End of the three-country consensus on exam standards?



A round of opposition party responses:

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies takes a straightforward view of Mr Gove's letter and the response to it. He has no problem with divergence, with a split, if that's the natural consequence of devolution. His problem is with what he called Labour's "abject failure" in Wales to deliver policies that improve education.

Plaid Cymru's Rhodri Glyn Thomas argues the split could, in fact, raise standards in Wales but a warning from Kirsty Williams and the Liberal Democrats. Last Summer's row over qualifications and Leighton Andrews's part in it, she says, "has put a question mark over the currency of Welsh qualifications - that's what I hear out there amongst my constituents, some of whom have a choice in Powys where to send their children to school. Parents and employers must have confidence in Welsh qualifications".

Mr Andrews would do better to stop warring on Twitter - "unbecoming" she says - "turn the other cheek, and get on with the job".

Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews

What's Michael Gove's letter to the Education Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland all about?

In a sense, you could argue it's about - well, stating the obvious. As differences grow between the exam system and qualifications offered in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, then the argument grows too that you might as well say so out loud - acknowledge that change means things diverge, or as Mr Gove puts it in his letter, it is "a natural and legitimate consequence of devolution". It is time to go our separate ways.

So far, so impeccably logical.

But what about the politics? Ah, now that's where things get less logical, than interesting.

Cast your mind back to Michael Gove's ill-fated "O-level" reforms - the new 'gold standard' Baccalaureate qualification for England only that in the end, ran into some serious difficulties. Mr Gove was accused of executing an embarrassing U-turn. #EBacctrack tweeted Labour. No, just "a tweak" said Mr Gove's office.

In Wales, in the meantime, the Welsh Government's review of qualifications recommended Wales keep GCSEs, again with some tweaks. Mr Andrews sat back and watched the gold standard in England - that unions and parents had feared would leave Welsh pupils second best - unravel.

But cast your mind back too to the ill-tempered spat between the two men over qualifications and how they should be regulated.

Up until last summer, a system of "three country consensus" existed whereby regulators from England, Wales and Northern Ireland met to agree common standards across all three. What did that mean? Well, roughly speaking, that a 60 in English Language would be a C wherever you sat it. Individual papers from individual exam boards are closely moderated to ensure common standards between them.

UK Education Minister Michael Gove UK Education Minister Michael Gove

Come back to Mr Gove's letter and you'll see he says that he now believes that this "three country consensus" model is effectively dead, as a result of the diverging system. If the exams and structures are going to be so different, he reasons, then it's pointless to try and get some sort of consensus between them on standards.

It's pretty important to remember that it was Leighton Andrews, acting as Welsh exams regulator, whose actions put the first breach in the three country consensus model - last summer, following a review by his regulatory officials, he ordered the re-grading of WJEC English exams papers which meant for the first time, a C in Wales was different from a C in England - thousands of pupils in Wales got better results due to this. A legal challenge by unions in England failed.

Mr Andrews and those around him would argue that there were deeper changes going on under the bonnet of the standard-setting process last year that merited his intervention - but Mr Gove was furious. His response now seems to be - ok - if you want to override the consensus when it suits you, we won't bother having a consensus. Incidentally, asked by the Education Select Committee about the future of the consensus arrangements earlier this year, Mr Andrews declared the "jury was out" on it. Hardly a ringing endorsement from the Cardiff end either, to be fair.

But without any consensus on common standards in the future, the slight divergence in standards for one grade threshold for one exam becomes - potentially - a yawning chasm across all grades and subject areas where there could be literally no way of telling whether a pupil has achieved a given standard in comparison with a counterpart in England - or vice versa.

The letter comes in the wake of a meeting between the three education Ministers in London last week which was officially described as "frank but cordial". Judging by where we are a week or so later, it was a lot more of the former than the latter.

And the politics of this are laid bare by the Whitehall source in the Guardian story which attacks the Welsh "dumbing down" of exams. It's in the Department for Education's interest to have a political narrative portraying the English system as far more rigorous than the Welsh one - ending the current consensus arrangements would be (for them) a palpable demonstration of this.

Since the 2010 General Election Carwyn Jones and his ministers have sought to burnish their political credentials by contrasting their policies with those of Westminster - on austerity, on NHS reform, on Europe.

But these days, barely a Prime Minister's Questions goes by without some disparaging reference by David Cameron to Labour's record on health in Wales. It's not just different is his message. It's worse.

And it's spreading. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has also weighed in with some trenchant criticisms of the Welsh Government's performance in housing.

As the bare-knuckle fight between the Tories and Labour in 2015 approaches, Michael Gove's letter opens up another front on Welsh Labour's record on education. The danger is that pupils on both sides of the border end up the casualties in a new grading free-for-all.

