8 November 2021

Welsh GCSE reforms amount to educational vandalism on an epic scale

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Devolution has been a disaster for the most vulnerable people in Wales. Despite healthcare spending being higher per person in Wales than in England, the elderly and the ill struggle with NHS waiting lists far longer than those in England. The physical and emotional toll on hundreds of thousands of people is shameful. Many who have had any dealings with the NHS in Wales will have tales of frightening ineptitude and a dereliction of care that is directly attributable to amateurish and irresponsible political decisions taken in the Senedd. 

But arguably even worse, with consequences that will stretch far into the future, is the disaster that is afflicting the children who will have the misfortune to attend state schools in the region. According to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an analysis of attainment in 15-year-olds in over 80 countries, Welsh pupils have long been behind children in other parts of the UK, and continue to be in science and mathematics, and significantly so in reading. Various platitudes followed the publication of the report, but it was only last month, with the publication of ‘Qualified for the Future’, that specific changes to what is taught in Wales’s schools was announced.

It makes for depressing reading. It is recognisably ‘progressive’, with that familiar tendency to refer to people in reductive terms, defining pupils throughout as ‘learners’ (ironic, really, because the plans unveiled promise to, in their language, ‘deliver’ qualifications which will reduce, rather than add, to a Welsh pupils’ learning). This ‘reform journey’ uses language which is jargon-heavy and often phrased to obscure, rather than illuminate. GCSEs will be ‘re-imagined’ and ‘co-constructed’; pupils in Wales will have ‘a deeper and more focused learner experience’ which, inevitably, puts ‘equality and well-being at its heart’, rather than high academic standards and subject content.

From 2025 Welsh GCSE subjects will be divided into six ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’. What this means in reality is that pupils will no longer be able to study separate GCSEs in Chemistry, Physics and Biology; instead they will take one course which combines elements of all three subjects. Furthermore, English Language and English Literature will be merged into one qualification, and there will be fewer Mathematics qualifications. ‘Digital competence’ will be equal to literacy and numeracy as a ‘skill’. In other words, the very subjects that Welsh pupils are failing in are to be narrowed. On the upside there will be a new ‘made-for-Wales dance qualification’.

Examinations, cancelled twice in the pandemic, but which were shown to be the fairest and most objective way of assessing all pupils without inequalities being exacerbated, will be replaced with continuous assessment to measure ‘each individual’s progress, agree next steps and monitor progress’. The grade inflation we saw when teachers were solely responsible for GCSE and A level grades will be endemic to a system which will have little control over marking pupils’ work, or the consistent distribution of grades.

This is curriculum change driven by progressive ideology based on a misplaced belief in the need to promote skills and ‘experiences’ over subject knowledge. It is the latest manifestation of a mistaken belief that such reforms prepare pupils for a future job market that, for some reason its authors believe, will place less value on science, mathematics and literacy, than in the past. It is educational vandalism on an epic scale. 

This dumbed-down curriculum sets up Wales’s children to fail – if not in the grades they get, then in their life chances. These pupils will have to compete for places at university and in the workplace with peers who have deeper and wider subject knowledge of core subjects, and who have grades determined through public examinations. What is also astonishing is that such radical changes were based on a puddle-deep ‘consultation’ process which gained a derisory 1,033 responses to Qualifications Wales’s main questionnaire. This included 745 ‘educational professionals’, 113 ‘learners’, 106 ‘members of the public’, and 205 which were ‘not stated’. It is like asking Twitter to write public policy, and it hardly adds up to an evidence base deep enough to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people. 

This is a national tragedy, but one which will take years to be fully understood, if it is truly understood at all. How many young people in Wales will not go on to study Chemistry or English Literature at A level because of their sub-standard GCSEs? How many fewer doctors and mathematicians will benefit society because students did not study those subjects at university (on the upside, we may have more Welsh dancers). And what do such changes say to young people in Wales? How do those in charge – in this case the heads of Qualifications Wales, David B Jones and Philip Blaker – explain why, if you are 16 and living in Wales, you now need to know less science, maths and English than previous generations? What does it say about a country that places less value on the innate beauty of these subjects and the wonders that they contain, preferring instead to promote vaguely-defined skills and ‘experiences’.

As one of Wales’s most famous authors once wrote (but who probably won’t be studied in the new ‘integrated’ English GCSE), ‘Land of my fathers? My fathers can keep it!’ 

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David James is deputy head of a London independent school.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.