Assembly to debate Estyn Chief Inspector’s 2015/16 Annual Report

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In Plenary on Tuesday (07 March 2017), Assembly Members will debate HM Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales, Meilyr Rowlands’ 2015/16 annual report. The annual report was published on 24 January 2017 and has already been scrutinised by the Children, Young People and Education Committee on 15 February 2017.

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Scrutiny of Qualifications Wales’ Annual Report

23 December 2016

Article by Joe Champion, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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A picture of a video camera

This is the second article of a two part blog. The first part contained a general overview of Qualifications Wales’ background, principle aims, powers and activities.

Qualifications Wales (QW), the independent regulator of non-degree qualifications, has recently produced its first Annual Report. As it accountable to the National Assembly for Wales, the Children, Young People and Education Committee (the Committee) invited QW in to scrutinise its work from September 2015 to August 2016. QW attended the Committee on 14 December 2016.

Restricting health and social care qualifications

The committee questioned QW on a number of aspects of its operations, beginning with its Health and Social Care Sector Review and its plans to ‘restrict’ qualifications in relation to health and social care (including childcare and playwork). The restriction of qualifications entails limiting the development and awarding of individual, or collection of, qualifications to one awarding body.

QW said that, based on the evidence from the Sector Review, it wanted to restrict health and social qualifications because of concerns over the consistency of content and quality assurance across different qualifications, un-aligned progression routes and the provision of qualifications through the medium of Welsh. As a result it wants to commission a Wales’ specific suite of qualifications and restrict their delivery to a, yet to be chosen, single awarding body.

However the Committee were concerned that the creation of a new Wales specific qualification might become a barrier for workers from other parts of the UK wanting to work in Wales. This is a particular concern given the reported shortage of health and social workers in Wales. QW states that it:

will be for the Care Council for Wales to think about what its licence to practice might be in terms of the qualifications it’s prepared to accept.

The Committee also raised concerns over the potential impact of handing responsibility for a suite of qualifications over to one provider, who may then be in a position to unfairly raise fees. A 23 per cent increase in the WJEC’s charges for GCSEs was given as an example. QW responded, stating that:

We’re very sensitive to that. Ultimately, we do have fee-capping powers within the powers that are given to us as a regulator. So, if need be, we have that as a final resort that we can go to.

It also said that it would report on the fees and costs associated with qualifications in Wales in next year’s Annual Report.

Incidents of maladministration

The Committee drew attention to the 107 notifications QW received from awarding bodies, informing them of incidents that could potentially have an adverse effect on students. The most common incidents involved ‘maladministration’. QW explained that this meant an:

error that’s occurred within the schools. In those situations, the schools can take local arrangements to make sure that security is maintained…awarding bodies can also put those schools under particular scrutiny, so they’ll scrutinise results within the school to see if there’s any patterns that may not be what one would expect.

It went on to explain that ‘as raw data, they [notifications] actually feel potentially more worrying than they are’.

However given the Committee’s concern regarding the lack of detail on these incidents in the Annual Report, QW stated that this was ‘something we can look at in the report, moving forward, to provide more information on there.’

Staff capacity and resources

Given that QW’s budget allocation for 2017/18 was reduced by 4%, the Committee sought assurances that QW had the necessary resources to successfully deliver the following year of activity. QW reports that it managed the reduction through:

cutting back on certain areas of work, and not actually recruiting some staff, because we’re very aware that once you’ve recruited staff you have onward pressures once they’re in place.

But despite that, QW states that it is in ‘a reasonable position’ for 2017/18, provided that if the Welsh Government wants any additional work from QW, outside of its current scope, then additional funding will have to be provided. It also foresees ‘an increased pressure on our budget in a couple of years’ time, and that’s where resourcing will become tighter’, mainly from its current staff progressing through their pay spines.

The committee also sought QW’s view on the ongoing reform of the curriculum and what part QW will play in it. QW expects to start looking at existing GCSEs to see how they might fit in with the proposed new style curriculum, in early 2017 when it expects the Welsh Government to release the design principles of the new curriculum. In order to prevent schools being ‘destabilised by constant reform’, QW believes that the proposed changes may amount to ‘a process of evolution of GCSEs rather than a full-stage revolution.’

Furthermore, QW imagines:

that we will need to be making more of a claim for the year after in terms of some research that we think that we would need to do to prepare for the curriculum.

Levels of public confidence in qualifications in Wales

QW has commissioned a longitudinal study, over four and a half years, looking at perceptions of public confidence. The first wave of research was completed in early 2016, following up reports will conducted at two year intervals from this point. The aim of this research project, ‘Measuring Confidence in Qualifications and the Qualification System in Wales’, is to:

  • identify the levels of confidence in the qualification system in Wales amongst stakeholders;
  • measure the impact of Qualifications Wales on levels of public confidence in Welsh qualifications
  • identify the key strengths, and potential issues, of Qualifications Wales in promoting confidence in qualifications; and
  • make recommendations on how Qualifications Wales can improve public confidence.

