Points of view

The education system in Wales is varied and is constantly the subject of debate. Here you can read the opinions of our executive team on the latest developments in the sector.

If you have an opinion about any of the views expressed here, please email us at comms@qualificationswales.org 

On your marks!

This year, students in Wales were entered for over 400,000 GCSE, AS and A level qualifications. Executive Director, Jo Richards, explains what happens after students sit their exams.

On your marks!

For students, the summer holidays are here, the exams are over and it’s time for a well-earned break from their studies. But for exam boards the pressure is on. This is the busiest time of year for them. They have a mammoth job to manage and the clock is ticking.

This year, students in Wales were entered for over 400,000 GCSE, AS and A level qualifications. That amounts to more than a million exam scripts and coursework tasks.

Exam boards have just a few short weeks to make sure they get all these marked accurately, consistently and in time for each qualification to be awarded (which is when they set this year’s grade boundaries – the minimum marks needed for each grade). Finally, they’ve got to process the marks for each candidate and send the grades to schools by results day.

What happens after students sit their exams?
At the end of the exam, invigilators in the exam hall securely pack the completed answer booklets (we call them ‘scripts’) and send them to the exam board to be marked. Scripts marked on-screen are sent to a secure scanning facility before being sent to examiners digitally. Traditionally marked scripts are sent directly to the examiner marking them.

Who marks the exams?
Every single examiner that marks for WJEC is a qualified teacher with a minimum of one year’s teaching experience. Many are practicing teachers who make time to mark exams on top of their other commitments.

There are lots of reasons why teachers choose to be examiners. They get a better insight into the qualification and how it’s assessed as well as deeper understanding of assessment. It’s also a good way to meet and make links with others who teach their subject. All of which helps them to develop their teaching.

All examiners receive face-to-face training on how to apply the mark scheme for the questions they will be marking. The mark scheme is written by the principal examiner for the exam board and gives detailed guidance and sample answers for each question in the exam paper.

Do all examiners give the same marks?
Before marking begins, the senior examiners who wrote the question papers bring all the other examiners together. They spend a day carefully reviewing and discussing the mark scheme and making sure they can all apply it consistently to a sample of answers given by this year’s students.

During marking, each examiner is spot-checked to make sure they are marking accurately and consistently. In recent years, advancements in technology have meant that more and more marking is now done on-screen. This allows exam boards to monitor the quality of marking more effectively. Every so often examiners are given a question to mark that has already been marked by a senior examiner. They can’t see which questions these are, but if their marking differs from the senior examiner they will either be retrained, or they can be stopped from marking altogether. When this happens, the questions they have marked are reallocated to a different examiner.

With on-screen marking, an examiner marks specific questions. This means they don’t mark all the answers given by a single student. It also means the students entered by one school or college won’t all be marked by the same examiner.

How is coursework marked?

Coursework is marked by teachers using assessment criteria set by an exam board. The school is responsible for making sure its teachers mark consistently. The exam board randomly selects a sample of marked work from each school. A moderator (another name for an examiner) checks that the school has applied the assessment criteria correctly and consistently. If a school has marked generously or severely then the marks for all its students may be adjusted up or down. If a school’s marks are inconsistent, the exam board may decide to remark all students’ work.

How are grades awarded?

When the marking’s done, a group of senior examiners for each subject, known as the awarding committee, meets to decide on the minimum marks needed for each grade – these are called grade boundaries. The exact mark at which a grade boundary is set can vary from year to year, depending on a range of factors. These include: the standard of this year’s answers compared to the standard of last year’s answers and statistical evidence about how this year’s students compare overall to previous years.

To find out more about how grade boundaries are set, what happens when new qualifications are introduced, and what to look out for in this summer’s results, then visit our website (qualificationswales.org) and click on ‘summer exams 2017’. There you’ll find some short articles on all these topics and more.

Published August 2017

Why VQs are so important

Associate Director Cassy Taylor explains why Qualifications Wales is reviewing each employment sector in detail as part of an overall strategy and why the VQ Awards to be held in Cardiff in June are so important to learners and employers.

