BlogApple on books

The Welsh Government has recently announced plans to reduce the number of pupils sitting their GCSE exams ahead of schedule after a marked rise in early entries. Here, writing exclusively for Yr Athrofa, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams explains why…

This summer we saw a huge increase in the number of young people being entered a year early for their GCSEs.

This follows a recent trend which has seen, in some instances, whole cohorts of Year 10 pupils taking exams after having only been taught half the syllabus. Because of this, I asked the independent regulator, Qualifications Wales, to review this practice.

Firstly, I would like to thank the many teaching professionals who supported this work and the many teachers, parents and pupils who contacted me on this issue.

Some of the key findings from Qualifications Wales include:

  • The continued widespread use of early and multiple entry at GCSE poses risks to students and to the system, which are not easily justified;
  • The practice encourages a “teaching the test” approach at the cost of wider subject knowledge;
  • More than £3.3m was spent by schools on early entry in the last academic year.

As Cabinet Secretary, I see raising standards, reducing the attainment gap and ensuring a system in which the public can have confidence as being at the heart of our national mission. With that focus, it is clear to me that widespread use of early entry is not in the best interest of our learners.

I accept that early entry can benefit a minority of learners in certain circumstances, such as those ready to demonstrate fuller understanding and wish to engage in further learning in the subject. But there are simply too many pupils not being allowed to reach their full potential.

For example, nearly 9,500 pupils took the Mathematics-Numeracy GCSE early in November 2016 and got an A grade or less, but were then not then re-entered for the examination last summer.

Of those pupils, 30% achieved a C grade. It is, frankly, alarming that these pupils did not have the opportunity to better their mark. This is simply settling, rather than challenging.

Qualifications Wales also highlight the inappropriate use of GCSE assessments for formative purposes. Put simply, GCSEs are not designed for this.

Schools should have the means to assess learner progress and shape ongoing teaching and learning without reliance on high-stakes, high cost, external GCSEs.

While there are differing views, it is clear that teaching time is being diverted into the preparation for high-stakes GCSEs. There is evidence of increased teacher and learner workloads, an increased assessment burden, and increased potential for learner examination fatigue.

Qualifications Wales clearly recommended changing Key Stage 4 performance measures to a first entry only counts approach. I fully accept this recommendation. Let me be clear: this is not a ban on early entry.

Schools will still have early entry available to them. However, it will encourage schools to enter learners when they are confident and they are ready to gain the best possible result.

Our young people will still be able to use their best result when accessing the world of work. This change only relates to how we will consider school performance. This will form part of our wider assessment and evaluation framework which we will publish next year.

I have also accepted Qualifications Wales’ view that schools should be able to enter learners in November for the first time in English and Welsh language; something currently only available to them for the two mathematics GCSEs.

This will provide schools with appropriate and flexible earlier entry options should they feel it of benefit, particularly for those at risk of disengagement or ready to progress to further learning.

The timescale for these changes is important. When a not dissimilar move was announced in England, schools were forced halfway through the year to respond to these changes in a matter of days.

In contrast, I have listened to schools’ concerns. I recognise schools need time to plan their teaching, learning, and their approaches to GCSEs.

Therefore, the changes to performance measures will take effect for reporting in summer 2019. That means the revised school performance measure calculations will be based on the results of those learners just starting in Year 10 now.

The freeing up of November first entry for English and Welsh language is a matter for the regulator, but I understand they are planning for this to be available to schools in the next academic year.

The Welsh Government will publish revised guidance for schools later this academic year on when early entry can benefit certain types of learners, and when it does not, to support their decision-making going forward.

The changes I have announced form part of our transitional accountability arrangements and will help schools to act in the best interest of the pupil.

GCSEs are designed to be sat after two years of teaching, not one. These changes will ensure our young people access a broad and balanced curriculum, and focus on what’s best for our young people.

If we are always committed to putting the interest of the learner first, and ensuring they can reach their potential, then we can be confident that together we will continue to raise standards and reduce the attainment gap.

  • Kirsty Williams is Cabinet Secretary for Education