August 2017

The know zone

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  • All change
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There is now clear blue water between education in Wales and systems in other home nations, says Tim Pratt.

All change

Since the creation of the Welsh Assembly and the devolution of certain powers in 1999, education in Wales has been moving in a different direction from the systems in England and Northern Ireland. Changes were slow at first but more substantial over the last decade until we are now at a situation where key policies and structures are substantially different from those in the other countries.

What are the main differences?

  • In the early 2000s, Wales decided to do away with SATs and rely on teacher assessments instead.
  • In public examinations, Wales has kept the GCSE and A*–G grading system and the coupling of AS and A Level.
  • The Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification (WBQ) with its emphasis on skills development has gained considerable credibility. After a rewrite of its specifications, since 2015 it has been taken by the majority of students in Wales at both Level 2 and Level 3.
  • Two major reports in 2015, Successful Futures by Professor Graham Donaldson ( and Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers by Professor John Furlong (, made recommendations for system-wide reform of the curriculum (Donaldson) and Initial Teacher Education (ITE) (Furlong). Their impact is now being felt across Wales.
  • Following the Donaldson report, the Welsh Government decided to adopt a policy of ‘co-construction’ for the new curriculum. It has led to the creation of pioneer schools, which have spent the last 18 months developing ideas and trying them out in the classroom. The deadline for implementation is 2021.
  • The proposed changes to ITE mean that schools will play a far greater role in preparing students for becoming newly qualified teachers (NQTs). Many of the recommendations from our ASCL Cymru Blueprint ( have become an accepted part of the education scene and have been adopted into the day-to-day language of education professionals and civil servants.
  • Over the last two years, specifications for GCSEs and A levels have been rewritten. The first of the new-style examinations are being taken this summer with other subjects being phased in over the next two years. The biggest change has been in GCSE maths, where Wales has chosen to create two subjects (maths numeracy and mathematical techniques), and also made significant changes to the English and Welsh examinations.
  • Wales’ performance measures are under scrutiny as the newly introduced Capped 9 system measures the average points score that students achieve in two maths papers, two science and either English or Welsh language, as well as any other five (including no more than two vocational equivalents). This reliance on core subjects has already seen many schools reduce their GCSE options. The Welsh Government is now consulting on the potential for a new system for accountability that cuts down on the unintended consequences of the current arrangements.
  • School improvement is in the hands of four regional consortia that deliver the service on behalf of the local authorities. It has seen a greater level of consistency within individual regions but the approach varies across consortia. It would be nice to think that the development and implementation of the self-improving system would mean that, gradually, the consortia could be slimmed down and intervene only where it is clear that individual schools are unable to effect effective improvement themselves.
  • Our independent qualifications regulator, Qualifications Wales, is beginning to have an impact in ensuring that Wales’ qualifications are comparable to those elsewhere, and relevant to all our young people. However, we only have one exam board, the WJEC (formally the Welsh Joint Education Committee), so are having to get used to having no choice about which specification can be followed.
  • Wales is setting up a National Academy for Educational Leadership, a truly exciting project that could have real impact and ensure that there is consistently high-quality training available for current and aspiring school leaders.
  • Teachers’ pay and conditions are in the process of being devolved. This is an area fraught with potential problems as we wrestle with how to ensure that there is parity between England and Wales.

We can be optimistic about much of what is happening but, inevitably, there are problems as well. The level of bureaucracy is enormous and sometimes stifles creativity, as well as using up significant resources. At the last count, the average secondary school in Wales was worse off than its counterpart in England by more than £600 per student per year and we estimate that more than 75% of our secondary schools will be in deficit in the next financial year.

There are many other changes on the horizon, including proposed changes to school governance, new professional teacher and leadership standards and a new approach to additional learning needs. If we can get all the changes right, then we can be confident we will have an education system second to none, and one that is worth fighting for.

Tim Pratt is Director of ASCL Cymru