March 2013


  • Educational Freedom
    Assessment systems in the four UK countries are growing further and further apart, raising questions about the transferability, equality and credibility of qualifications. More
  • Watching Brief
    In its attempts to drive standards in teaching and learning beyond ‘good’, Peter Broughton’s school had to rethink its approach to staff development and lesson observation. He explains how their strategy has succeeded. More
  • Board spectrum
    Governance is an important focus for Ofsted inspections in colleges and is now increasingly so for schools. In a new report, charity CfBT looks at what education can learn from other sectors to help make the governing body more effective. More
  • Right Club
    A policy of keeping students in school in a dedicated Inclusion Room when they misbehave, rather than resorting to exclusions, has had profound results, says Jeremy Rowe. And everyone has signed up to it. More
  • Plan A
    Higher level apprenticeships offer an increasingly attractive alternative for young people wwho reject the traditional university route to a career. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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Assessment systems in the four UK countries are growing further and further apart, raising questions about the transferability, equality and credibility of qualifications.

Educational Freedom

The impact of devolution

When policies on devolution were first discussed who would have thought that qualification reform would become a major battleground? Scotland had long had a qualification system different from England, Northern Ireland and Wales but the other three countries have previously worked hard to maintain a united front in their approach to qualifi cations, even in the face of particular challenges such as the functional skills hurdle in GCSE.

Those days of unity now seem a thing of the past. The abandonment of modularity in GCSE in England has proved a step too far for Northern Ireland and Wales and any further reform to either GCSE or A level looks set to divide us still further. Spare a thought fo for those other parts of the United Kingdom (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for example) who no longer know which way to turn in the qualification market. They may appear to be in an enviable position with so much choice but can they guarantee to their students that the increasingly divergent qualifications offered in the four parts of the United Kingdom will carry equal value with employers and universities? Can they also guarantee that students will be treated equally and equitably?

The law does not provide for equality between residents of the four countries since devolution inevitably means different approaches and >we have already seen the impact on students, both over the cost of higher education tuition and, more recently, over the re-marking of GCSE English examinations.


Since coming to power in 2010, the coalition government has undertaken reviews of the National Curriculum and its assessment, GCSEs, A levels, vocational education, apprenticeships and accountability measures. Many decisions are still to be made.

The National Curriculum has been reviewed and draft secondary programmes of study were published for consultation in February. Ministers had already stated that the current model of assessment will disappear.

GCSEs were set to become EBCs (English Baccalaureate Certificates) in 2015 until the secretary of state was persuaded to abandon this plan. However, they are already changing to become linear from 2013 and will undergo further review that could mean an end to teacher assessment. At post-16, A levels have already lost the January modular examinations and the secretary of state has asked Ofqual to reform their structure to create a standalone AS and a two-year linear A level. ASCL members argued strongly for the retention of AS, as did most other respondents to the consultation, and are dismayed at this proposal. The reform has been delayed until 2015 but the timescale still appears too tight.

Both A levels and other post-16 courses are affected by funding changes and all post-16 students who have not achieved a grade C in GCSE English or maths will have to continue taking these subjects until 18. Whatever the outcomes of the various consultations, 2014 and 2015 will be challenging years for teachers and curriculum planners as they plan for a revised National Curriculum and new GCSEs and A levels.


The Review of Qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds in Wales was published in November 2012. Underpinning many of its 42 recommendations is the growing desire in Welsh government for distinctive provision for Wales. It is applauded in many places but it poses risks to coherence and continuity for some learners, very likely confusion for their parents, and leaves some teachers less certain as to the transferability and credibility of their knowledge and skills into England, and vice versa.

The desire for Wales to pursue its own path is evident in the establishment of Qualifications Wales (QW) to take on the role of regulator. This body would inherit a range of problems around the comparability of standards for existing qualififi cations, and would need to manage the risks associated with the new qualifi cations envisaged by the review. The Welsh Joint Examination Committee (WJEC) has expressed its concerns in what has become a very public dispute, none of which helps the profession to prepare for the inevitable changes ahead. The key proposals of the review include:

  • An emphatic place for the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification (WBQ), where – unlike England – the Bacc is both well regarded and worthy of the name. There is support for an enhanced role for the WBQ but concern about proposals to introduce grades in the future.
  • A GCSE in numeracy as a mandatory qualification at Key Stage 4 with an additional GCSE in mathematical techniques planned for many learners. It and a revised GCSE in English language will be used to assess the numeracy and literacy components of the WBQ.
  • A new Essential Skills Wales qualification in digital literacy.

