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Michael Gove does not own the GCSE brand, but we do

We are now seeing a dismantling of the three-country system for public examinations.

Michael Gove with new education minister David Laws.
Michael Gove with new education minister David Laws. Photograph: Getty Images

When faced with an injustice, it is necessary to take decisive action and to do so swiftly. On the day the GCSE results became public, I announced a review of why grades were so significantly down in English Language in Wales. My responsibility is to ensure fairness to GCSE candidates in Wales. Regulatory officials have identified the problems, and recommended actions, I am implementing their recommendations.

The report from my regulatory officials stated that a serious distortion had taken place. I asked the Welsh exam board the WJEC to regrade this year’s English Language GCSE results, and the report by my officials states that this year’s outcome “is unjustifiable and almost certainly unfair to candidates.”

Meanwhile, just last week Michael Gove told the BBC that he intended to replace GCSEs with a new exam system. It was the latest in a series of unilateral statements by the Secretary of State for Education relating to GCSEs and A Levels, usually delivered via media interviews, either on the BBC or through careful leaks to the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail.

Well, have I got news for him. The UK Government doesn’t own the GCSE or GCE A Level brands. They are owned by Ofqual (accountable to the UK Parliament), CCEA, the regulator in Northern Ireland, and the Welsh Ministers, who are the regulators in Wales.

Until Michael Gove became the Secretary of State, there had always been a three-country consensus on GCSEs and A Levels. Scotland, of course, has its own system – probably just as well, or “Gove-it-alone” exam unilateralism would be a strong recruiting officer for the separatists of the SNP.

Let me illustrate.

On 31 March Michael wrote to me stating the actions he intended to take in respect of A Levels. On 3 April, coinciding with a letter back to him from the Chief Executive of the English regulator, Ofqual, the front page of the Daily Telegraph was headlined “Dons take charge in A-level shake-up”. The article said:

“Universities will be given new powers to set A-levels for the first time in 30 years because of fears that the gold standard qualification is failing to prepare teenagers for the demands of higher education. Ministers will relinquish control of syllabuses and hand them to exam boards and academic panels made up of senior dons from Russell Group universities”.

In his letter to me, Michael Gove accepted that A-Levels were a three-country issue affecting students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But he failed to consult either the Welsh or Northern Ireland Ministers before rushing to the UK media with his plans.

The same could be said for his proposals to change the direction of travel for GCSEs, announced on the Andrew Marr Show on 26 June last year, again without Ministerial discussion with Wales and Northern Ireland.

The reality now, with respect to both A-Levels and GCSEs, is that we are seeing, without debate, a dismantling of the three-country system for public examinations. The Northern Ireland examining body has already decided it will not offer its exams in England. It had a tiny share of the English exam market compared to the Welsh exam body, the WJEC, but this was a symbolic and significant step. John O’Dowd, the education minister in Northern Ireland decided that they would leave the decision on modular GCSEs to schools, saying that Michael Gove’s decision ‘”did not appear to have been taken on the basis of clear evidence or educational justification”. In Wales, we too have decided to keep modular exams for the time being, while we are conducting a full review of qualifications for 14-19 based on evidence and consultation.

However, this summer’s GCSE debacle has made clear the politicization of the exam process in England. Michael Gove and the heads of Ofqual and Ofsted have all combined to talk down GCSEs as qualifications.

This means that in Wales we will need to consider the structure of our own system of exam regulation.

In July, John O’Dowd and I met and determined we would write to Michael Gove to express our concern about the lack of discussion with us on the future of exams. We wrote in August, and await a reply.

GCSEs and A Levels matter of course not just for individual students. They are also indicators of the overall health of our education systems. GCSEs are key to national programmes of school improvement, allowing us to judge how our secondary schools are doing. Action which results in the depression of GCSE scores  undermines the consistency of year-on-year comparisons and has an impact on the numbers of schools able to demonstrate genuine improvement in teaching standards.

And action that depresses A Level scores has consequences for David Willetts’ unrestricted AAB market for student number expansion by universities in England, with some universities finding the pool of AAB candidates available depressed below their expectations.

This is not joined-up policy-making.

When we met in summer 2010 I told Michael Gove that one of the advantages of devolution was that it allowed England to be a laboratory for experiments.

It is clear that things are moving fast. We will, inevitably now I think, end up with largely separate exam systems in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It is a pity that we have come to this point as a result of hasty decisions and soundbites from the UK Government, and not as a result of a considered, evidence-informed debate on what would be in the best interest of all our learners. 

Leighton Andrews AM is the Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government