The results from the first wave of research are due to be published ‘early in the new year’. However, the committee were keen to get some feedback on what the initial phase of this research has found. QW reported that:

Key findings are that the majority of people do have confidence in qualifications and the qualifications system, particularly around the GCSE and A-level reforms.

But:

There were also concerns, especially from schools, around vocational qualifications that are used in the school environment.

QW hopes to tackle the issues around confidence in vocational qualifications through Sector Reviews on the ICT qualifications and on Construction and the Built Environment qualifications. These reviews will be based on the model used for the Health and Social Care Sector Review. Another key issue the research flagged up was the need to improve:

understanding of the system, especially where there are reforms in key qualifications like GCSEs and A-levels, letting people understand what the differences are, why the differences are there.

During the meeting, QW highlighted that it has:

recently agreed a three-regulator joint statement on reforms in GCSEs and A-levels, which are describing the differences between Northern Ireland, England and Wales, and restating the value of those qualifications and the commitment of the three regulators to maintain standards independently in each jurisdiction.

QW will be in for scrutiny next year, after the publication of its next Annual Report. It is also likely that it will give, written and oral, evidence to the Committee on a number of different issues throughout the year.

Introducing Qualifications Wales

22 December 2016

Article by Joe Champion, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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A row of school desks

This is the first article in a two-part blog, following the release of Qualifications Wales’ first Annual Report. This part outlines the background to the establishment of Qualifications Wales, its aims and some of its main areas of activities in its first year. Tomorrow’s blog will cover the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s scrutiny of the Annual Report.

Background

Qualifications Wales (QW), the independent regulator of non-degree qualifications, was established by the Qualifications Wales Act 2015 (the Act) and began operating on 21 September 2015. Prior to QW, the Welsh Government were responsible for regulating qualifications in Wales.

The Act provides QW with two principal aims, which it must act compatibly with when exercising its functions. They are:

  • Ensuring that qualifications, and the Welsh qualification system, are effective for meeting the reasonable needs of learners in Wales; and
  • Promoting public confidence in qualifications and in the Welsh qualification system.

In August 2015, the Research Service produced an Act Summary of the Qualifications Wales Act 2015 and its background.

Although funded by the Welsh Government, QW retains ‘operational and regulatory independence’. The Qualifications Wales Framework Document sets out the relationship between the Welsh Government and QW.

Qualifications Wales’ powers and main areas of activities

In pursuing its principle aims, QW has four main areas of activity:

  • Recognition and approvalrecognising awarding bodies, who give out qualifications in Wales, which meet specified criteria. As part of the process it approves or designates the qualifications the awarding bodies wish to offer in Wales. A list of qualifications currently ‘approved’ or ‘designated’ is available through QW’s Qualifications in Wales (QiW) online database.
  • Monitoring and compliance – regulating awarding bodies to ensure that they maintain the required standards and deliver qualifications effectively. The qualifications being delivered are also reviewed to check their fitness for purpose.
  • Development and commissioning – when necessary, QW oversees the design of new qualification requirements and can commission awarding bodies to develop new qualifications for the Welsh education system.
  • Research – it undertakes research into the qualification system and into specific areas of interest, in order to ‘make evidence-based decisions’.

Prioritisation and restriction

QW is also able to prioritise and restrict qualifications. QW and the Welsh Government jointly decide what qualifications are to be prioritised. Prioritised qualifications are published on the Priority Qualifications List (PQL).

Qualifications on the PQL will be fast tracked for approval or designation, allowing them to receive funding for teaching in schools and colleges in Wales. QW has stated that prioritisation is not intended to communicate the relative importance of one qualification or qualification type over another. It is more about targeting its resources effectively.

QW can restrict the delivery of qualifications to a single awarding body in order to improve the consistency of delivery or to ensure the relevance of its contents. However, QW notes that:

We have not yet implemented such a restriction, or commissioned new qualifications, but we are considering doing so. Following our Sector Review of Health and Social Care, we took the decision to consult on plans to restrict and commission a new suite of qualifications in this sector for learners from the age of 14 upwards.

QW also produces a ‘Forward Look’ which outlines the qualifications that QW is considering for inclusion on the PQL in the future.

Developing and publishing Approval criteria

Another key part of QW’s initial work has been developing Approval criteria for reformed GCSEs, AS and A Levels in Wales. Approval criteria sets out the conditions a qualification needs to fulfil in order to be approved, or designated, for use in schools and colleges in Wales.

The reform of general qualifications was begun by the Welsh Government, in response to some of the recommendations in the Review of Qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds in Wales. The Welsh Government completed the reform of GCSEs in Mathematics, English Language and Welsh Language, in time to be taught in September 2015.

