Finding answers to the big questions

David Jones OBE DL is the new Chair of independent regulator Qualifications Wales and Chief Executive of leading UK education provider Coleg Cambria. With a changing education landscape in Wales inviting new questions and debate, he sets out his thoughts on the new role.

 David Jones, Chair, Qualifications Wales

Word has it that Qualifications Wales’ HQ, just outside Newport was once a TV studio where Doctor Who was filmed. The time-travelling TARDIS has long gone from the site, but the focus on the future continues. 

A few weeks ago, I took up the role of Qualifications Wales’ Chair following Ann Evans who had steered the independent regulator expertly across its first four years. It is a young, dynamic organisation with an ambition to make a real difference to benefit Wales. Joining from the wider world of education and business, I had admired the innovative approach and impressive achievements of the organisation long before I was appointed as the new Chair.  

Some people will be familiar with QW’s work and remit, others less so. It was set up under legislation in response to the Welsh Government’s Review of Qualifications, which had been expertly led by my former FE colleague Huw Evans, who sadly passed away this summer. The Review led to the Qualifications Wales Act 2015. It was designed to be deliberately independent of government, to avoid undue political influence, and its mission has always been to protect learners and promote public confidence. 

What does that mean in reality? The foundation is regulation, which keeps a careful eye on fairness and standards across qualifications as well as close checks on how the system operates. That means when learners across Wales sit exams and get their results, they do so in a system which operates on a level playing field. Getting regulation right really matters, not just for learners and their loved ones but also for the people that invest time in teaching or training them as well as those who continue to educate or employ them in future. These are all crucial players in a symbiotic system. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Qualifications Wales, for me, is how it can use its unique powers to reform and improve the offer. If a set of qualifications on offer does not meet the needs of learners in Wales, then a new and improved set can be commissioned and introduced instead. It is done through fair and open competition between awarding bodies and is an effective way to reshape and reform. Used responsibly and pragmatically, the power to reform can uniquely deliver a real difference for people in Wales and how they can use their learning and qualifications to impact positively on their communities and employers.   

The first test of this was the reform of qualifications in the health and social care sector – a hugely important workforce which touches the lives of almost everyone in some way. When Qualifications Wales did this first review, it found more than 240 different qualifications and not all of them relevant to Wales’ devolved context. It found duplication and, fair to say, some confusion. So, it took that unwieldy offer and redefined it. Going forward there will be around 10% of that former number – a smaller, coherent set of more relevant qualifications to help learners follow a clearer path. 

Hot on its heels came a review into construction and the built environment, then digital technology. In the pipeline, reviews into engineering, advanced manufacturing and energy plus tourism and hospitality. Each sector is clearly unique, so reform is never a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. 

Perhaps the most ambitious of all will be the work to reform qualifications to complement the new Curriculum for Wales. Although any new qualifications reformed for this will not be taught until 2025, with exams in 2027, now is the right time to think through the possibilities. Without doubt, the shape of qualifications taken at 16 will need to change, but the question is to what extent? 

There are a number of big questions to ask and the input of others will be the key to finding the right answers for the future. The first of a series of consultations kicks off this autumn, called Qualified for the Future, and more will follow over the next few years. It will take careful thought from stakeholders across Wales to get the offer right for the next generation. Ultimately, the vision is for 16-year-olds to take globally respected qualifications that inspire and prepare them for life, learning and work.    

Creating the conditions for Wales’ learners to thrive is not just important as a regulator. It’s crucial for unlocking the impressive talents, knowledge and skills that the country has to offer. Those of us lucky enough to work in education see first-hand how much our people have to offer, including children, young people and adult learners across our schools, colleges and training providers and all the dedicated teachers, lecturers and trainers who nurture their potential. 

Wales is small and it is unique. As an ambitious nation, we have to work together across education, government and industry to create better opportunities for our learners and reinforce Wales as a globally competitive player. 

We know that realising our ambitions requires teamwork. So as Qualifications Wales moves forward into even bigger challenges ahead, we will continue to push boundaries. But we will also make sure we keep inviting people to join us on the journey as we push towards common goals. 

We are aiming high, determined to continue to deliver real difference. And we will build this future without the help of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver.