Oliver Stacey, Senior Qualifications Manager at Qualifications Wales, has been at the heart of work to reform qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds in Wales. He reflects on the collaborative approach that led to the development of these new qualifications, and the next steps on the journey.
There have been fundamental changes in education in Wales in recent years. The Curriculum for Wales has brought about a major shift in what children learn and how they’re taught. So, in support of the Curriculum, we’re developing a range of new and exciting qualifications, designed to ensure that our young people will leave education qualified for the future.
We know that GCSEs and other qualifications for 14 to 16-year-olds have a considerable influence on the way that learners in Years 10 and 11 experience the Curriculum. So, we’ve developed new and updated qualifications to support that learning, starting with Made-for-Wales GCSEs.
It is essential that these qualifications reflect the Curriculum’s six areas of learning and experience (AoLEs), as well as supporting learners to realise its four purposes. We’ve delved deep into the GCSE offer, as well as into other qualifications that are available, keeping these considerations central to our reform work in the 14-16 qualifications space.
We have managed the reform of GCSEs and the wider offer of qualifications available to 14 to 16-year-olds separately, as distinct programmes of work, to give both areas the focus they require. We’re looking forward to sharing the findings and decisions in early 2024.
In the meantime, we’ve gained momentum in our mission to reform GCSEs. Earlier this year, we published approval criteria for a suite of new Made-for-Wales GCSEs to support the Curriculum. These approval criteria are the design requirements that the awarding body, WJEC, will need to meet through the development of detailed specifications for the new qualifications.
There were a lot of factors to consider when developing approval criteria for these new qualifications, and who better to involve in the process than the people who will deliver the qualifications in schools? In fact, collaborating with stakeholders was a key part of this work, and we would have been missing a vital piece if we hadn’t involved a range of people with different experiences and views throughout the process.
A case for co-creation
Whatever direction we chose to take the new Made-for-Wales GCSEs, we knew it had to be informed by what learners, teachers, employers, and other education stakeholders were telling us.
We identified that the new GCSEs need to be valid, recognised, portable and reliable at a national level, with results that are comparable between centres and over time. But beyond that, they also need to be relevant and engaging for learners, and manageable for schools to deliver.
To ensure that these new qualifications deliver what learners and wider society need, we wanted to engage with as many people as possible throughout the reform journey. We embarked on an extensive co-creation process with teachers, further education and higher education sectors, employers, learners, unions, Welsh Government, Estyn, and regional consortia. By using a co-creation approach, first-hand feedback was a crucial component of the process of developing these new qualifications.
The co-creation was broad and far-reaching, involving collaboration, active involvement and participation with a diverse range of stakeholders. We worked with subject-specific groups, AoLE groups, and stakeholder groups, including academic advisors, schools and colleges, unions, higher education, learners, Welsh Government and WJEC. This broad mix provided us with a wealth of knowledge, insight, experience and opinions, which have helped us as we developed the approval criteria for the new GCSEs.
The co-creation process involved a review of the existing GCSEs, consideration of the purpose and aims of the new qualifications, and exploration of the content, assessment, impacts and management of change. To ensure the Curriculum remained at the centre of the process of developing the requirements for each GCSE subject, we:
- conducted a detailed review of the relevant statements of what matters and descriptions of learning at the appropriate progression steps for each subject, to establish the key ideas and concepts that need to feature within the content
- carefully considered the integral skills, cross-cutting themes and principles of progression within the curriculum guidance to identify opportunities to incorporate these components into the design requirements
- evaluated the different methods and modes of assessment that could be used to assess the content that has been identified within each subject, with the aim of having multiple assessment methods where appropriate
The outcomes of co-creation
We adopted the co-creation model for greater visibility and transparency in the process of developing the approval criteria, and to promote greater confidence in the final product. It offered us greater potential for innovation and creativity thanks to the inclusion of stakeholder voices, while simultaneously offering valuable professional learning and development opportunities for those involved.
Overall, the process enabled us to deliver a high-quality final output, which was refined further following extensive public consultation. The process culminated in the publication of design requirements, also known as approval criteria, for new Made-for-Wales GCSEs in June 2023.Thanks to the invaluable input of our stakeholders during co-creation, these approval criteria represent an evolution in the design requirements for GCSEs, so they better reflect the Curriculum.
Examples of how the requirements have evolved include more digital assessment, a broader mix of assessment methods, a greater proportion of non-examination assessment in some subject areas, more unitised assessments, more authentic opportunities to incorporate cross-cutting themes such as diversity and sustainability into learning, and more of an explicit focus on learning experiences alongside content. This all reflects what learners, teachers, centres and stakeholders told us throughout the reform journey.
It was an opportunity for the participants to shape and influence the design of the GCSEs of the future and gain an early insight into the new qualifications. Stakeholders commented that it allowed them to be honest and share their opinions in a space where they were listened to, and where their views were seriously considered. Many of the teachers involved commented that they felt their opinion was valued throughout the transparent and open process. Many also felt that the collaborative nature of the working groups improved their understanding of the qualifications development process, supporting their roles in a professional development capacity.
It was fantastic to see that the experience of collaboration through co-creation was as rewarding for our stakeholders as it was for us.
Since publishing the approval criteria in June 2023, we’ve continued to work closely with WJEC and Welsh Government to maintain momentum with the Qualified for the Future reform work. A lot of important work has continued behind the scenes.
The development of the new GSCEs has now entered a new phase, with WJEC taking centre stage as they work on turning our approval criteria requirements into qualifications. Despite this shift in emphasis, we are still very much involved, and we’re pleased that WJEC will be continuing with the co-creation approach that we’ve employed throughout the Qualified for the Future reform journey.
WJEC is now in the process of developing the detailed specifications and sample assessments for the new GCSEs which Qualifications Wales will approve. In the majority of subjects, the specifications will be published in September 2024, before first teaching in 2025. In a small number of subjects, WJEC will publish specifications in September 2025 for first teaching in September 2026 instead.
We’ll now be working with WJEC and Welsh Government to ensure that the right package of support is in place to help schools as they plan and prepare for the delivery of these new qualifications. We’ll also be working with the post-16 sector to explore how the unitised structures of the new GCSEs in mathematics and English can benefit learners who need to resit these qualifications.
As the regulatory body for Wales, we’re working closely with WJEC on the technicalities of how standards in the new set of GCSEs are set and maintained over time. We’re planning our approach to the monitoring and evaluation of the new GCSEs when they go live, to track whether they are delivering their intended benefits.
In terms of our next steps at Qualifications Wales, we recognise that GCSEs are a vital component of the full offer of qualifications available for 14-16 learners in Wales. We also know that these qualifications are important for progression onto a variety of post-16 qualifications including A levels. So, we’re now starting to plan our approach towards considering the implications of our GCSE reforms on A levels, and we’ll publish more details about this in 2024.