Welsh Baccalaureate or bust?

  • 29 January 2013
  • From the section Wales
  • comments

The Education system in Wales is not bust but it could do a heck of a lot better. In fact it must do a heck of a lot better very soon. So say Estyn, so says the Deputy Minister for Skills. So, to be blunt, says just about everyone I've interviewed over the last couple of days.

From today one thing is in no doubt: Wales is diverging significantly from England in the way pupils will in future be taught and tested.

It's doing that, incidentally, not by striking out on its own, but by sticking to its guns, opting to build on current qualifications rather than going for wholesale change. It's the UK government who has torn up the existing system, deemed it damaging to standards and decided it's time for big changes.

But let's not get hung up on who left who. All I know is that the old mutual consent line isn't applicable here. Whoever walked, we now know that England will be going one way, Wales the other. And the head teachers we've interviewed, the unions who represent them, the parents, the pupils and the politicians have all pretty much stood in front of the camera and said the same thing.

Let's start with the head teachers, Paula and Greg Dixon. Same surname, same home, same job - but one crucial difference. His school is in Flintshire, hers on the Wirral. He's accountable to the Welsh government; she's accountable to the UK government. Bottom line? They reckon the Welsh Government might well be right not to follow England on this one. But ... I'll come back to that in a moment.

Sharon Betts and her sons Matthew and Jordan live in Quaker's Yard. Matthew knows an awful lot about physics, Jordan's fractions were immaculate. They all reckon the Welsh Government is right to build on the current system, right to give schools the choice of pinning everything on one set of exams or letting pupils pick up marks during the school year. But ... the same, big but.

The unions think the Welsh Government is certainly right not to follow, "blindly follow" as they might put it, the UK government. But ...

What about the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly? Should the Welsh government have done what Michael Gove has done in England, I asked him this afternoon. "What I'm saying is that they've got it very wrong in the past and that qualifications must be made to count" came the answer from Andrew RT Davies which doesn't add up to "yes".

He ended up in the same place, with that big, fundamental 'but'. The Welsh Government might be on the right track but in the political PR battle to come, head teachers, parents, pupils, unions and politicians all fear Wales will lose out. And if Wales does lose the battle of perception, then their pupils, their sons and daughters, will be worse off.

The thinking goes like this: the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews and his deputy, Jeff Cuthbert, know the credibility of the new Wales-only exams will be absolutely critical for head teachers, parents, pupils, employers, universities and yes, voters. They accept the need to persuade all of the above that they've got this right. They're planning a publicity campaign later this year to raise awareness of the new Welsh Bacc, the new qualifications system in Wales - targeted in particular at England.

Because there is a minister in Michael Gove who must equally persuade all of the above that he has made the right call, that his English Bacc knocks the Welsh Bacc into a cocked hat, that his emphasis on more challenging exams and academic rigour will deliver gold standard qualifications.

Picking up marks for coursework as they can in Wales? Three goes at getting the grade you need? Someone, somewhere in Westminster will point out that sounds to them more like bronze than gold.

The challenge for ministers then? If - if - qualifications gained in England are indeed seen as the gold standard, what do they do now to ensure exams sat by pupils in Wales are judged in future to be equally rigorous, equally valued?