Devolution and difference – what it means for GCSEs

  By Philip Blaker, Chief Executive, Qualifications Wales 

If there’s one thing this summer’s GCSE results day showed, it’s that new differences across the devolved nations made comparisons extra tricky – and arguably unwise. Now everyone’s figuring out how to make sense of a complicated picture in the longer term.

With the parallel changes happening in each country, and a range of interpretations and explanations to digest, it’s not hard to see how commentators could get confused or form the wrong assumptions. Some of those are myths worth busting.

Results day saw a lot of commentary around England’s GCSE reforms. Much has changed there, including the new 9-1 grading system, so people may assume Wales has remained static. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our approach has been measured, so might not be quite as obvious as the changes in England. With a total of 21 new GCSEs now developed and examined over the last five years, the scale and pace of qualification reforms in Wales have been every bit as demanding. While the changes may not have grabbed headlines, they are nevertheless significant, as any teacher in Wales will tell you.

It’s true that Wales has retained the A* to G grading system for GCSEs, true that they’re designed for the same range of students as before and they remain the same size as legacy versions. Reforms in Wales are slightly different from those in England, but they have the same aim of strengthening GCSEs to meet changing needs. GCSEs across the two nations are graded differently, but the currency is no different.

A scratch beneath the surface shows how much has changed, as we’ve strengthened GCSEs to make them fit for the future.

We’ve introduced a range of updated, engaging content and strengthened assessment, so that learners can truly stretch themselves. We have recalibrated the balance between exam and coursework assessment, made more qualifications linear instead of unitised, and capped the number of times a unit can be retaken.

Science is a good example of how much has changed, using a sensible approach to reform. The GCSE science subjects have been rethought to make them relevant and stretching, as well as engaging for learners. Students are still assessed on their practical science skills, but this is now marked by the exam board, not by schools.

We have introduced two separate maths GCSEs, one focussed on practical problem solving in everday contexts, the other on more conceptual mathematics. There are three tiers of assessment, which stretches high-attaining students and offers a more positive exam experience for those who find maths more challenging.

The combination of reform and devolution can feel like shifting sands, but we continue to work closely with regulators in England and Northern Ireland to ensure qualifications are valued equally and assessed fairly.

We’ve reformed A levels in parallel with England too, and as the new curriculum takes shape in Wales, there’s more reform to come. That won’t make simplistic, side-by-side comparisons any easier as we move forward, but it reflects the nature of devolution and the differences across our UK nations’ ecologies.