Review proposes 'significant' cut in qualifications

The review asks how much Wales should differ from what's happening in England

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A review is asking whether major changes should be made to the qualifications sat by teenagers in Wales.

It suggests a "significant" cut in the number of courses and is consulting on whether GCSEs should be replaced by completely new qualifications.

The Welsh government, which commissioned the study, says it wants to "simplify" the system.

But a teaching union warned of "massive turbulence" for schools and pupils.

In a consultation launched on Thursday, the review asks whether completely new qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds should replace GCSEs or whether Wales should follow what is happening in England.

It also raises concerns about the quality of literacy and numeracy skills, asking what is the best way to assess them.

Start Quote

The Welsh Government wants to simplify the qualifications system, and ensure it delivers for our learners and the economy.”

End Quote Huw Evans Qualifications review chairman

The review board - which includes head teachers, college principals, a university vice chancellor and business people - is asking to what extent the Welsh qualifications system should diverge from the rest of the UK.

Employers told the panel that they only saw grades A to C in English, Welsh and maths as "initial indicators" of ability.

"They also tell us that candidates with these qualifications are not necessarily literate or numerate," the consultation says.

The concept of an "overarching qualification" is proposed as a way to provide "a well-rounded and coherent education".

Minimum thresholds could be set so young people "matriculate" with a balanced mix of subjects, literacy and numeracy, it says.

Feedback about the Welsh baccalaureate was "largely positive", but the review board encountered some reservations about its rigour, the consultation says.

'Challenges'

Analysis

Nicola Smith, BBC Wales education correspondent

The purpose of this review is to ensure qualifications for 14 to 19 year olds are valued and that they meet the needs of young people and of the Welsh economy.

In essence, it is about what and how our pupils should study in future.

Evidence so far shows the current system is complex, confusing and simply not providing teenagers with the basic skills they need when they leave school or college.

In England, changes to the National Curriculum, to vocational qualifications and to how GCSEs are examined are already underway.

But Wales does not have to follow suit. Some teaching unions argue this is a chance to build a qualification system that better suits the needs of Wales. An opportunity for real change.

The Conservatives describe it as a "disruptive, costly and unnecessary reorganisation of qualifications."

For the next few months, the public have their chance to decide who they agree with and to shape what happens here.

Review chairman Huw Evans said more 16-year-olds were staying in education instead of leaving school and going straight into work.

Mr Evans, former principal of Coleg Llandrillo, said: "The qualification system needs to respond to these changes and evolving challenges.

"It is essential that young people in education are gaining the knowledge, skills, understanding and qualifications that will best equip them to enter the increasingly competitive worlds of employment or higher education."

There are currently 6,500 qualifications taught in schools and colleges out of a potential 11,400, but Mr Evans's review is looking at criteria to "significantly" reduce the number.

The consultation document follows six months of evidence on what changes were needed.

Recommendations are expected for deputy skills minister Jeff Cuthbert in the autumn.

Mr Cuthbert said students' hard work should be "rewarded with with qualifications that remain relevant, valued and fit for purpose in the 21st Century".

The consultation also says the burden of assessment for 14 to 19-year-olds should be eased. Education "must not be reduced to a process of 'teaching to the test'".

Political reaction

Conservative education spokeswoman Angela Burns said she was concerned that "simplifying the system" might mean Wales ends up with a "second rate" education system.

"Why are the needs of our children, when they have to go out there in an international market place, so very different from the needs of a child in Scotland or England or Ireland or France or wherever it may be?" she said.

"Please, whatever we do, we must make sure that our children are able to be judged on that international market place."

'Rounded individuals'

Welsh Lib Dem education spokesman Aled Roberts AM welcomed the opportunity for a proper debate "as we also need to consider the full implications of any over-arching new qualification and the possibility of divergence between Welsh qualifications and those in the other nations of the UK".

Plaid Cymru AM Simon Thomas said: "It is clear that with so many exam bodies competing for schools to teach their courses, schools can be tempted to choose the 'easiest' courses which do not test their pupils' abilities effectively."

Business reaction

Iestyn Davies, from the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales, said he supported the review.

He said he believed any new qualifications needed to ensure the basics, such as literacy and numeracy are taught well, while also teaching "soft skills", such as ensuring an employee can present themselves well.

"It's a complex question we're trying to answer. No-one wants to stifle the creative energies of a young person," he said.

"What we need to do is get the core skills right, the basic skills right, and make sure we have rounded individuals in schools."

Union reaction

The NASUWT teaching union warned it was important an isolated exam system wasn't developed "which has no currency outside Wales."

Chris Keates, general secretary, added: "New exam syllabuses have already been introduced for several subjects in the last two years and the prospect of further change will cause massive turbulence for schools and pupils."

She said ministers must also avoid the trap of developing a system which is focused solely on the needs of employers and the economy, rather than on the needs of young people.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru said it was "the starting gun for an exciting debate about the future of education in Wales".

"'The big questions about what and how our young people should study are placed centre stage by the review," he said.

"There can be no more ducking of the difficult issues that surround things such as growing divergence from England, the suitability and value of external testing at 16, and the rigour of A-levels to name but a few."

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