Why Wales can’t afford wrong answer on GCSE reform

25 Feb

My article on GCSE reform.  First published in the Western Mail on the 16th of February:

Qualifications continue to be the hot topic amongst those that take an  interest in the education sector on both sides of Offa’s Dyke.

Michael Gove’s recent announcement that his plans for an English  Baccalaureate were “one reform too many” was met with a collective sigh of  relief by parents, pupils, teachers and just about anyone who had looked at the  proposals.

The English Education Secretary’s U-turn was brought about by a united  campaign consisting of the teaching profession, bodies representing the arts,  sport, business, technical and design groups and the Westminster Education  Select Committee.

The strength and impact of a unified voice was evident to see.

Recent experience has shown that where there is genuine collaboration, across  a wide range of interested parties, there can be real success in finding a  progressive path for education in Wales.

The qualifications review, commissioned by the Welsh Government and chaired  by Huw Evans, was a fine example of this in practice.

The appraisal of the qualification system in Wales took in views from across  a variety of sectors with an inclusive and open approach.

The results were a positively welcomed set of recommendations, which gave the  Welsh Government the evidence it needed to make the right decision, in regards  to retaining the GCSE brand.

It also ensured that in taking that decision, the Welsh Education Minister  had a broad base of support behind him.

However, we shouldn’t underestimate the job of work still to be done in  selling Welsh qualifications to employers and universities in Wales and  beyond.

While we knew that sticking with GCSEs, and rejecting the backwards approach  that was being universally criticised in England, was the right thing to do in  Wales, it didn’t change the fact that there could be a perception problem in how  the qualifications are judged.

Indeed, the qualifications review itself recommended the Welsh Government  should launch a substantial, long-term, UK-wide communication strategy to  promote and explain the qualifications available in Wales.

In some senses the decision by Mr Gove to backtrack on the introduction of  the EBacc in England is a welcome vindication of the policy being pursued by the  Welsh Government.

It dispels the myth that GCSEs are anything other than a well-respected and  valued qualification.

To not have the Westminster Government, and the English press, focused on  undermining the GCSE brand will be a major positive in promoting the  qualifications students sit in Wales.

Conversely, the comparison between English and Welsh results, now that pupils  in both nations will be sitting GCSEs in future, leads to greater and more  complex problems.

The GCSEs that will be sat by students in England will be significantly  different to those that will be sat by students here in Wales.

The methodology of the qualifications, as well as their emphasis on  knowledge-based learning in England rather than a focus on skills as is the case  here in Wales, will mean the two GCSEs are markedly different.

Cross-border assessments based on the GCSE brand will therefore be both false  and misleading.

Having different qualifications to England should not be something that  causes any great fear.

Wales is more than capable of delivering high-quality and well-regarded  qualifications.

What we must recognise is that to a certain extent knowing how good the  qualification is, and projecting that image are two different things.

It is with that in mind that the whole education sector in Wales must come  together to help develop and promote the quality and rigour of qualifications  here in Wales.

A more immediate problem facing us in Wales is ensuring that we do not see a  repetition of the GCSE fiasco that blighted the results day for thousands across  Wales and England last year.

Avoiding any repeat of the problems that left so many students in limbo must  be a priority.

Only this week the WJEC raised concerns that the situation which led to the  re-grading of more than 2,000 English language GCSE papers in Wales last year  could arise again.

The Welsh Government’s trivialisation of these comments as “silly” was not  helpful in addressing what are in fact widely-held fears, and goes to show how  easy it is for a narrative of uncertainty to be associated with qualifications  if proper dialogue is not respected.

There may be criticism along the way, or as with this issue simply a case  made for assurances.

What has to be central to the process is for the collaborative approach that  has put Wales in a strong position in the first instance, in regards to the  future of our qualifications system, to be maintained in future.

The role of securing a respected qualifications system, be that in addressing  immediate concerns regarding the grading of GCSEs this year, or in the longer  term making the case for Welsh-specific GCSEs, is one that everyone involved in  Welsh education must work in partnership to achieve.

From teachers delivering the qualifications in classrooms across the country,  to the highest levels of government, this must be a co-ordinated and united  approach.

The importance for a generation of learners of not getting this right far  outweighs the positioning and bravado of those involved.


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