My warm congratulations to all those young people who last week celebrated examination results, and also to the teachers who have worked so hard to educate them during a time of tumultuous change. This year has been the first in which a raft of new examinations has been taken, at both A level and GCSE. New specifications and new requirements always throw up challenges for teachers and school leaders.
Even without these changes, the publication of exam results is a tense time. Not only do the hopes and expectations of a large number of young people rest on them, but also those of schools. No sooner are the cheers and words of praise out of our lips than the post-mortem begins as we dissect what went well, what could have gone better, and what we need to do to achieve even more next time.
In education, to stand still is to go backwards, and now is the time to look to the future. So what can we learn from this year’s results?
Results can be affected by political decisions, both in a positive and negative manner. In this year’s GCSEs, the science A*-C results fell by nearly seven per cent. Of itself and without any rational explanation, this would be very worrying. But the truth is that we expected some turbulence. Why?
In 2014, the Minister for Education and Skills announced changes to the main performance measures for schools, most of which were welcomed. This included an expectation that all students would achieve two GCSE passes in science, and that these could not include the vocational equivalent (i.e. BTEC). The result of this announcement is that 4,400 more students took GCSE science this year - a 22.5 per cent increase on 2015.
Bigger changes still are afoot. Next summer will see the first examinations in the new mathematics courses, with students in Wales taking exams in two mathematics subjects: ‘numeracy’ and ‘mathematical techniques’. What impact will this change have on overall results? Changes have also been taking place in English and Welsh (First Language). For many schools, the emphasis on language has meant a reduction in entries of the literature paper. Will this trend continue?
Curriculum comes first
However, I think there is much to be optimistic about. Professor Donaldson’s wide-ranging and powerful review of the curriculum is a huge opportunity for the education system in Wales. While some may feel that qualification reform is rubbing up uncomfortably against the Donaldson vision, it is clearly the case that we have a curriculum framework in Wales that should be the envy of the world. It is a framework that provides the intellectual and ethical grounds for moving away from a mechanistic view of the curriculum as a narrow set of subjects driven by qualification reform.
In Wales we aspire to an education system in which curriculum, as the sum of learning experiences in pursuit of the agreed purposes of education, comes first.
ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System in Wales articulates a vision for our education system. Set in 2020, this vision looks back to the present day:
"Curriculum and qualification reform begun back in 2015, has been strongly focused on the four purposes of the curriculum:
• Children and young people who are ambitious, capable learners who are ready to learn throughout their lives.
• Enterprising, creative contributors who are ready to play a full part in life and work.
• Ethical, informed citizens who are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world.
• Healthy, confident individuals who are ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.
In this way, assessment and qualification reform have appropriately followed the curriculum and the outcomes Wales is seeking in an educated 19-year old."
Let’s work together to make this vision a reality.