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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  • Comment number 58.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I agree Betsan..

    Trust you will not be TOO far away from the £580,000pa. of that nice Mr Marr (!).

    Just back from 3 weeks rain in our SW France hovel ! Where my extensive knowledge of iregular verbs such as avoir and etre still leaves the locals confused.

    Could not messrs. Andrews and Gove be sent over there to at least try and improve the language skills of the agricultural masses. ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Congratulations on your new appointment, Betsan. Llongyfarchiadau.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    #52 fair point. My correction, it IS a political football but SHOULDN'T be...& this abject lack of leadership, accountability 4 policy made, it seems, on the (egotistical) hoof, refusal 2 have reasoned measured dialogue with key stakeholders etc adversely affects our children's education year on year & standards decline whilst the minister seeks the next scapegoat for the next failing on his watch

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Re 53


    Oh dear, not listening in class?!

    ' and now Leighton Andrews wants to cut their chances of moving out with a tin-pot Welsh exam system nobody wants!'

    And there I was thinking it was Gove's idea. By the way, you say 'nobody wants'. The Brit nats on here often claim to speak for the majority - and now, it seems, everybody! You don't, and you certainly don't speak for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    More mis-management from the clowns running Cymru!

    School in Wales is now a road to nowhere... Thousands of kids semi-literate in 2 languages, semi-numerate, lacking the social skills employers need - and that's just the graduates! 16-19 range looking for work are almost unemployable and now Leighton Andrews wants to cut their chances of moving out with a tin-pot Welsh exam system nobody wants!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    #51 "Education isn't a political football"
    But it is. Who can doubt that if private schooling was banned, and bussing kids prevented, there would be greater resources put into public schools. At a heavy price to liberty. So where does the optimum lie? That's politics. We spend a lot on defence. The Finns spend a lot on schools. Who is right? That's politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Back 2 education..committed education professionals, at all levels, remain focused on providing stimulating engaging learning 4 children; Welsh Govt / LA seem 2 lack a structured, consistent approach 2 drive up standards & give children the very best start. Education isn't a political football or an excuse to push arrogant personal agendas. #govegate? how immature - no wonder we're in such a mess!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    wo wo wo! lets rewind a bit here...
    'three-country consensus'?? Have I missed something? I havent received my Cymro passport and invite to a repatriation course. Has it been lost in the post?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Yes our schools are failing, our top university being ranked 49th in the UK. Yes all is well with out education system in Wales. We are the bottom of the pile with Scotland and Northern Ireland ahead of us. Yes the Assembly has done a sterling job. If we want to see an improvement in our society we must make steps to improve our education establishments. Unfortunatley we are currently third world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    ... I couldn't agree more Boxer.

    Some have a very narrow vision of education, Oxbridge being the culmination of excellence, when in fact all children/students should be offered an opportunity to excel within their abilities.

    Unfortunately politics has defined a single objective (for excellence), university, all else is dross, not to me but to those defining excellence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Well Leighrichards we have our own Elite Schools in Wales; just compare Free School meals eligibility levels in English Medium schools with those in Welsh Medium schools within the same LAs. While you are at it look at the comparable percentage of ethnic minority pupils in the two mediums.
    We have a better quality of discrimination of course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #45 I wasn't disagreeing with you. I just find the idea of devoting billions to the education beyond 18yrs of those that have neither the inclination nor the ability to pursue an academic course of study ridiculous.
    Sometimes one despairs that some of the courses are a British cargo cult, where the appearance and forms of education are copied, with no insight into purpose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    ... #44, you might agree with me if you were to consider the European Baccalaureate, compare it to the International Baccalaureate, there's quite a difference. If the suggestion had been the International Baccalaureate I could agree with the sentiments.


  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    #43 You suggest that 90% of the population are not capable of completing an examination at the level of the European Bacc. Yet it still seems to be a UKGov aspiration that 50% of the population complete a tertiary course at post 18.
    Strange times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    re 36
    I appologise for the displeasing grammar. In defence i would note that i was trying to make the message fit in the permitted character limit. However i further note that you chose to stone the messanger not the message. Speaks volumes

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    ... #41, with half the population wanting less Europe its not a credible option to offer the European Baccalaureate, beside which, what route would you suggest the 90% who are not able enough to complete this examination take ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Perhaps these differences are petty. Perhaps a one size fits all approach would be better. Perhaps devolution is a dog's breakfast, not the dog's more personal parts. If so, perhaps we should think bigger. Why don't we ALL sign up for the EuroBacc? After all, are we just not a collection of tiny little countries on the considerably larger rump of a far bigger Union, one that has far more clout?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    ... #39, there is no evidence that the motivation at Gove's department is social in nature (elitist), the move to the linear course of where an examination is held at the end of the study period is deemed to be a better evaluation than the unitised version currently used.

    WJEC will be offering both routes, so, if the examination board offers both, both are probably equal.


  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    as a high tory gove naturally wants to turn back progressive educational policies of the last 40 years and reintroduce elitism and selection by the back door! And while he may alas succeed in this reactionary aim in england gove will not - thanks to devolution - be able to inflict this disastrous class motivated eltist policy on welsh schoolchildren thank goodness.


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