Wales

Welcoming back 'the repentant sinner'

  • 7 February 2013
  • From the section Wales
  • comments

Did the Education Secretary in England ring the Education Minister in Wales last night to tell him that he is abandoning plans to scrap GCSEs?

You won't, I think, be surprised to be told that no, he didn't. Hardly surprising since the Welsh Minister found out about the original plans via the Daily Mail anyway.

Labour are calling it "a humiliating U-turn" and hoping #Ebacctrack will be trending on twitter before too long. It is, say the coalition, more like a tweak.

For the Westminster politics, turn here. For the impact on Wales, keep reading.

Make no mistake - despite the fact that this is a decision taken in England by a man who has no direct say over what happens in Welsh schools, it is hugely significant for pupils, parents, teachers and unions in Wales and yes, politicians too. Leighton Andrews was straining as he tried not to gloat this morning, offering the Welsh Labour government's welcome to the "repentant sinner" Michael Gove back into the GCSE fold.

So why the impact on Wales?

Take a moment to read this, a blog entry I wrote just a few days ago.

If you don't have that moment then I'll give you the gist of it. It seemed to me that the head teachers, the unions, parents and pupils I'd spoken to that day had been pretty united. They thought Leighton Andrews' decision not to scrap GCSEs, but instead to tighten them, not to scrap a modular way of teaching but accept it's high time to put a new emphasis on standards, on numeracy and literacy was probably the right thing to have done.

But that didn't mean they were happy. They were fundamentally concerned because they feared the Welsh GCSE, and the Welsh Baccalaureate they would bestow on Wales' brightest pupils would be regarded, in England, as second class. The fear was that the English Baccalaureate certificate with its 'more challenging' tag, with its big bang end of year exam would mean universities and employers outside Wales regarded a qualification gained in Wales, in future, as not quite as shiny as the gold standard EBacc.

In other words they thought Wales would lose the political PR battle if the EBacc and WBacc went head to head.

But they won't. They won't because Michael Gove will tell the Commons later today that he's shelving the new qualification, retaining the GCSE brand in England, and changing the league table criteria for English schools to include a capped points score - something Mr Andrews was keen to tell 5Live listeners has been in place in Wales for 18 months.

What's the wider story here then? Well, it's that the headlines of a wildly divergent qualifications systems between England and Wales will now read as a less divergent qualifications system between England and Wales. But there will still be important differences. The emphasis in Wales will be on skills and the needs of employers as much as academic rigour. In England - it's expected that whatever he rows back on, Michael Gove will not retreat from his push for a more knowledge based curriculum. Coursework is still likely to play a bigger part in Welsh qualifications than their English counterparts.

But don't underestimate the significance of the far more consistent branding that will now remain, after all. Whether pupils sit exams in Prestatyn, Presteigne or Preston, they will all gain GCSEs and that will make parents, teachers and unions here in Wales a whole lot happier.