EDUCATION SECRETARY Kirsty Williams announced new rules to reduce the number of pupils being entered too early for exams on Monday (Oct 16).
Ms Williams had previously expressed her concern regarding schools abusing the early entry system by entering whole pupil cohorts into Maths and English papers a year early.
An independent review by Qualifications Wales has found:
- 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
Qualifications Wales concluded that they are ‘concerned about the extensive and growing use of early and multiple entry’.
In response the Education Secretary has announced that, from summer 2019, only a pupil’s first entry to a GCSE examination will count in their school’s performance measures. The current policy allows schools to count the best grade from multiple sittings.
Kirsty Williams said: “The changes I am announcing today, based on Qualification Wales’ findings, will ensure that the interests of pupils are always put first.
“I am concerned that pupils who had the potential to get an A*, A or a B at the end of a two year course end up having to settle for a C. Too often this is because they take their exam early and are not re-entered again. I want every child to reach their full potential in school. Early entry must only be for the minority of pupils who will benefit.
“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 in on what’s best for our children and young people.”
Responding to research published by Qualifications Wales into the growing practice of schools entering pupils for their GCSE exams early, Llyr Gruffydd AM, Plaid Cymru’s shadow spokesperson for Education and Lifelong Learning, said: “I welcome the report as it provides a deeper understanding of the issues facing schools and students sitting GCSEs a year early. The cabinet secretary has already indicated her concerns and it’s important that she now acts on the recommendations being made.
“Retaining the option of early entry for some students is important, but it’s clear that too many are being entered for some subjects and this broad-brush approach can put additional pressures on students and cost valuable learning time in schools.
“At a time of growing financial pressure, it’s also worrying to note that early entry is placing an additional cost of at least £3.3m on our schools. The report also highlights that some schools are looking at sharing these costs with parents which is a further concern.
“Schools are under pressure to enter their students early and the Government must change the performance measures that have created this situation. Pupils should only be put forward for examination when they are ready and not to balance other competing pressures.”
Welcoming the Welsh Government move, Darren Millar AM, Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Secretary, said: “Student wellbeing should be at the heart of all decisions made by schools, so the Cabinet Secretary’s announcement is to be welcomed.
“This year’s GCSE results were the worst in a decade for Wales and early entry might well have fuelled this problem.
“Taking exams early isn’t for everyone. Most pupils will need to be given the time to develop their knowledge instead of being pressured to sit tests they simply aren’t ready for.”
NEU Cymru has welcomed the Qualifications Wales report into early entry exams which is calling for a change to the accountability model for schools. The National Education Union say that the way schools are held accountable often leads to unintended consequences within the education system. The Union has long argued for a change to the model to ensure that pupil progress is not undermined by the pressure put on schools to hit certain targets. The union will now look to work with the Welsh Government to find constructive changes that will address these concerns and others relating to how schools are judged.
Keith Bowen, Wales Director of the National Education Union Cymru, said: “We will naturally have to review the full findings of the report over time however the primary recommendations, in principle, appear sensible. It is important that while we seek to limit unnecessary early entry we do not underestimate the value of it for some pupils. The individual circumstances of each pupil need to be assessed and the professional judgement of teachers and head teachers should be respected in making the right choices for learners.
“What is encouraging in the report is the recognition that accountability measures are having unintended consequences on how schools operate. This isn’t limited to early entry but clearly it has had an impact in regards to this particular issue. We hope the Welsh Government do acknowledge the concerns of the report and works with the profession to develop a more innovative approach to assessing school performance. This would allow teachers to continue to offer early entry where appropriate, but to take away the accountability pressure that has put high stakes assessment above pupil progress.”
Is targeted funding raising school standards?
A NEW inquiry will look at the Welsh Government’s approach to targeted funding in Welsh schools, and whether this has helped to improve the performance and standards of specific groups of pupils and schools.
The National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee will be focusing on the Welsh Government’s Pupil Development Grant (PDG), and the now ended Schools Challenge Cymru programme (SCC).
More than £90m a year is spent on PDG, which specifically works towards helping children in more deprived areas at primary and secondary level. Schools Challenge Cymru focused on raising attainment levels at those secondary schools facing the greatest challenges in improving. Over its three years SCC cost around £40m.
Figures show that, while the number of pupils benefitting from PDG and who achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C grade had risen over a decade, there was a sharp decrease from 71.6% in 2016 to 41.1% in 2017.