The responsibility for developing the remaining sets of Approval criteria now sits with QW. By August 2016, QW had published 11 Subject Approval Criteria, as well as Qualification Approval Criteria, which sets the general standards, for GCSEs and AS/A Levels.

QW reports that:

To ensure that these new qualifications met the needs of learners in Wales, we developed their Approval criteria with the active involvement (in person), and through consultation of stakeholders and subject experts, who provided us with proposals and recommendations for the subject content, structure and assessment arrangements.

Children’s Commissioner’s Annual Report 2015-16

09 November 2016

Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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CC LogoOn Tuesday 15 November 2016 in Plenary, Assembly Members will debate the Children Commissioner for Wales’ most recent Annual Report (2015-16). This gives AMs an opportunity to discuss the latest issues and challenges affecting children and young people in Wales and hear how the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant, responds to the report’s findings. The Welsh Government’s written response is due to be published following the debate. Last month, the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee heard directly from the Commissioner about the issues she raises in her report. You can see what was discussed on Senedd TV here.

The Commissioner and her role

Sally Holland is the third person to undertake the role of Children’s Commissioner, taking up her post in April 2015. The principal aim of the Commissioner in exercising her functions is to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children and to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in everything she and her team do. The Research Service blog Children’s rights in Wales: an update 2016 provides further detail on the UNCRC and the position in Wales.

The Commissioner can:

  • Review the effects of policies, proposed policies and the delivery of services to children;
  • Examine the case of a particular child or children if it involves an issue that has a more general application to the lives of children in Wales;
  • Require information from agencies or persons acting on their behalf, and require witnesses to give evidence on oath;
  • Provide advice and assistance to children and young people, and others;
  • Consider and make representations to the National Assembly for Wales about any matter affecting the rights and welfare of children in Wales.

The Commissioner’s remit covers all areas of the devolved powers of the National Assembly for Wales relevant to children’s rights and welfare. Her remit covers children and young people up to the age of 18 living in Wales, or who normally live in Wales. It also includes those up to the age of 25 if they have previously been ‘looked after’. Her office undertakes direct casework on behalf of children and young people.

Which does the latest Annual Report focus on?

The Annual Report identifies a wide range of issues facing children and young people in Wales and categorises them under the following headings:

  • Provision: Mental Health; Education (including ‘Additional Learning Needs’ and ‘elective home education’); Social Care (including advocacy, adoption, and short breaks for disabled children).
  • Poverty: The Commissioner says ‘Too many children in Wales are being denied a decent childhood due to the limiting effects of child poverty.[…] Welsh Government urgently needs to intensify its efforts to tackle child poverty.’ (The most recent statistics, published in June 2016, show that 29% of children in Wales are living in poverty, the same as England and higher than Northern Ireland (25%) and Scotland (22%).)
  • Protection: Child Sexual Exploitation and historic abuse; Equal protection; Travel to school; Privacy in youth courts.
  • Participation: The Commissioner saysWhilst I have no legislative remit to make recommendations to the National Assembly for Wales, I want to reaffirm my intention to press for a reinstated national democratic space for young people, in the form of a Youth Assembly.’ (See the Llywydd’s recent announcement here).

What are the Commissioner’s priorities?

Following her ‘Beth Nesa’/ ‘What Next’ consultation undertaken to inform her priorities, the Commissioner published her Plan for all Children and Young People 2016-19. Sally Holland says that ‘by 2019 I hope that Welsh Government and public services will have made significant progress towards delivering the following improvements for children:

  • Children and young people will have access to the mental health services they need in a timely manner. There will be stronger programmes for promoting emotional health and wellbeing in place in our health and social services, schools and youth services.
  • Children’s contemporary experiences of bullying will be better understood and more schools will prevent and tackle bullying effectively.
  • There will be better access to play, culture and leisure activities by children who are most likely to miss out on these, particularly those living in poverty and disabled children.
  • Care leavers will have better access to safe and secure housing options and an active offer of a job, education or training place.
  • All young people requiring continuing health and social support will have improved transitions to adult services.
  • Children will have the same legal protection as adults from physical assault.
  • Children and young people will be better involved in public services, including my own organisation.’

Setting out some of the work she herself intends to undertake, the Commissioner says:

  • ‘Under 7s asked me to prioritise play opportunities during the next three years. I will promote children’s rights to play and access leisure and cultural activities, whatever their circumstances.
  • Children from 7-18 have identified bullying as their top priority. I will work with children and others to identify and promote effective ways of tackling bullying. The issue of bullying is also connected to mental health and wellbeing – the overwhelming concerns of professionals and parents.
  • In 2016-17, I will launch a three year project to improve the transition from childhood to adulthood for those who need support and services – this includes care leavers and those with chronic health conditions and disabilities.
  • I will work with children and young people throughout Wales and through both English and Welsh languages. I will ensure that I listen to children and young people who may have most difficulty in accessing their rights, including disabled children, looked after children and those from ethnic, linguistic and sexual minorities. I will measure how I engage with different groups throughout Wales so that I can be held accountable for this by children and young people.’

