Thought Of The Week: Educational Divide May Leave Welsh Children Even Worse Off

May 27th, 2014

Thought Of The Week: Educational Divide May Leave Welsh Children Even Worse Off

Divergent English and Welsh education paths provide a "no-brainer" in terms of the best choice, says Amanda Stewart

Examination reform has been on the radar for the last 18 months, yet still there is confusion over what this actually means for teaching and learning and the impact on our children.

Despite the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove's proclaimed ambition for Wales to be able to "compete with the best in the world", the divergence between Welsh Government and Westminster regarding future educational pathways is in danger of creating a bigger divide for those students being educated in the Principality.

There does not appear to be any acknowledgement of "a disconnect" between the desire to drive academic rigour and the "exam inflation" that has crept in over the last few years. I would ask, how is it possible to improve standards without addressing the issue of the various and diverging ways in which students are measured?

State schools in Wales are being compelled to follow the Welsh pathway; both state and independent schools in England are being compelled to follow the English pathway. International GCSE's (iGCSEs) currently being offered in some subjects - and considered to be more rigorous than the current Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) exams - add another level of complexity which themselves will be reviewed in 2018.

Independent schools in Wales seem to be the only ones benefitting from a legal loophole that allows them to choose which pathway is best for their students in achieving success at every step of their education and into employment. What then are the key considerations? It's messy, and I don't profess to be an expert, but the table below displays the situation, as I understand it...

Wales England
GCSE Examining body/Syllabus WJEC AQA; OCR; Pearson; EduQas (WJEC for English schools)
GCSE Grades awarded A*-G grades will continue Grades 1-9
9 = highest, equivalent to the top half of A*

5 = linked to PISA tests

4 = equivalent to current grade C

1 = equivalent to both current grades F & G
New English and Maths GCSE's introduced 2015. First exam 2017 (curriculum available for Sept 2014 teaching)
GCSE Assessment Continued unitisation where appropriate Linear only
GCSE English "Speaking and listening" will continue to contribute to GCSE grade Only non- exam element in English will be "Speaking and listening" which will not contribute to GCSE grade
GCSE Maths Two GCSE's one covering numeracy, one covering maths techniques One GCSE covering all elements
AS levels Contribution moves from 50% to 40% of A level award Becomes "stand - alone" qualification with no contribution toward A level
AS and A level courses will be co-teachable
A levels
Examining body/Syllabus WJEC AQA; OCR; Pearson; EduQas (WJEC for English schools)
Grades awarded No change to grades
Assessment No change Linear course with practical elements included in exam
Most subjects No change Extra content and more demand for extended pieces of work
Science No change Practical work will not form part of assessment of Science A levels
English, Geography, History, Computer Science No change 20% mark will be coursework
Art and Design No change 100% non-examination

So what does all this mean? In essence, the Welsh pathway seems to maintain the status quo - very little is yet known about the specifications of the proposed new courses on which to make informed decisions. The syllabi are constrained to the WJEC. The regulatory issues are yet to be resolved and clearly there is an election pending next year that may alter the political landscape. There is of course a risk that the ability to choose may be withdrawn at some future date.

The English pathway seems to represent a greater challenge to teachers and students with less predictability in questions requiring more thinking skills. English and maths are at the forefront of the reforms and all subjects are exam-heavy, with 2 to 3-hour exams per subject. The grade range offers marginally greater differentiation, with the ability of students to achieve a higher grade than currently available in grade 9.

Another factor is the level of flexibility available in subject syllabi given the number of different examining bodies. This allows Heads of Department a further degree of choice around the course specifications best suited to the ethos of the school and its pupils.

For me, the critical issue is around currency. Ignoring the international impact and the intended portability of being part of the European Union, and keeping it close to home for a moment proportionately, the number of students educated in Wales applying to universities is miniscule by comparison to applications from students educated in England. How can we expect a GCSE/A-level obtained in Wales and thus has been assessed and graded differently (and is therefore less familiar to admissions officers in English universities) to carry the same value?

The cynic in me can't help but draw comparisons between the old CSE's (the Welsh pathway), and O-levels (under the English pathway). I am led to believe that currently just 69% of Welsh educated students get their University of choice, compared to 85% of English educated students. How can further disparity help?

I am a strong advocate for Wales and all it has to offer, and I honestly believe that Wales is best served by being part of the national and international stages. Excellent and rounded education is fundamentally what we all want for our children - the opportunity to experience exceptional learning and be inspired as well as equipped to fulfil their potential (whatever that may be).

Hence it's a no-brainer... if given the privilege of choice; I'm left in no doubt that my children (year 7 & year 9) will be best served by following the English pathway...

Insight team

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