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Written Statement - Measuring what matters: changes to Key Stage 4 school performance measures related to qualifications

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Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills

I am making significant changes to the school accountability measures relating to qualifications taken at Key Stage 4. The changes aim to ensure that the Welsh Government focuses its school accountability measures on attainment of qualifications that we know to be most valued by employers and post-16 and higher education providers as well as by learners, parents and schools.  Alignment between what we measure and what is valued has the potential to drive behaviours in ways that benefit learners in terms of progression, and a nation in terms of the qualification profile of its citizens.

The changes I am announcing today build on the recommendation of the Review of Qualifications and respond to a number of concerns about unintended consequences of the current set of measures. The policy has been informed by significant stakeholder engagement over two and a half years, including a stakeholder survey earlier this year.

It is important to understand the purpose of accountability measures, which are whole school measures, not measures of individual learners. Learners need not be aware of the measures used to assess the performance of their school and should not be given to understand that they need to achieve any particular set of qualifications for reasons other than their own learning needs, progression and life chances. School accountability measures are not analogous to qualifications for the individual, but purely aimed at monitoring whole school performance and driving behaviour at an organisational level. Schools should continue to guide each learner towards the qualifications that are best for them, within overall structures that are informed by performance measures, amongst other factors.

The aim of the new measures is to incentivise schools to support and encourage every learner to achieve the very best grades they can in English or Welsh, maths, science and their chosen range of qualifications, and to develop essential transferable skills through the new Welsh Baccalaureate. The new measures provide motivation across the ability spectrum, both encouraging aspiration to the very highest grades, and recognising the achievements of learners working at Level 1. International evidence points to the importance and difficulty of raising the attainment of lower achievers and of helping them to close the gap with higher achievers. I am taking an approach that encourages improvement at all levels, not just for learners at the C/D grade boundary.  

I have been concerned since taking office about early entry (before the end of Year 11) for qualifications, particularly for GCSEs in key subjects such as Welsh, English and maths. My concern is not about early entry per se, but about early entry where learners do not achieve the best grade that they can by the end of the course. For some learners, for instance those able to achieve an A* in maths before the end of year 11 and progress to additional maths, early entry may be perfectly appropriate. Others may become motivated to achieve a higher grade at a later sitting. However, the recent emphasis on threshold measures such as the Level 2 Inclusive (which requires achievement of C grades to ‘get over the threshold’) can result in too much focus by schools on learners achieving a C grade. It can be misinterpreted as implying that once a learner has achieved a C, further progression is not of value. Clearly, for learners, any progression or improvement of grades in key qualifications can be of great value in later life. The practice of inappropriate early entry, with learners having to settle for C grades when they could have achieved more, has been criticised by Estyn and will be discouraged by the changes I am announcing today.

To rebalance the undue focus on the C grade and on learners at the middle of the ability spectrum, I will in future place more emphasis on a revised capped points score than on threshold measures. The new capped points score will use the existing scoring methodology, which attributes different scores for each grade and takes into account the size of the qualification. The new score will have a number of significant differences from the current capped points score:

  • The score will be based on nine rather than eight qualifications  
  • Five of the nine qualifications used to calculate the score will be
    • GCSE English Language or GCSE Welsh Language (whichever is the learner’s best)
    • GCSE Mathematics – Numeracy and GCSE Mathematics
    • The learner’s best two science qualifications (from 2018, their best two science GCSEs)
  • The other four qualifications will be the learner’s best (highest grade) other qualifications. These could be GCSEs, vocational qualifications or the Skills Challenge Certificate (the core of the new Welsh Baccalaureate).

English or Welsh, maths and science are emphasised within the new capped points score to reflect my priorities of literacy and numeracy and my drive to reinforce the importance of science as part of a well rounded education in line with the Government’s Science for Wales strategy.

The inclusion of maths and science has been welcomed by the Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales as ‘a very welcome step forward and an incentive to improve the quality and range of science learning across all ability groups in our schools’.  I want most learners in Wales to take both of the new mathematics GCSEs and two science GCSEs. However, this will clearly not be appropriate for all. For some learners, schools will rightly decide that other pathways are more suitable, but at a whole school and national level the inclusion of these GCSEs within the new capped points score will mean more learners taking qualifications of benefit to them for future progression and to the economy as a whole. The revised capped points score will not incentivise any other specific subjects. This allows schools and learners the flexibility to respond to the individual needs and learning styles of learners through a broad and balanced curriculum and a choice of subjects.

The inclusion of English/Welsh, maths and science within the new capped points score means that we will not, in future, publish the Core Subject Indicator (which measures achievement in the same subjects), although the data that is used to calculate this indicator will still be collected and made available if needed.

As already noted, I will place less emphasis on threshold measures than on the new capped points score.  However, threshold measures do serve some important purposes. They are easily interpreted and they set out a national aspiration for minimum achievement of core requirements. In recent years they have had a demonstrable impact on attainment. As well as the new capped points score, I will therefore introduce measures of attainment of the Welsh Baccalaureate at Foundation and National levels (levels 1 and 2). These Welsh Bac measures will be threshold measures, because they require the achievement of a number of required elements including some prescribed qualifications at C grade.

The Welsh Bac measures will replace the familiar threshold measures of Level 1, Level 2 and Level 2 Inclusive. The Welsh Bac measures are significantly more demanding than the current measures and represent a higher aspiration and threshold standard for learners in Wales. The key additional requirement is the development of essential skills that employers and higher education have told us learners need for further learning and for the world of work. The Welsh Bac will develop and assess these skills through a number of Challenge activities.  I published design principles for the new Welsh Bac on 30 June.

In response to feedback from stakeholders, I will introduce the Welsh Bac measures for reporting from 2018, rather than 2017 as originally indicated. The new Welsh Baccalaureate qualification will be taught from September 2015. I am thus building in a year during which schools can focus on the introduction of the new qualification, ensuring effective delivery of the Challenges and high quality teaching and assessment of the essential skills, before its achievement starts to be used as a performance measure.

The number of learners achieving the new, more demanding, Welsh Bac measures will inevitably be lower initially than those achieving the current threshold measures. Similarly, scores achieved by schools in the new capped points score may be lower than the scores they can achieve under the current version, which allows different schools to achieve similar scores in a very wide variety of ways. From 2016 onwards the changes we are introducing will make ‘gaming’ of the measures less likely and will result in lower absolute numbers. This is an inescapable consequence of greater demand and rigour within the system. It should not be confused with lower levels of achievement, since the old and new measures will not be comparable. Similarly, direct comparison with measures in England will no longer be possible, due to different changes being made to measures in England.

These changes to raw measures will not have implications for the current review of banding, due to be completed by autumn 2014, but they will impact on the next review of banding, for 2017 onwards. This future review will take into account the policy of placing more emphasis on a revised capped points score than on threshold measures. The changes I am setting out today do not include contextual factors (for instance those related to free school meals), school progress measures or added value between Key Stages 2 and 3 and Key Stage 4, or measures of factors other than attainment of qualifications (such as attendance). Such considerations come into play during calculations for banding.

Today’s announcement builds on earlier announcements in July 2013 and December 2013. The table below summarises all of the changes and the timing of each. The year of introduction refers to the reporting year, i.e. the year in which the cohort being measured completes year 11.

*See Table attached at Annex 1

The Review of Qualifications also recommended that data is collected on a consistent basis across the post-16 sectors and I have asked officials to undertake a review of these measures. I want to give learners and parents transparent information on which to make decisions on where to continue their learning and give DfES and Estyn the data they need to assess standards and performance across the whole of the post-16 sector.

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