The profession has given a warm(ish) welcome to the review conclusions. Any recommendations adopted as a result will have their fi rst impact on learners currently in Year 7, as they enter KS4 and, of course, earlier for schools as they plan to meet the requirements.

Northern Ireland

The proposed changes to GCSE and A level in England announced by Secretary of State Michael Gove produced an angry response from Northern Ireland Minister of Education John O’Dowd at the lack of inclusion or consultation. Following that, and with concerns around the English GCSE grading problems, the minister has put in place a review of qualifications that will report later this year.

At the ASCL Northern Ireland conference in November, examinations board CCEA and the regulator were at pains to reassure members that Northern Ireland’s qualifications would continue to be curriculum-led, focused on the needs of all learners and appropriate to the demands of higher education and the world of work. The need to ensure the comparability and transportability of qualifications was stressed, along with a commitment to compliance with three-country regulation and continued confidence in the current GCSE and A level qualifications.

The introduction of the entitlement framework for curriculum ensures that a wide range o of qualififications, both academic and vocational, are accessible to all pupils and therefore the number of vocational qualifications will increase by 2015.

In terms of structure of GCSEs, there will continue to be controlled assessment and a unitised approach to assessment. Optional linear forms have also been on offer since September 2012 and an increasing number of schools are opting for this approach. The need to reassure parents, pupils and schools of the robustness and fairness of GCSE examinations is recognised and a process of revision and strengthening of content and reaccreditation is progressing with geography completed and history and English literature to follow. A review of the controls to safeguard the integrity of examinations is also underway.

In spite of our confidence in the quality and comparability of our local qualifications, a background fear persists about university attitudes to qualifi cations in the future if England develops a radically different style of qualifications. ASCL NI members will undoubtedly be watching developments to ensure that their pupils are not disadvantaged in any way.


Scottish education is going through a period of significant change to its curriculum, to learning and teaching, to the assessment processes that underpin them, and to the qualifications that they may lead to.

Under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), a broad general education (BGE) from three to 15 is now in place that includes a range of experiences and outcomes that should be available to all pupils. These are set in the context of four broad capacities: confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors, and successful learners.

They are supported by a set of principles that include challenge and enjoyment, breadth, progression, depth, personalisation and choice, coherence and relevance.

Schools are now moving on to post-15 provision. Learning in the senior phase will continue to be active, engaging and enterprising, building directly on the broad general education. Challenging, relevant and rewarding learning experiences will drive learners’ motivation and sense of purpose, and enable them to develop deeper understanding.

This fresh approach to learning needs new assessment methods and qualifications. The new and revised qualifications therefore reflect the aims, values and principles of Curriculum for Excellence and are intended to provide suitable progression from the BGE.

The new national courses and awards, which will be phased in from 2013-14 and 2015-16, are designed to support the enriched approach to learning of Curriculum for Excellence. They provide the scope for a greater emphasis on:

  • depth and application of learning
  • developing skills, including higher-order thinking skills
  • real-life contexts
  • personalisation and choice

They are designed to validate the knowledge, understanding and skills that young people have learned and that they need for further study, employment or training. They also provide opportunities for young people to continue to acquire and develop the attributes and capabilities of the four capacities as well as skills for learning, life and work. They include a new type of unit that is less prescriptive and more flexible, with fewer broader outcomes, in order to encourage a more holistic and rounded approach to assessment. Assessment approaches are designed to support learning and encourage breadth and depth of understanding, to motivate and to challenge learners.

Staff have the flexibility to design programmes that meet the needs of all learners. Qualifications are designed as hierarchical courses and units that have a common structure.

This approach has the potential to encourage young people to aim for the highest possible level of achievement.



Sue Kirkham, ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist

Frank Cassidy, Regional Officer for ASCL Northern Ireland

Ken Cunningham CBE, General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland

Maria Rimmer, Vice President, ASCL Vymru and Headteacher of St Jospeh's Catholic and Anglican High School in Wrexham