Qualifications Wales Guest Blog: Changes to GCSEs

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In this guest blog, Jo Richards, Director of Regulation with Qualifications Wales, explains the changes introduced to GCSE examinations this year and what it may mean for this August’s results.

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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.

New Publication: The Qualifications Wales Bill – Summary of changes made at Stage 2

22 May 2015

National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This document sets out the main changes made to the Qualifications Wales Bill (hereafter ‘the Bill’) during Stage 2 proceedings. The Bill provides for the transfer of responsibility for the regulation of qualifications in Wales from the Welsh Government to a new independent body, ‘Qualifications Wales’.

The Qualifications Wales Bill – Summary of changes made at Stage 2 (PDF, 233KB)

This is an image of the cover of the publication: Qualifications Wales Bill: Summary of changes made at Stage 2

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New Publication: The Qualifications (Wales) Bill – Bill Summary

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This Bill Summary provides an overview of the Qualifications Wales Bill, which was introduced to the Assembly on 1 December 2014.

The Bill provides for the transfer of regulatory responsibility for qualifications awarded in Wales from the Welsh Government to a new independent body, ‘Qualifications Wales’. The Welsh Government wants to strengthen oversight of qualifications and of the qualifications by also reforming the current arrangements.

The Qualifications (Wales) Bill – Bill Summary

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National Assembly for Wales Research Service.