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Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills

First published:
11 July 2014
Last updated:

This was published under the 2011 to 2016 administration of the Welsh Government

I am building a national qualifications system for Wales. At its centre, in 2015, will be a revised, more rigorous Welsh Baccalaureate and new GCSEs in English, Welsh and mathematics with a clear focus on functional literacy and numeracy. Significant changes have been and continue to be made to other elements of the qualifications system including vocational qualifications and A levels.  

Over recent months we have successfully achieved a number of important milestones on our journey to delivering the new system and the new qualifications. I am therefore providing a summary of progress and a roadmap for the next fourteen months.

The Review of Qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds in Wales (the Review) was published in November 2012. At the end of January 2013 the Welsh Government confirmed its acceptance of the Review’s 42 recommendations.  I am driving forward delivery through two major change programmes: one to establish the new body, Qualifications Wales, and the other to manage the changes to qualifications themselves. Both programmes are at their half way point and are on track for completion by the end of 2015. By this point the majority of the Review’s recommendations will have become ‘business as usual’ and will inform the development of further tranches of reformed qualifications in the future. Details of the subject areas for which there will be revised GCSEs and A levels available for teaching from September 2016 are also being announced this week.  As far as possible we will seek to align our schedule with that in England, as this will minimise transitional issues for centres.

Qualifications Wales

I am committed to ensuring that qualifications in Wales are understood and valued and meet the needs of our young people and the economy. The creation of a new body, Qualifications Wales, will strengthen both the regulation of awarding bodies and the quality assurance of qualifications.

In my Written Statement of 2 June, I published the response to the public consultation on the development of Qualifications Wales. Legislation is being prepared for introduction with a view, subject to the will of the Assembly, to establishing Qualifications Wales by September 2015 as a body to regulate awarding bodies and to quality assure qualifications in Wales.  The new body, once established, will underpin the qualifications reforms introduced in response to the Review of Qualifications.  Qualifications Wales will ensure that qualifications are fit for purpose, that the qualifications system is efficient and effective and that public confidence in the qualifications taken by learners in Wales is increased both nationally and internationally. 

AS and A levels

New AS and A levels are being developed in a number of subjects for teaching from 2015. In response to the Review’s recommendations, officials worked with practitioners and other subject experts between June and November 2013 to develop proposals for the new qualifications. Stakeholders were invited to respond to those proposals in an online survey in November and December 2013. A summary of responses was published in May.

Qualification principles for AS qualifications and A levels were published in May. Our policies for these crucial qualifications have been widely welcomed by schools and colleges, higher education and other stakeholders in Wales and beyond.  The qualification principles confirm the retention of the AS and A levels as coupled qualifications, meaning that the AS counts towards the final A level.  For teaching from 2015, the AS will have a revised weighting of 40 per cent of the overall A level (reduced from the current 50 per cent). Assessment will take place or be submitted only once a year in the summer, and there will be one opportunity to re-sit any unit, with the learner’s best mark counting. We will retain internal assessment where this is the most appropriate method of assessing particular skills or subject areas, for instance aspects of language, performing and creative arts or practical skills within science.  A levels in Wales will, of course, be of the same level of demand, and will in most cases have very similar content, as those in England and Northern Ireland. However, there will be instances where there is a case for different content in Wales, for example to reflect Cwricwlwm Cymreig. WJEC will be the only awarding organisation providing the new A levels being developed for teaching in Wales from 2015.  

WJEC is currently developing specifications and sample assessment materials for revised A Levels in:

  • Art and Design
  • Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology
  • Business Studies, Economics
  • Computer science,
  • English Language, English Literature, English Language and Literature
  • History, Sociology,
  • Welsh

WJEC is expected to submit these for accreditation over the summer. Subject to accreditation, WJEC will make them available to centres in the autumn term.  

Higher education institutions in both England and Wales, as well as employers, are represented on the stakeholder reference group which advises on qualification reform in Wales and we are confident that our reforms have the support of such key players.


We have been consistent in our approach to reforming GCSEs.  The Review of Qualifications provided clear evidence that GCSEs are a trusted and valued brand. The qualification principles for GCSEs, published in May, reflect those views and build on the strengths of the existing qualifications and the recommendations of the Review. They allow tiering, unitised (modular) or linear qualifications, short course or double GCSEs if appropriate. They allow controlled assessment only where there is a clear case for it.  The existing grading structure of A* to G is retained.

Literacy and numeracy are two of my Ministerial priorities. I am therefore introducing new GCSEs to develop and assess these skills more effectively. For teaching from September 2015 there will be new GCSEs in English Language and Welsh Language, two mathematics GCSEs (‘GCSE Mathematics – Numeracy’ and ‘GCSE Mathematics’), and revised GCSEs in English Literature and Welsh Literature.  The new language and numeracy GCSEs will assess the functional literacy and numeracy skills that will equip our young people for further learning, for work and for life. The new qualifications will require critical thinking and analytical skills and will include real world examples and application. The skills they will test will have much in common with the skills which are valued by PISA and internationally recognised as those needed by today’s young citizens. Our major educational conference held on 11 June explained the vision for development of these skills and our approach to building and investing in the capacity of the educational workforce to do so.

