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 38.

    ... whilst knuckles are dragged across political divides by our erstwhile political combatants', schoolchildren of Wales will collect the booby prize once again.

    The very first thing that the Ed Min should do is to equalise expenditure with the BARNET provisions for education, each and every child receiving the same opportunity ...

    ... he might then try pursuing excellence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    From the horses mouth; See these links:
    They provide the answer that WJEC does NOT intend to lose the benefit of remaining an option to trade in English centres and by so doing, also giving pupils in Wales the option to sit an acceptable exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Re 27,

    Mr. Drake,

    As this is a discussion about the standard of education in modern day Wales, it is only fair to note that the grammar in your relatively few sentences was a bit ropey, to say the least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    The Conservative Party is not Unionist. It is a federal party that supports legislative devolution.
    The referendum in Scotland is Cameron's referendum. It did not appear until Jan 2012 on a BBC tv programme (so much for a historic decision).
    The education industry is about money not the transmission of knowledge through authority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I agree with everything you say, Sedwot. But there is one hole in Mr Gove's logical position: he is described in the caption to the picture above as "UK Minister for Education." He is now, surely England Minister for Education. His writ has never run in Scotland, and he has diminishing influence in Wales. NI: who knows?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Gove's position is a logical one. There can't be GCSEs which are each earned in a different way in different parts of the UK.

    If we keep the same system and content as Northern Ireland then we each have a yardstick to measure success by. Then our exams can have credibility.

    We shouldn't fool ourselves though; some of the changes in England should push up standards. We must do the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #30 I think that you are right, Cythraul, in that this does seem to be a minister ( of the Conservative & Unionist party) accepting devolution. Thesame principles seem likely to meet the SNP's idea that it is equally their pound. If they are an independent country setting their own tax levels they will have their own currency. At minimum, they won't be sitting on any BoE committee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Devolved Education.
    University of Wales abolished, Visas. Immigration. Money.
    This is devolution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    English Education Minister - "a natural and legitimate consequence of devolution".

    Looks like the Westminster/Whitehall machine, component by component, is finally coming to terms with the reality of Welsh self-determination.

    Everything else about this is just the usual Conservative-Labour pantomime that constitutes the old (and rapidly vanishing) order of UK politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    #28 With all respect, whilst Mr Gove may argue that it all goes back to the regrading issue, that was a small point concerning only one subject. It was MG's decision to finalise the split between England and Wales; probably to throw dust over his U-turn. It isn't the Welsh education minister pushing for a fundamental change.
    However, that's devo: push for devo and you may get a total break.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    In this day and age when everything gets put to the vote how can an unelected welsh education minister propose fundamental changes to the exam system that may effect my childs chances of a job in the uk. Turning this country into some tin pot state hell bent on soothing egos in th assembly, rather than address the bigger issue of the state of teaching in this country!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    well looks like Mabs getting his wish, if the standards arnt the same then we will be comparing apples and pears so no one can say how much welsh education is failing. Pity about the kids who wont get into english uni or get a job in England. Welsh Bac is allready rejected by half the English unis. Perhaps thats the hidden agenda keep the kids who have been forced to study in welsh in Wales

  • Comment number 26.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    At the end of the day we in little Wales will have to dance to the tune played by people 'over the border',as beloved by BBC Wales.If I was an employer in England I would DEMAND the welsh applicants for jobs PROVE their qualifications are robust. Our 'tin pot' politicians will want to dilute standards so more people get qualifications,however not recognised 'over the border'. Devolution wont last

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Surely now tme for LA to stop the egotistical, political 'not me guv' posturing, self indulgent tweets & accept standards have fallen during HIS tenure as Ed Minister. Those committed & motivated to deliver great education to our children, teachers, advisors, WJEC etc are undermined by his bombastic approach & abject failure to LISTEN. See also LA remit as 'Minister for Welsh', same issues here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    No.16 Mab, will your lovely Welsh qualifications for lovely Welsh people in lovely Welsh schools include lessons in sexism? You old class warrior and oh, another thing, how dare nationalists accuse others of fascism? Good night all, I have work to do earning taxes to finance this disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Let's get this right; the break up between England and wales lies with the abolition of Key stage testing in Wales. It was this that resulted in the mess with English GCSE results last year. Whereas England used accurate testing results at Key stage 2 as a base for evaluating GCSE outcomes Wales couldn't and this is why we were right to regrade GCSE English. As long as Wales and NI stay togethe OK

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    17: (P/S) I left 4: out for the reason I don't want to alienate your supporters who tally four poor souls, you've got them only because you offered them a bacon butty and the chance to hear you quote Edward Mosely's version of it's white Christmas..

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    17: CONNELL. Anti Devolution process:

    1: No hope,
    2: No luck,
    3: No chance,
    5: No way,
    6: JSA stops,
    7: Atos interview,
    8: No money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    17: I'm intrigued with your so called insular Devo wish list. It's as likely to happen as you gaining some political intellect.

    18: You would. Westminster Unionist politicans and look at the Eton mess we're in now.


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