Reimagining GCSEs

Qualifications and curriculum reform in Wales

Emyr George Director of Qualifications Policy and Reform, Qualifications Wales

A whole new Curriculum for Wales

Education in Wales is changing. From September 2022 an innovative, new curriculum will be introduced for leaners aged 3 to 16. This curriculum will equip learners with the knowledge, skills and experiences necessary to prepare them more effectively for life in an ever-changing world. 

The new Curriculum for Wales was introduced following the Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment arrangements(1) which revisited the fundamental purposes of education for children and young people. The review made wide ranging recommendations around how curriculum and assessment arrangements should change in Wales. It also sought to address many of the issues previously highlighted by the OECD around the need for change within the Welsh education system to help improve learner outcomes(2). 

The new curriculum is a significant departure from the existing national curriculum. Rather than being an off the shelf programme for delivery it is designed as a framework which requires schools to develop and design their own school curriculum based around six broad Areas of Learning and Experience (Expressive Arts, Humanities, Health and Wellbeing, Languages, Literacy and Communication, Mathematics and Numeracy and Science and Technology)(3). This gives schools an exciting opportunity to tailor their school curriculum, and the specific content and topics they teach, to the needs of their learners and local area.

Implications for qualifications

A curriculum of this nature has obvious implications for the way qualifications, including GCSEs, are designed and assessed. Through our Qualified for the future project(4), Qualifications Wales is actively exploring how qualifications and their assessments need to change to match the ambition of the new curriculum and support effective teaching and learning.  

Keeping the GCSE name

We know the GCSE brand is valued by many stakeholders. For example, 77% of responses to our recent consultation either agreed or strongly agreed we should keep the GCSE brand(5). Many respondents commented on the fact that GCSEs are well understood, command trust and have currency. However, it was also clear from the responses that GCSE qualifications and their assessments will need to change to better meet the needs of learners and to reflect the new Curriculum for Wales. 

Current activity

In October 2021, we announced the subjects in which new GCSEs will be created to support the new Curriculum for Wales(6). This includes GCSEs in exciting new subject areas such as social studies, film and digital media, and engineering and manufacturing. 

From our research and from speaking with stakeholders (including learners), we know there is a strong appetite for change within GCSE qualifications. For example, we know that:

  • some GCSE subjects are seen as too content-heavy leaving little opportunity to explore topics in any depth.
  • many GCSEs rely heavily on terminal exams, which can be vulnerable to unexpected events such as Covid-19. 
  • many stakeholders would like to see more digital technology used in the assessment process. 
  • many subjects focus on timed written examinations at the expense of other forms of assessment such as projects or practical assessments.
  • GCSEs tend to focus on assessing knowledge as opposed to broader understanding and skills.
  • assessments can be rigid with limited scope for schools to develop and devise their own assessment tasks. 

Next Steps

This academic year, our focus is on working with stakeholders, including teachers and learners, to reimagine and co-construct the next generation of GCSEs for Wales. As we do so, we are also actively discussing the wider choice of qualifications that should be available alongside these new GCSEs. 

We have already identified several priority areas for the design of future GCSEs. These include:

  • Looking at how flexibility in content and assessment could support curriculum development and delivery at school level.
  • Exploring how extra information could be reported alongside an overall grade to give learners a broader picture of their achievement.
  • Increasing the range of assessment methods within GCSE qualifications.
  • Identifying how qualification design can support learner mental health and wellbeing.
  • Making more effective use of digital technology in qualifications, with alignment between content, teaching and assessment approaches. 
  • Giving schools more opportunity to develop their own assessment tasks that contribute towards the overall GCSE grade.
  • Ensuring future GCSEs are more inclusive and recognise and celebrate the diversity that exists across Wales.

These reforms present an exciting opportunity for collaborative change and innovation within GCSE assessment in Wales. As we explore ideas for change, we will involve others in considerations of how to get the right balance across reliability, validity, manageability and engagement for these new qualifications. More information about the project and how you can get involved can be found on our website(7). 

References

(1) https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-03/successful-futures.pdf

(2) https://www.oecd.org/education/Improving-schools-in-Wales.pdf

(3) https://hwb.gov.wales/curriculum-for-wales

(4) https://www.qualificationswales.org/english/qualified-for-the-future—have-your-say/the-story-so-far/

(5) https://www.qualificationswales.org/media/6020/summary-of-findings.pdf

(6) https://www.qualificationswales.org/media/7982/qualified-for-the-future-our-decisions.pdf

(7) https://www.qualificationswales.org/english/qualified-for-the-future—have-your-say/our-next-steps/

A note about Qualifications Wales

Qualifications Wales is the independent regulator for GCSEs, A levels, the Welsh Bacc, vocational and technical qualifications. We are here to maintain confidence that the qualifications we regulate are fair, trusted and valuable in Wales and beyond. We do this by:

  • setting rules for awarding bodies to provide qualifications that accurately reflect learners’ knowledge, skills and understanding
  • shaping the range and design of qualifications that can be funded by Welsh Government and made available to meet the needs of learners
  • working closely with the wider education community
  • involving the people and organisations of Wales in our work.

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