Did you know that more than half of all qualifications awarded to learners in Wales are vocational?

This might well surprise many people who simply don’t realise just how many people choose to take the vocational, rather than academic, route as they enter the world of work.

But if you stop to think, it really shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, just about everyone working in different vocations, from caring to construction, needs to be qualified. Every craftsperson you invite into your home to work on anything from plumbing to plastering and electrics should follow a period of intensive training and take a relevant qualification before they practice their trade.

And that is how it should be. Would you want an unqualified electrician rewiring your house? The consequences could be disastrous.

That’s why we in Qualifications Wales place as much emphasis on the huge range of vocational qualifications (VQs) as on GCSEs and A levels.

We’re all accustomed to seeing students celebrating their success at GCSE and A level in the media every August when the results are published. But the same hasn’t always been the case with VQs, even though they account for around 60 per cent of all qualifications awarded to learners in Wales.

So Qualifications Wales is delighted to join Welsh Government, Colegau Cymru and the National Training Federation for Wales in sponsoring this year’s VQ Awards to be held in Cardiff on 6 June. These annual awards celebrate the achievements of learners, employers and – for the first time this year – trainers.

We believe it’s important that we celebrate the achievements of the thousands of people of all ages who take VQs every year in Wales - and the VQ Awards play a big part in that.

I’m particularly pleased that the contribution of trainers is being recognised this year for the first time. Good trainers are the bedrock of the system, guiding learners and inspiring them to persevere to reach ever greater heights.

The number and quality of applications for this year’s awards underline just how important these qualifications are, not only for the individuals and companies involved but also for the health of the Welsh economy.

At Qualifications Wales we are not only helping to promote the value of VQs through these awards, but we are also working to improve qualifications themselves.

Earlier this year we published our VQ strategy, setting out our approach to regulating vocational qualifications in Wales. We aim to ensure that VQs meet the needs of learners, higher education providers and employers in a wide range of careers.

We also want to build public confidence in the range and quality of qualifications awarded in Wales.

At the heart of our VQ strategy is a programme of reviews into qualifications in specific employment sectors. We have already looked at health and social care, including child care, a sector that employs tens of thousands of people in Wales, and we are now reviewing the needs of the IT sector and of construction and the built environment. Other employment sectors, such as engineering, financial services and tourism, will follow in due course.

In our sector reviews we look at whether the right qualifications are available to help candidates progress with confidence into employment or into higher education in a vocational subject.

We consider whether the assessment methods used are valid, reliable and up to date and we look at whether learners can be assessed in the medium of Welsh if they wish to do so.

We talk to employers about the skills they need in the employees they take on – and we talk to universities about the level of performance that they require from candidates applying to them with vocational qualifications. We are also particularly keen to hear the views of learners themselves and so far over 2500 have taken part in our sector reviews.

We’re approaching each review with an open mind: we don’t have preconceived ideas about what learners and employers want.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to going to the VQ Awards in June to hear the stories of all the shortlisted finalists and to share in celebrating their success by raising a glass to what I’m sure will be a bright future for them and for the health of the Welsh economy.

Published May 2017

What’s happening with GCSEs?

Emyr George, Associate Director with Qualifications Wales, reveals that the regulator is launching an information campaign to explain what the reforms mean for pupils, parents and employers.

As pupils across Wales prepare for their exams, Qualifications Wales is running an information campaign to highlight and explain the main changes to the new GCSEs they are studying.

This is important because, for the first time since GCSE qualifications were introduced, learners in Wales are taking GCSEs that have been designed specifically for them. There are some key differences between the new GCSEs developed for Wales and the new GCSEs being introduced in England.

Which is why we have sent 70,000 leaflets and posters to all secondary schools in Wales to highlight and explain the changes in more detail. We are encouraging schools to pass these on to pupils and their parents.

We have also included detailed information about the changes on our website, where teachers and parents can download further copies of both the leaflet and poster.

