEU Cymru has broadly welcomed the new curriculum. We need to move to a system which recognises what young people can do. Wales doesn’t need a system which simply puts candidates in rank order. If everyone did well, then everyone should do well.  

Is this cake for everyone? If everyone deserves cake, why not give them cake?

The current system just isn’t fair and isn’t working for everyone. The Welsh Government are rightly trying to raise equality of opportunity for everyone in education. But if the qualifications system demands winners and losers, there will be winners and there will be losers.

The Independent Assessment Commission has brought a broad range of people together – including parents, businesses, and prominent academics –  to look at the qualifications system in England, and design a qualifications system which provides “Equitable, Reliable Assessment”[3]. Many of the aspirations in their recently published report reflect what is already happening here in Wales. Now we need to take the brave next step – to ensure the qualifications system mirrors the aspirations of the new curriculum, and doesn’t fall back into familiar territory, ranking young people in order so universities can pick the candidates they want.

As chair of the Independent Assessment Commission, Professor Louise Hayward says England needs a national conversation:

“A conversation that should begin, not from the type of assessment used, exams or teacher assessment, but from a broader vision of the purposes that assessment and qualifications should serve if they are to support individuals and the nation.”

NEU Cymru members recognised the need for a national conversation here in Wales too, in our manifesto ahead of the Senedd elections last year[4].

It is time for this national conversation, begun by Qualifications Wales, to be high profile and engage everyone. The conversation needs to be bold, and recognise the trappings of the current system. Including the need to decouple accountability from exam results.  

Wales is already embarking on the new curriculum. Now we need to have a truly Welsh solution for qualifications, which supports the workforce to ensure we reward young people for what they can do.  

[1] https://gov.wales/attendance-pupils-maintained-schools-6-september-2021-4-february-2022

[2] https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2021-11/cooperation-agreement-2021.pdf

[3] https://www.neweraassessment.org.uk/findings

[4] https://neu.org.uk/neu-cymru-manifesto

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