The debate is scheduled for 4pm Tuesday 15 November and can be watched on Senedd TV here.

A look at the work of the Welsh Language Commissioner

14 October 2016

Article by Osian Bowyer, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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meri_huws

Image taken from ComisiynyddyGymraeg.org

Four and a half years ago, Meri Huws started in her role as the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner. An independent post created by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. A separate blog post provides background information on this.

The Commissioner recently appeared before the Culture, Language and Communications Committee to discuss her Assurance Report 2015-16 – Time to set the standard: A portrayal of Welsh language users’ experiences.

On Tuesday 18th October 2016, a debate will be held in Plenary on the Commissioner’s annual report.

Welsh Language Standards

30th March 2016 marked a milestone in terms of rights for Welsh speakers. Welsh language standards set new legal duties on local authorities, Welsh Government and national park authorities to provide public services to citizens through the medium of Welsh.  The Commissioner stated that the journey to this point had been long, but that these rights “realize the official status of the Welsh language and enable people, in every part of Wales, to use the language in their everyday lives”.

Over the coming months, duties will be placed on 54 additional organisations, including Natural Resources Wales, Estyn, the BBC and Welsh Police Forces. The regulations relating to the 54 additional organisations (Regulations Numbers 2, 4 and 5) were approved by the Assembly in February and March 2016. However, regulations no.3 relating to Universities were not approved by the Assembly following calls to delay the process to resolve specific issues within the sector.

Over time, more organisations will be included as Welsh Government publish regulations relevant to other sectors. (See this blog post for more background information on the standards).

Dealing with complaints and statutory investigations

One of the Commissioner’s key functions is to investigate “suspicions of failure by public organisations to implement their statutory duties” in relation to the Welsh langauge. During the reporting period, a total of 250 cases were referred to the Commissioner, although not all cases complied with the statutory definition of a complaint under the Welsh Language Act 1993.

Many complaints can be resolved without the need to conduct statutory investigations, however, in some cases, a statutory investigation will be conducted into alleged failures by an organisation. Eight statutory investigations were conducted during 2015-16.

Where organisations do not operate within the standards system or operate a statutory or voluntary Welsh language scheme, the Commissioner can act on the basis of concerns from the public about a service or lack of it. In these instances, a review can be conducted. For example, a review was conducted by the Commissioner in April 2015 into the Welsh language services of high street banks in Wales following “significant increase in the number of concerns raised by members of the public regarding a lack of Welsh language services in banks”.

The review was based on evidence provided by the public and interviews with senior officials within banks operating in Wales. The review resulted in eight recommendations for banks, from “setting timescales for establishing Welsh language online services and mobile bank apps” to “ensuring consistency in the use of Welsh across all branches”.

The Commissioner’s budget

The reduction in Welsh Government budgets for the Welsh language as a whole in 2016-17 is 5.9% overall. According to Welsh Government, the reduction was limited to ensure that activities to promote the language in communities in Wales are protected.

The Commissioner’s budget for 2015-16 was £3.4 million, 8.1% lower than the previous year. Welsh Government has confirmed that there will be a further 10% cut to the Commissioner’s budget for 2016-17, down to £3.05 million. Over a period of 4 years, the Commissioner’s budget has been cut by 25% in financial terms, or once inflation is factored in, a 32% cut in real terms.

According to the Commissioner, the budgetary cuts seen over the last few years mean that “existing resources are not sufficient to extend the hold of the Welsh language measure on different sectors in the near future”.

The Commissioner has also highlighted the inconsistency in cuts to other similar organisations with regulatory functions and statutory obligations.

Assurance Report 2015-16

The 2015-16 Assurance Report: Time to set the standard – A portrayal of Welsh language users’ experiences, is the second such report the Welsh Language Commissioner has published, which focuses on areas of concern for the Commissioner. The report emphasises the need for organisations to “step-up and deliver good quality public services that enable Welsh speakers to increase their use of the language in their everyday lives”.

The Commissioner told the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee that she believed that many organisations had reached a plateau in terms of Welsh language public services, whilst some had rolled back their Welsh language services provisions over the last few years. She cited GOV.UK as a particular example where Welsh language services have deteriorated since its introduction by the UK Government, and that provision of Welsh language services by Government agencies such as DWP, which were once strong, have since weakened.

The Commissioner is due to appear before the Culture, Welsh Language and Communication Committee in the near future to discuss her 2015-16 Annual Report.