Western Mail Article – developing qualifications is only half the battle

25 Jun

My article on Welsh qualifications first published in the Western Mail 22/06/2013. Sadly I can’t find a link online to the piece.

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If Margaret Thatcher was the former Education Secretary famed for being a lady not for turning, the current Secretary of State for Education in England is more than making up for it.

Michael Gove has appeared indecisive, if not incompetent, on the future of qualifications in England. His thought process has gone from GCSEs to the English Baccalaureate, back to GCSEs before switching to the short-lived I-level and currently, although who knows for how long, a return to GCSEs. To put it bluntly, the whole thing has been somewhat of a confused mess.

The changes in approach only serve as a reminder of the problems a government can face when it refuses to listen to professionals. In contrast to the uncertainty English pupils, parents and teachers face, in Wales our approach has been far more measured.

The qualifications review chaired by Huw Evans was an inclusive process, reaching out to a wide range of stakeholders. The result of that work was a broad range of recommendations that have, for the most part, been welcomed.

In contrast to the English dilemma, parents, pupils, teachers and employers in Wales have known for some time that we will continue to put faith in the widely respected and understood GCSE brand. It was something NUT Cymru supported as part of our evidence to the independent review and the Welsh Government’s consultation.

There will be some changes, such as the development of new GCSEs for maths, focussing on numeracy and mathematical techniques, but the core elements that make the qualification internationally regarded remain. It is only in the past few weeks, after a prolonged attempt to undermine its credibility, that Mr Gove has woken up to the high esteem in which the GCSE brand is held.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews took a bold step in offering an alternative to Westminster’s retreat to a 1950s-style education system, albeit the decision has drawn criticism from some, especially across the border.

But he was right to embrace the qualifications review in the way he did. It has ensured that Welsh qualifications will be based on an evidenced approach, establishing a system fit for the students it aims to support.

While the Welsh Government should rightly be praised for the way it has supported an inclusive discussion on qualifications, it should also be very focused on the important challenges the sector face in future. Getting the qualifications right was only half the battle.

It is now crucial that the quality of those qualifications is promoted and explained within Wales, the UK and beyond. Marketing the approach Wales has taken will be a significant test as divergence between Wales, England and Northern Ireland’s education policies continues to widen.

The Evans report clearly outlined the need for a communications strategy to sell what Wales is offering in terms of its qualifications mix to higher education institutions (HEIs) and employers. Given the failure, for whatever reason, of some employers and universities to give credibility to the Welsh Baccalaureate in the past, the track record of selling Wales-specific qualifications has not been outstanding.

This is a particular problem amongst elite Russell Group bodies. Against a now inevitable backdrop of Mr Gove and the Westminster Government denigrating the Welsh approach, it is more important than ever that we get this right.

Where Wales has truly succeeded in its approach is in setting a qualifications system that will help develop the skills and abilities required to ready students for life beyond the school gates. While the UK coalition’s approach is a linear system with no coursework, measuring only knowledge retention without application, the Welsh way is continuing with a modular system based on fine-tuning skills.

It appears ridiculous that the Westminster Government wants to create a system where two years’ work is measured in a condensed one-off exam. Ignoring the fact some individuals’ abilities may not lend themselves to that environment, or that illness and personal circumstances will not be taken into account, this system does not reflect the realities of life after school.

How adequately will those pupils be prepared for university given that HEIs measure progress as an on-going practice through the modular approach employed by Wales? How able will those pupils be to undertake the vast majority of professional body qualifications that are developed through modules and coursework? Only time will tell.

What we can say for certain is that Wales is establishing a system that will give our pupils the best chance to succeed. We just need to make sure that the message of that success is heard loud enough.

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