For ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies, the proposed new GCSE qualifications in the recently published Qualified for the Future call for a new way of delivery and the provision of general education to 14-16 years olds through collaboration between schools and colleges.
According to Qualifications Wales, the reform of GCSE is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity for innovation and collaboration across the education sector. With the proposal to develop vocationally relevant exams, in subjects such as engineering and manufacturing, the need for collaboration extends not only to the design of the qualifications but also to the delivery of the teaching and learning.
The planned changes to the format of GCSEs provides a unique opportunity for Wales to embrace the provision of technical and vocational education before age 16. Together with the proposed changes outlined in the government’s vision for post 16 education, our response will determine whether or not we close the educational attainment gap and build genuine parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. If met with ambition and collaboration we will, if not we will fail another generation of young people.
The opportunity and challenges are quite simple. If Wales is going to alter the way it assesses at the age of 16, then the delivery of teaching and learning must also change.
The development of new GCSEs allows for the innovation in the 14-16 curriculum to be accompanied by innovation in assessment and in the delivery against the four purposes of education. This in turn can strengthen the provision of post compulsory education and widen the opportunities at both upper secondary and into genuine tertiary provision. Together it will help build better transition and articulation between the stages of lifelong learning and the skills needed for a dynamic workforce and an engaged citizenry.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reminds us, disparities in outcomes at 16 between those who are eligible for free school meals and those who aren’t remains stubbornly high. As the Welsh Government looks to change its approach to this provision it is important that we don’t lose sight of this indicator but at the same time that we explore all the possible ways of addressing under achievement at 16.
The Welsh Government has already identified that learner choice is a key factor in determining success at post 16. The opportunity presented by the new GCSEs is how to introduce choice earlier in education and how to deliver meaningful and vocationally relevant initial vocational education sooner, for those pupils that select it.
In its report, Qualifications Wales promises to be highly collaborative and open-minded. All parts of the education sector, and indeed politicians, need the same approach.
Key to the success of GCSE delivery in the new areas such as manufacturing and the expressive and performing arts, will be close and effective collaboration between schools and vocational colleges. This will offer more choice, not only for pupils but also for teachers. This will require a thorough rethink of the way in which 14-19 education is planned and delivered. It will offer access to facilities and it will go some way to engaging learners longer and better in an area of study that appeals to them. A conscious move in this direction will also help address the parity of esteem between areas of study.
Without collaboration and open mindedness, simply offering a range of GCSEs in inappropriate settings without the relevant real-world knowledge of the application of learning risks increasing disenchantment and widening rather than closing attainment gaps. It will also make it much harder to engage those learners in meaningful tertiary education. As set out in the ColegauCymru priorities for the next Welsh Government in May 2021, a move in this direction requires statutory change.
It is inevitable that for the qualifications to have maximum effect, FEIs will need to deliver some of the relevant courses at their locations. Alongside the introduction of the new GCSEs, the government should amend the necessary legislation to provide a legal basis for learners aged 14-16 to progress to vocational and technical pathways via FEIs and provide the necessary funding to support these learners. The change in the statutory status of FEIs is to ensure learner safety and to be clear about the legal requirements placed on all 14-16 education providers.
The delivery of vocational general education qualifications should be reserved for schools and colleges with the specific designation as IVET Centres (Centres for initial technical and vocational training). Estyn should be mandated and equipped to determine whether schools and colleges qualify under appropriate regulations as these kinds of centres. Initial Teacher Training (ITT) will also need to respond and adapt accordingly. Forward looking and responsive universities should be considering now how to adapt their ITT programmes to develop a dual model of pedagogy linking general academic teaching with vocational training to a younger cohort. This could include training in the use of virtual reality technology to allow younger learners to gain hands-on experience in a safe and controlled environment. It will certainly require the provision of effective CPD for existing teachers and lecturers.
For some a proposition as this, which requires genuine collaboration and innovation, will be a step too far. The same will be true of the introduction of more vocationally orientated GCSEs. Schools and college will need to initiate the partnerships and help governing bodies and parents understand that it isn’t change that they should fear, but the continued slow decline in achievement because of the status quo. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Wales must take the opportunity of qualifications reform to adapt and improve the education system that supports them.
 Qualifications Wales (October 2021) Qualified for the Future - The Right Choice for Wales. Our Decisions
 Welsh Government (June 2016) Review of progression planning in further education in Wales
 ColegauCymru (May 2021) Expanding citizens’ entitlement and engagement with education
 Gambin, L. (Lynn) (2009) Initial vocational education and training (IVET) in Europe: Review Thessaloniki, Greece: CEDEFOP