Vested interests are likely to prevent Wales from following England’s lead in abolishing GCSEs. But, as a result, Welsh pupils could find it harder to gain employment or university places
The announcement by Education Secretary Michael Gove that GCSE examinations in England are to be replaced by a single examination (the English Baccalaureate) has caused turmoil and furore in equal measure in Wales.
Wales’ education minister Leighton Andrews described it as a ‘backwards step’ and a ‘solution designed for the 20th Century’. A spokesman for one of the teaching unions in Wales said that Gove’s plans ‘devalued’ the GCSE qualification.
Wales already has its own GCSE review underway, but no decision will be made until November. However, given the rhetoric it seems unlikely that Wales will follow the English proposals of a single more rigorous examination model. There are too many vested interests in retaining the current system. However, something does urgently need to be done.
In my article in Public Finance, Bottom of the Class (PF April 2012) I commented that:
- The PISA statistics produced by the OECD showed that in 2010 the UK school system as a whole slipped several places down the international league table. Within the UK, Wales was bottom of the pile, a situation Andrews admitted was unacceptable.
- The Welsh Ofsted (Estyn) ranks local authority education services on a four-point scale from ‘unsatisfactory’ to ‘excellent’. In recent years there have been no ‘excellent’ services, a high number of ‘adequate’ ones and quite a few ‘unsatisfactory’ ones.
- The Welsh Government’s own schools banding system shows that only 13% of Welsh secondary schools are performing well and more than 25% of Welsh LEAs have no schools in the top band.
For many years now endless comments have been made (particularly at the time of examination results) that school examinations in England and Wales have been ‘dumbed down’. Politicians and teaching unions vigorously deny this, but the evidence has mounted with research done by the University of Durham, Kings College London and the Royal Society of Chemistry strongly suggesting that dumbing down has taken place in school examinations.
The reality is that many people now firmly believe exams have been dumbed down and only substantial changes to the system will restore confidence among parents and employers. We have to improve standards across the board. Leveling down is not an option in today’s global economy.
Now Gove’s policies may not be the complete solution. Some people think it madness to impose an academic curriculum on non-academic pupils. They would argue that any new qualification system for the future should also include high quality vocational/technical pathways. The idea of introducing more rigour and simultaneously insisting that all pupils will sit the new hard exam are contradictory, and setting up loads of children to fail.
However, even if Gove’s policy is incomplete, the reality is that Wales is still a part of the United Kingdom. Now, under devolution, it may be possible for Wales to have different policies from England in some areas such as health, transport and social care, since these are largely self-contained issues. However, in other areas such as the economy and education it is a different matter for Wales to stray too far from English policy since there are clear inter-relationships between the two countries and, at the end of the day, England is 14 times larger than Wales.
Let us take a couple of examples. The CBI is on record as saying that GCSEs are ‘not fit for purpose’ and are not delivering the key skills needed in the workplace. The Institute of Directors stated that, in their survey of company directors, 53% believed the quality of school education had deteriorated while only 19% thought it had improved. The directors also commented that they had observed a decline in student’s basic skill proficiencies such as writing, reading and oral communication.
Then we have the universities. Will admissions tutors looking at the academic record of potential students in the future worry that maybe the Welsh GCSEs are not as rigorous as the English Baccalaureate and should be weighted accordingly?
This is a serious concern. The Director of the CBI in Wales made the comment that:-
‘A priority for Wales should be to strive to protect the portability and recognition of Welsh qualifications across the UK. Joint working with the UK to maintain a level playing field will help maximise the life chances of Welsh students by ensuring any made-in Wales qualifications are readily recognised, understood and trusted by employers across the UK.’
A former head of school improvement in a large Welsh local authority warned against cross-border divergence and said:
‘School qualifications are too serious an issue to be allowed to degenerate into inter-governmental bickering and playground politics. There is really only one issue of substantive difference between Mr Andrews and Mr Gove over the future of GCSEs, as both clearly agree on the centrality of reforming GCSEs. They should sit down and argue out, like educated adults, whether modular courses are desirable, fair and capable of rigorous assessment – and engage in deep public consultation on this. A continued unified Welsh and English GCSE system is in everybody’s best interests.’
The message is clear. These comments illustrate the dangers of Wales ‘going it alone’ on school examinations reform. They also illustrate the limitations of devolution.
However, the key question is whether the Welsh Government will be prepared to take on the strong vested interests of education providers in Wales in order to deliver reforms that are really needed to improve educational standards in Wales. Rhetoric is insufficient. Change is needed.
Malcolm Prowle is professor of business performance at Nottingham Business School and visiting professor in accounting and finance at the Open University Business School. He was born in Wales and still resides there