Betsan Powys Article written by Betsan Powys Betsan Powys Former political editor, Wales

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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    ... would you leave any of our modern politicians in charge of your "cockle-stall" Boxer ?

    My preferred option if I had children of school age would be Eton, naturally one needs the wherewithal, but the opportunities after Public School, Oxbridge, would be tremendous, Downing Street for a kick-off.


  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    British education requires introducation of British Education Certificates at O, H and A.
    ps (referendum update - defective)
    Scottish Referendum Order 2013:
    No mandate.
    No election.
    No Green Paper.
    No White Paper.
    No Bill.
    No Constitutional Bill.
    No Constitutional Debate on Floor of the House.
    No Vote
    No Act of Parliament.
    Defend the Union
    commonrepresentation campaign

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    15: The world's got a plethora of exam boards and have differing exam grades so I think they'll cope. You don't put mini skirt on a weighty lady expecting it to fit. You taylor it for her size & needs not squeeze her behind into something ill fitting. No offence to the larger lady on the forum. I still think you're beautiful whatever your radius.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    #14 I agree with you that I wouldn't leave Mr Gove in charge of a Swansea cockle-stall. However, four different boards with four different standards is a nightmare. Will employers know the differences? Or, given previous problems, will they just ignore those with a Welsh quali?. Then the old grammar schools in the posh suburbs will move to an English quali: something neither of us want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    6: We have a different grading system now due to a WJEC/OFQUAL grading cock up. Thank heavens for Devolution or we‘d be dragged along with Gove's magical mystery education tour. If it’s a sole Welsh grading system it’s backwards but adopt an English one even though it’s deemed flawed by the Teacher's Union you are be happy. Inferiority complex. You’ve got a ruddy village.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Is this heading down the road that PISA results will be the only way of comparing standards across borders? If that is so, then it is not looking good for Wales.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    NI had the best education in the UK a little while back, however in resent years it has been devalued by the assembly - as they rather than higher the underachieving schools are lowering the standards for the performing schools. They are also implementing a "comprehensive" system which is destroying the foundation of its educational system.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    If education in Wales was relevant, timely, engaging, delivered by teachers who knew both how to teach and their subject, would quite so many children choose to wander the wet, soggy streets of Cardiff playing truant?

    Don't fine parents for their child's absence. Fine the person who controls the way education is managed in Wales a daily sum of £120 for each and every pupil he lets down

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Another Devo problem
    It not a Devo problem its a Gove problem. Do you really trust Gove. NI. Scotland and Wales have different Quals why fall in line with England Academics are highly critical of Gove's proposals so why change them to fall in line with a floored qualifciation
    English Uni's won't turn away Celtic Students. They need the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It's appalling that Gove announced changes to GCSEs, A/S and A levels without first agreeing it with his Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.
    It was high-handed, discourteous and counter-productive. Alex Salmon isn't the only politician trying to break up the UK.
    Anyway why doesn't he simply do what NI does as their A level results are by far the highest in the UK?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    #4 What Mab fails to realise is that English Universities can manage quite well without Welsh pupils whereas students from Wales will be handicapped if they cannot apply to the English Russel group and Oxbridge.
    The English Unis will have to sort out entrance for English pupils. They might not bother for Welsh students. Another Devo problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I think that we should put Mab in charge - given that he cannot make a coherent comment he should go down well in the Bay. And (yes I know that we don't start sentences with and) the other great benefit of putting Mab in charge would be a speedy end the the WA.

    In the real world no-one with an ounce of sense would argue that our (Wales) discredited education system is held in high esteem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    #2 "There isnt a problem as long as Welsh qualifications are recognised elsewhere or otherwise you have a ghetto."
    The problem is funamental.
    If Wales's exams are easier, the qualifications will be undervalued, and pupils will find it more difficult to obtain university places outside Wales.
    If it is more difficult, then Welsh pupils 'on the margin' will be disadvantaged..

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Wales now has a separate marking board but retains the same GCSE/A levels that Michael Gove initially opted to scrap for an English bac, then backtracked and now does it again and you clueless lot whine that Wales’s system will not be recognised? What About England‘s exam recognition ladies? Gove can talk about education failure. He can’t even make a coherent decision without backtracking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Welsh education is on the rocks so something has to be done and done quickly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There isnt a problem as long as Welsh qualifications are recognised elsewhere or otherwise you have a ghetto.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Why dont our 'great' leaders leave teachers to teach and leave pupils to learn, this constant social engineering and political point scoring only serves to confuse both pupils and future employers on the values of the qualifications earned.


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