The new GCSEs have been introduced in stages over a period of three years between 2015 and 2017.

This summer, students will be sitting exams for new GCSEs in Welsh, English and mathematics, the subjects that were reformed first and introduced for teaching from September 2015.

Other subjects, including the sciences and modern foreign languages will be awarded for the first time in summer 2018. The final group of subjects being reformed will start to be taught from this September and awarded for the first time in summer 2019. You can see a full list of when each subject is being updated by going to our website – www.qualificationswales.org.

Some of the changes we have made to the new GCSEs are to the content that learners will be assessed on as part of the qualifications, other changes are to the way in which the content is assessed.

For example, all learners taking the new GCSE History must have studied at least some aspects of Welsh history. In GCSE English Language, the written coursework element has been replaced by an exam at the end of the course. For mathematics, the previous GCSE has been replaced by two distinct GCSEs, one focusing on

numeracy and problem solving skills, the other on more procedural mathematics, such as algebra and geometry.

One of the key points we are highlighting in our information campaign is that here in Wales we are keeping the traditional A* to G grades for the new GCSEs. This is different to England, where the new GCSEs will be graded using a numerical 9 to 1 scale. This means the highest grade that can be awarded for a new GCSE designed for Wales is still A*, whereas in England the highest grade available will be ‘9’.

It’s important to stress though, that while the grades learners receive may be different depending on where they sit their exams, the qualifications themselves are still essentially GCSEs.

All GCSEs available in the UK will continue to be of the same size and accessible to the same range of pupils. We are working closely with the other qualifications regulators in England and Northern Ireland to make sure that learners, parents and teachers can be confident that GCSEs awarded in Wales with A*-G grades will remain comparable to GCSEs in England and Northern Ireland.

We are also working closely with the exam board, WJEC, to make sure that when a new GCSE is introduced, the initial cohort is not disadvantaged by being the first to take the new version.

The reason for renewing the qualifications was not to make them harder, but to make sure that the content and the assessments are up to date and relevant. A learner taking a new version of a GCSE should not have a better or worse chance of getting a particular grade than if they were taking the old version of the qualification. We’ll explain more about how that’s done in a future Western Mail column – after this summer’s exams have been sat.

It’s also worth mentioning that the new GCSEs designed for use in Wales will all be offered by WJEC.

When Welsh Government announced that it would be developing a bespoke range of GCSEs for learners in Wales, it invited all exam boards to be part of the reform programme. WJEC is the only exam board to accept that invitation.

While this means that schools can no longer choose between different specifications offered by different exam boards, it also has clear advantages. It reduces the complexity of securing comparability across assessments, provides a clearer focus point for developing and delivering support and resources for teachers and learners – through Welsh and English.

If you would like more information about the changes or where to get resources to help teach or study the new GCSEs, then visit our website. There you will find, for each reformed qualification, a list of its key features and links to materials and resources to help prepare for them.

Published April 2017

How Wales leads the way with VQs

The Budget included plans to introduce ‘T levels’ in England –qualifications for 16 to 19-year-old learners that will be the vocational, or ‘Technical’, and the equivalent of A levels.

The proposals in England, which respond to Lord Sainsbury’s review of technical education, are likely to have a significant impact on the Further Education sector across the wider UK.

England is the largest market, and the qualifications offered there will shape the expectations of employers - an important factor when thinking about portability throughout the UK.

A key feature of T levels is that the current, somewhat complex, market approach - with many similar qualifications offered by a range of awarding bodies - will be replaced with a narrower range of qualifications: one qualification, provided by one awarding body, for each qualification level per occupation.

In many ways this big change in England follows a path that we have already embarked on in Wales. When Qualifications Wales was established, we committed to having a focus on vocational qualifications as well as GCSEs and A levels.

Qualifications regulators have historically focused on GCSEs and A levels, and vocational qualifications have not had the attention that they deserve. In developing our approach, we decided to look at the range and quality of qualifications on a sector by sector basis. We started our sector reviews by looking at Health and Social Care and Childcare, a large and important sector and, of course, one where public policy is devolved to Wales.

