How Welsh qualifications are preparing learners for University

Over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to universities across the UK to explain the changes to the curriculum and qualifications in Wales. I’ve built links with key stakeholders in Higher Education, including Welsh universities, Colleges Wales, the Seren Network, UCAS, the Russell Group of universities as well as many other universities across the UK.

 By Robert Evans, Strategic Engagement, Qualifications Wales

What did I discover? 

Perhaps most fundamental is the inconsistency in awareness of the increasing divergence between the Welsh and English education systems. 

Somewhat surprisingly, not only were some in England unaware of the impact of the devolution of education, but also that significant numbers of people working in Welsh education were not aware of key aspects of the “Made in Wales” educational agenda. 

Clear indicators of the differences between Wales and England are the specifications for GCSEs and A levels; the fact that Wales assess at A-G while in England the scale is 9-1 and in Wales, unlike England we have continued with accredited AS levels, worth forty per cent of the final A level grade. Many universities told me they find this useful as an indicator of potential. 

Universities always want to know about the vocational sector reviews being undertaken in Wales by Qualifications Wales in areas such as health and social care, child care, construction, Engineering  ICT / Digital. They are supportive of the direction of travel in some of the reviews to reduce the number of vocational qualifications available in Wales. 

Many universities were frank in saying the number and wide range of vocational qualifications available to learners can lead to confusion, with learners themselves sometimes unsure of which qualification they were studying! 

Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of all is the almost universal acceptance of the Skills Challenge Certificate and the Welsh Bacc.   

There has been an increase in the number of schools and colleges offering the BaccThe Heads of Sixth Forms I’ve spoken to across Wales are very positive about the qualification, both in broadening skills and its usefulness as a bridge to HE studies.  Many told me of the importance of the Skills Challenge Certificate in achieving offers from a wide range of universities. 

Indeed, one of the great myths of education in Wales is that many universities do not value the Skills Challenge Certificate.  I’ve found the opposite, to be true; for example, most universities in the UK accept it, often instead of an “A” level. 

Russell Group universities such as Southampton, Exeter, Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester usually accept the Bacc in lieu of an “A” level.  

Even the very small number of universities which do not include the Skills Challenge Certificate in their offers, told me they value the skills developed and are always interested in the ‘Challenges’ students undertake. This they felt especially true of the Individual Investigation, which enables Welsh students to differentiate themselves from their peers and showcase their skills and stand out in their applications and interviews. 

 This attitude is reflected in the comment from Dr Matthew Williams, Fellow, at Jesus College Oxford:  ‘The Skills Challenge Certificate is unusual as a qualification whose content is in large part led by students themselves. We enormously value the self-motivation, curiosity and independent mindedness this approach to learning develops’.  

One initiative which is making an impact in reducing educational inequalities is the Seren Network, which aims to increase the number of high achieving Welsh A level students accepted at the most selective universities. 

Seren students receive the kind of benefits that students attending Independent Schools receive, including masterclasses, residential visits and expert advice and support from university academics. 

This is illustrated through the success the network has had at Cambridge University, where Welsh state school students are 10% more likely to be offered a place than the UK average. 

Taken together, the developments outlined above reflect a dynamic and exciting period for post 16 education in Wales.