Schools Challenge Cymru had shown an improvement in 23 out of 39 schools with more pupils attaining five or more GCSEs at A*-C grade. However, a number of other schools saw a deterioration in standards with five dropping into the red band in the Welsh Government’s national school band scale.
“Raising the attainment levels of pupils in Wales’ most deprived areas is a key priority for the Welsh Government,” said Lynne Neagle AM, Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee.
“It is critical that every child in Wales has a high standard of education and the same opportunities as everyone else, regardless of their circumstances.
“The recent fall in standards in schools in receipt of the Pupil Development Grant is particularly concerning and goes against the general trend of improvement over the past decade.
“We will be looking at why that is and what schools and the regional education consortia are doing to make sure the millions of pounds set aside each year are going to the right areas in the right way.
“We will also be considering the impact of Schools Challenge Cymru and the consequences for the schools which benefitted from it now that the programme has come to an end.”
The Committee has launched a public consultation on targeted funding. Anyone wishing to contribute can found out more information on the Committee’s web pages. The deadline for the consultation is January 5, 2018.
Student finance ‘discriminates against women and mature students’
A WEST Wales mature student has alleged that Student Finance Wales discriminates against mature female students who have changed their name through marriage or divorce.
Tricia (not her real name) contacted The Herald after she experienced protracted delays in receiving student finance to which she was entitled having been made ‘to jump through hoops’ to prove she was who she said she was.
She encountered difficulties after applying for a one year top up from a HND to a BA.
The situation was rendered all the more frustrating as, Student Finance Wales had all of Tricia’s proof of identity from the previous year, when she completed her HND, access to all of the information submitted in connection with that award, and repeatedly told her that there was no information required from her before telling her on a number of occasions, and only when she rang to query the continuing delay, that further information was needed.
Tricia applied for student finance on June 14 and supporting information for her financial status was provided immediately to Student Finance Wales. Tricia had the same customer reference number, same email, same telephone contact number that she had used for her previous application.
Tricia was particularly exasperated as she had been through precisely the same rigmarole in proving her identity in her initial application two years before.
She told us: “Despite the fact that I applied early for student finance, after that earlier bad experience, I kept on being pushed from pillar to post. Even though ALL of my information was already held by Student Finance and they were writing to me at my home address, which I had already provided and proved, it was not until mid-August that Student Finance Wales asked for proof that I actually lived in Wales.
“Having sent that proof, I rang up to check everything was okay and was told that Student Finance Wales had all the information they needed to process my application.”
She continued: “Having waited for a few weeks and with the start of term already near, I rang to find out what was happening. I was then told that before my application could proceed that they wanted information for an application for a childcare grant, which I have never sought and had not asked for. I had to write a letter telling them this – unbelievably six weeks after acknowledging they had received that letter, the information is still shown as required.
“Anyway, I confirmed again that they now had all the material they needed. And was told they did. A few weeks passed and I had heard nothing. I rang again. This time they wanted me to provide both my birth certificate and a form signed by a third party confirming that I was me!
“I raised an immediate complaint and was told I would be sent a copy of that for my own information.”
On October 26, Tricia rang to confirm that all information had been received and make sure that nothing else was needed.
Tricia’s experience then entered the realms of the surreal. A friend verified her identity. The same person had verified her partner’s identity for their application for student finance and been accepted.
The proof of identity was rejected and during the phone call a claim was made that a letter to that effect had been sent out on October 20, which was remarkable in itself as the identity form had only been posted on October 19. Not only was there no sign of that letter’s arrival, there was no sign of it in the record of correspondence.
Tricia then raised the question of her previous complaint, only to be told there was no record of it. She was then told by a manager at Student Finance Wales that she was not entitled to see the content of any complaint raised by the company on her behalf, although that manager told her that she would now raise a complaint for her and notify her it had been raised.
After waiting a few days, and with no sign of a complaint being made, Tricia emailed a full complaint to Student Finance Wales and copied her constituency and regional AMs in along with Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams and the Assembly parties’ education spokespersons.
Response was swift. First to respond was Labour’s Joyce Watson who promised to raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary. That was followed by responses from Paul Davies – who helped resolve Tricia’s previous complaint – Simon Thomas, and UKIP’s Neil Hamilton who provided a very full and sympathetic response to Tricia’s plight; then, the Welsh Government contacted Tricia and asked for her permission to deal with Student Finance Wales on her behalf.
Finally, a day or so later, Tricia was emailed by Student Finance Wales to say that they were now acting on her complaint.