Following extensive work with practitioners and other subject experts between June and November 2013, stakeholders were invited to respond to proposals for these new qualifications, in an online survey in November and December 2013. A summary of responses was published in May.

Building on responses to the survey, in May I also published draft subject principles for the new GCSEs.  These provide the framework and criteria within and against which an awarding body or awarding bodies create the detail of the specification. WJEC is currently developing the specification and sample assessment materials for each of the new and revised GCSEs, and is expected to submit these for accreditation over the summer. Subject to accreditation, WJEC will make these available to centres in the autumn term.  WJEC is the only awarding organisation providing the new and revised GCSEs being developed for teaching from 2015.

GCSE Mathematics – Numeracy will focus on numeracy and the maths needed for everyday life.  GCSE Mathematics will extend to other aspects of mathematics, including those needed for progression to scientific, technical or further mathematical study. The new GCSEs will build on the knowledge, understanding and skills established by the national curriculum for Wales and the National Numeracy Framework. Both GCSEs will be linear (assessment at the end of the course), have three tiers and will be assessed via external examination. There will be a greater emphasis than in the current GCSE Mathematics specification on the application of mathematical skills and knowledge to real world situations.  There will also be a greater requirement for learners to select the appropriate techniques and strategies, using problem solving and thinking skills. The total scope of subject matter covered by the two new maths GCSEs will not be significantly greater than that of the current GCSE Mathematics. Further information about the division of content between the two GCSEs is also being published this week.

The new GCSEs in English Language and Welsh Language will provide greater assurance of literacy by assessing the more functional aspects of reading, writing and oracy. Both GCSEs will be linear and have oracy contributing towards the final grade. In addition to an overall grade, there will also be an indication of achievement in each of reading, writing and oracy. They will not be tiered. Revised GCSEs in English Literature and Welsh Literature will also be introduced.

The key differences between current GCSEs specifications and the design of the new GCSEs in English Language, Welsh Language and maths are set out in a leaflet published in June.

Of course it is important that schools, FE colleges and other providers have time and support to prepare for delivering new and revised qualifications.  That is why we are working to accredit qualifications in the autumn term and we are investing in both CPD and classroom resources.  

WJEC will naturally have an important role in developing resources and training events to support centres, both in preparation for and delivery of the qualifications.  In addition to this, Welsh Government officials are working closely with WJEC, regional consortia and CfBT to develop support and resources.  We are funding a programme to provide CPD and resources as we work towards our goals for PISA and new qualifications.  Named individuals in each school will co-ordinate this work at centre level. Additional numeracy and literacy experts are currently being recruited by the consortia across Wales and we are commissioning classroom resources which will be designed specifically to support the new GCSEs.  We are also working with Colegau Cymru to provide support and resources for the post-16 sector.

Learners who have not achieved at least a grade C in English Language or Welsh Language and Mathematics (or, from 2017, Mathematics-Numeracy) by the age of 16 will be expected to continue working towards these important qualifications as part of any full time programme of study from 2016. I have asked colleges and schools to start preparing for this change and establishing a baseline for measurement of progress. From 2016, colleges should support all learners to prepare for and re-take the relevant GCSEs if they have achieved a D grade (or, for those embarking on two year courses of study, an E grade) in Key Stage 4. For other learners, it may be more appropriate to work towards other qualifications initially. We are working with Colegau Cymru to ensure that FE colleges have the capacity to support learners and achieve high attainment levels.

Welsh Baccalaureate

At the centre of my qualifications reform programme is the new, more rigorous, Welsh Baccalaureate. The new Welsh Bac will combine learners’ subject qualifications with the skills that employers and higher education tell us that our young people need to develop. Success in the Welsh Bac provides assurance of a well-rounded education and readiness for the next stage in terms of learning or work.

In response the Review’s recommendations about the Welsh Baccalaureate, officials have worked with stakeholders through a steering group and working groups, to develop a new model of the Welsh Bac with a renewed focus on essential skills. These skills are:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Digital Literacy
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Planning and Organisation
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Personal Effectiveness

Following a stakeholder survey at the turn of the year, more detailed work has taken place to develop design principles for the new qualification. The design principles, published in June, set out the requirements of the Welsh Baccalaureate at each level (Foundation, National and Advanced). They describe the approach to development and assessment of skills, through Challenges and an Individual Project, rather than through Essential Skills and Key Skills qualifications, as in the current Welsh Bac model. The Challenges will provide learners with engaging opportunities to tackle real world scenarios, problems and issues relating to enterprise and employability, global citizenship and community.

In line with the Review’s recommendation, I will be encouraging universal adoption of the new Welsh Bac at Key Stage 4 and post-16. In line with this, a measure of attainment of the Welsh Bac will replace the current threshold measures of performance (for instance the Level 2 inclusive threshold measure) for reporting from 2018. I issued a written statement on 3 July 2014 setting out the full details of changes to school accountability measures relating to qualifications taken at Key Stage 4. For post-16 learners, there will be a three-year transition period from 2015 to 2018, during which colleges will build on current levels of take-up and will, each year, increase the numbers of 16- to 19-year-olds taking the Welsh Bac.