We published the findings of this first sector review last year and have subsequently started the process to commission a single suite of qualifications in Health and Social Care and Childcare designed specifically for Wales.

Our plan for Health and Social Care and Childcare is for there to be a single awarding body for each of 18 qualifications – replacing around 200 qualifications that exist in the market now.

This will address issues of coherence and progression between qualifications, and provide a better model for consistency throughout Wales.

We will also address concerns about the quality of assessment in this sector. Importantly, the introduction of the new suite of qualifications will also improve provision for those who wish to be assessed through the Welsh language.

Our Vocational Qualifications strategy sets out the sectors that we will look at next, and our reviews of Construction and the Built Environment and IT are underway. We don’t know the results of these sector reviews yet, so do not know what actions we will be taking.

At this stage, however, it seems unlikely that we will be seeking to commission a whole bespoke suite of new qualifications for Wales for each of these sectors: our actions will be proportionate and targeted to address the specific issues that we identify.

Coherence and progression are clearly matters that T levels are going to try and address, and this is where our approach is comparable to that proposed in England. However, our sector reviews are

very detailed and are looking at the full range of qualifications in a sector; they are broader than the T level reforms, which are focused on learners aged 16 to 19 in Further Education.

It will take some years for us to complete our planned sector reviews, and the introduction of T levels will run concurrently.

Our sector reviews have been very well received, so while we don’t see a need to change our approach, we do recognise that the introduction of T levels will have an impact on what we review.

With our strong focus on progression, portability and fitness for purpose across age ranges, Wales is leading the way in the reform of vocational qualifications.

The new suite of Health and Social Care and Childcare qualifications should be available for first teaching from September 2019. We will report on our review of Construction and the Built Environment later this year, with IT following early next year. There’s a lot to do, but we are starting to have a big impact.

Published March 2017

How we’re forging a new path


GCSEs in Wales have been subject to a rolling programme of reforms in recent years, with different subjects available for first teaching during September 2015, 2016 and 2017. Qualifications Wales has been taking the lead in this process since we were established in September last year.

Some differences will be immediately noticeable. For example, you may have read in the national press that England is moving away from the traditional A* to G grades and adopting a new 9 to 1 structure.

This is not happening in Wales.

Here in Wales the Review of Qualifications in 2013 decided that we will continue with A* to G grades.

The direction taken by England may be the most eye-catching change being implemented, but it is far from being the only one and there are some differences in content and assessment methods between Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

Employers and educators can remain confident that these changes do not affect the value of GCSEs in Wales and they will remain comparable to those in England and Northern Ireland.

There remain common features of the GCSEs to be awarded in future by the three countries. For example;

· the qualifications will be of approximately the same size and accessible to the same range of students as the qualifications they replace;

· the proportion of non-exam assessment has been set at the minimum deemed necessary to assess the essential aspects of the subject that cannot be validly assessed through an examination;

· assessments require students to draw on knowledge and understanding from across the subject content. In most subjects there is a common requirement for students to produce extended responses.

The qualifications developed to meet the different requirements of each regulator will be awarded independently of each other. This means the grades awarded within a subject will no longer be benchmarked across jurisdictions. However, each regulator is committed to carrying forward the standards set in existing qualifications to the reformed ones, using well established principles and methods.

The first batch of reformed GCSE qualifications – English Language, English Literature, Welsh Language, Welsh Literature, Mathematics and Mathematics Numeracy – were made available for first teaching in September 2015.

The first opportunity for pupils to sit the two new maths GCSEs was last November, with the results published last week. As the regulator, we closely monitored the awarding of this qualification and are content that the grade boundaries set by WJEC for both exams were appropriate and that the GCSE standard had been maintained.

We will continue to work closely with Ofqual in England and CCEA in Northern Ireland to ensure that GCSEs in each country command public confidence.

Published January 2017