Mysteriously, the letter telling her that her identity proof was unacceptable arrived postmarked October 31, the same day as her complaint.
Within seven days of contacting her local AMs, Tricia was told that her student finance had been approved and that payments would be made shortly. She does not think that is a coincidence.
Tricia is, however, still frustrated by the whole experience.
“The situation had become ridiculous. I was being discriminated against for being an older woman, who had been married before. They not only had all my information already, they told me they could see it on the computer system and yet still said they needed it again. It’s bureaucracy for the sake of it. And as for not allowing customers to see complaints raised on their behalf, I bet their complaints clear up rate is stellar.
“Again, it was only when I complained and copied in AMs that there was any movement at all. That is not right and just makes me wonder how many students who have not contacted their own AMs have been forced out of higher education by Student Finance Wales incompetence.”
She concluded: “When I initially raised issues about the process way back in August I was told that I should blame the Welsh Government! To make matters worse, it had been suggested to me that I could get my parents to confirm my name change. I could, I suppose, have got a shovel or Ouija board, but neither of those options was very appealing!”
Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education Llyr Gruffydd said: “Plaid Cymru believes education is a right not a privilege so we want to make sure there is fair play when it comes to Student Finance Wales regardless of age or gender.”
Mid and West AM Simon Thomas added: “A constituent has informed me of a formal complaint they have made regarding the way in which their application for student finance has been handled by Student Finance Wales. Their application for student finance has still not been processed – almost five months after the initial application was made.
“My constituent feels that Student Finance Wales indirectly discriminate on the grounds of age and gender.”
Simon Thomas has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education requesting the following information.
- An outline of Student Finance Wales’ complaints procedure
- The number of complaints received by Student Finance Wales each year in the last five years
- A breakdown of the nature of the complaints received
- An outline of the evidence of income and identity Student Finance Wales asks for in order to process a student’s application for student finance
Tricia’s constituency AM, Paul Davies told The Herald: “The experiences that Tricia has had with Student Finance Wales are deeply disappointing and caused her unnecessary distress, at a time when she should be focusing on her studies. It’s clear that there are failings in the system, which continue to be unaddressed and the Welsh Government should now commit to seriously reviewing Student Finance Wales’ operations.
“Sadly, this is not the first worrying experience that Tricia has faced throughout her studies and it’s simply unacceptable. Lessons clearly haven’t been learnt from previous occasions and therefore it’s important that the Welsh Government urgently addresses these problems to ensure that other students are not faced with similar problems in the future.”
Welsh Government invests £310m in skills
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has outlined a £310m package of financial support to drive up skills across Wales.
Ahead of the publication of the Welsh Government’s departmental spending plans, the Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, announced £50m of capital funding for Further Education and Higher Education sectors to improve facilities and learning environments for students.
Over the next two years, £10m will be allocated for FE institutions to invest in industry-standard training equipment and a further £10m for essential maintenance to ensure safe learning environments.
An additional £30m (£10m in each of the next three years) will be allocated to support higher education estate rationalisation. This will expand the successful 21st century schools and education programme to include a ring-fenced fund for higher education estates; reducing surplus capacity and creating a more energy-efficient estate across Wales.
The Minister for Skills and Science, Julie James, also confirmed that £260m will be invested for apprenticeships over the next two years (£130m in each year) to support the Welsh Government’s commitment of creating 100,000 all-age apprenticeships over the life of this Assembly term.
Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said: “Our £50m capital investment for the FE and HE sector will enable them to provide state of the art facilities, improving learning environments for students and satisfying local employer needs. This investment is crucial both for our learners and for the wider economy.
Minister for Skills and Science, Julie James said: “We are committed to raising skills standards across the board in Wales and through our draft budget are putting investments in place to do just that.
“Apprenticeships are the start of an exciting and rewarding career, giving people an opportunity to gain on the job experience while gaining all the skills and qualifications they need.
“We are already delivering one of the most successful apprenticeship programmes in Europe – the £260m we’re investing over the next two years will build on this and enable us to deliver our commitment of creating 100,000 all-age apprenticeships over the life of this Assembly term.”
Responding, Darren Millar AM, Welsh Conservative Shadow Education Secretary, said: “This capital investment is a mere fraction of what colleges and universities have been calling for, but the announcement is at least a step in the right direction.
“The Welsh Government must now map out a long-term plan for sustainable higher and further education system which will equip Wales with the skills our nation needs to compete in a global world.”
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