WJEC is developing the specifications for the new Welsh Bac which, subject to meeting the requirements for accreditation, will be available to centres in the autumn term. A number of challenges will be trialled in ten schools during 2014-15, and CPD and teaching resources will be made available.

Officials are working closely with WJEC, regional consortia and others to ensure that centres receive the training and teaching materials they need to deliver the revised Welsh Baccalaureate.   We will run four regional events for senior managers to introduce the new model in September. WJEC will follow this with six regional events for Welsh Bac co-ordinators on the new specifications in October. There will be further training available later on in the academic year on the Challenges and the Individual Project at the different levels. WJEC has five regional support officers who will offer support and advice to Welsh Bac centres throughout this transitional period and delivery of the qualification.

Vocational qualifications

In line with the recommendations of the Review, all vocational qualifications available in Wales have now been categorised as either IVETs or CVETs (initial or continuing vocational education and training). Only IVETs are available for teaching at 14-16 from September 2014, which means that learners will be taking age-appropriate qualifications and will have clearer routes for progression from IVET to CVET at 16.  Where centres were previously delivering CVETs at Key Stage 4, those centres have been given details of alternative IVETs to ensure that there is suitable provision available to candidates from September 2014.

Sector Qualifications Advisory Panels (SQAPs) are being established in line with recommendation 35 of the Review.  Two ‘pilot’ SQAPs have been established in the social care and construction sectors, with other SQAPs in hospitality, engineering and agriculture under various stages of development.

Following the removal of Sector Skills Council involvement in the process of approving vocational qualifications in 2010, there was a significant increase in the number of qualifications entering the system. A system of Sector Qualification Priorities (SQP) was introduced in Wales during 2012 to gain a sector view on these new qualifications.  SQP data will be one source of evidence used in gatekeeping and considered by the new Sector Qualification Advisory Panels.

Essential Skills Wales

During the Review, significant stakeholder engagement was undertaken to review Essential Skills Wales and Wider Key Skills qualifications. From September 2015 revised qualifications for Essential Skills will be available as follows. In Communication and Application of Number, the revised assessment method will be a controlled task and a confirmatory test. Specifications and assessment remains the same for the entry level qualifications. Specifications for Digital Literacy from entry 1 to level 3 are being revised for September 2015. The revised assessment will be a controlled task and a confirmatory test.

The Wider Key Skills have been updated to become ‘Essential Employability Skills’. This incorporates the four skill areas of Planning and Organisation, Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving, Creativity and Innovation and Personal Effectiveness. The teaching, learning and assessment of these skills will be through holistic tasks drawing from the four skill areas, rather than addressing each skill area separately. Summative assessment will be through an integrated controlled task. Attainment of this qualification will be graded using pass, merit and distinction categorisation.

Strengthening regulation and quality assurance

I, my officials and the Qualifications Wales Advisory Board have all looked at what lessons we and Qualifications Wales can learn from the January 2014 GCSE English Language unit outcomes. Since in published the report of the rapid review conducted in March, we have taken a number of immediate and longer term actions to address issues identified. The longer term actions include encouraging schools to release teachers to become examiners in their subjects, which is known to aid understanding of assessment processes; and specific regulatory actions relating to the summer 2014 and January 2015 examination series. Other activity, related to CPD and additional teaching resources, are set out above.

We have also strengthened regulation of Awarding Organisations (AOs). All AOs wishing to offer their qualifications in Wales are regulated by the Welsh Government’s General Conditions of Recognition.  AOs must submit an annual statement of compliance with these conditions.  AOs that have made no awards in the previous two year period, and/or who have no active centres or learners in Wales have been asked to surrender their recognition via a comprehensive surrender  process  and will then no longer be able to offer their qualifications in Wales.  This process has already reduced the number of AOs and will continue to do so.

Communication campaign

The high level of stakeholder engagement that characterised the Review has continued through the implementation phase, with numerous groups advising on policy and qualification development, stakeholder surveys and meetings with key stakeholders.  In recent weeks, as outlined above, I have published a number of key documents on GCSEs, A levels and the Welsh Baccalaureate on the website I made an announcement on 3 July about important changes to performance measures at Key Stage 4.

Over the past 6 months, my officials have met with senior higher education leaders in Wales and England to build a shared understanding of the reform programme.  I am pleased to report that we have received positive feedback on our reforms and on our purposeful engagement with the higher education sector.  We have also visited a number of Welsh anchor companies to explain the reform programme and I am pleased to hear that the direction of travel to improve the skills of young people is welcomed by business.
Earlier this year we ran 25 regional roadshows for leaders and senior managers in schools and colleges to discuss the implications of the reform programme directly with my officials.
In the autumn, we will launch Qualified for Life, a campaign to promote the changes to GCSEs, A levels and the Welsh Bac directly to learners, parents and teachers. The campaign will develop strong messages that will work across a range of channels and media to reach our target audience. This will include information packs to be distributed via schools, awareness raising events and a series of engaging illustrations to explain the changes.