Gareth Williams gives a pupil’s eye view of a qualification that he says is failing badly in its current flawed design

October 12th, 2012

More than 8,000 pupils across Wales studied for the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification last year. Originally devised as a Welsh equivalent of the International Baccalaureate, unfortunately it now effectively resembles an extra A Level without the value. A number of different components, ranging from voluntary work and work experience to modules on the place of Wales in the wider world are encountered by students over two years. If all are successfully completed, students receive the qualification and 120 UCAS points-equivalent to an A grade at A Level.

In contrast to A-levels where only 23.9 per cent of Welsh students gained an A/A* grade last year, 83.5 per cent of those who studied the WelshBac passed it and received equivalent UCAS points. The rationale behind it is therefore clear – to provide a qualification with the value of an A-level but with a broader focus. However, its effectiveness in accomplishing these goals is extremely questionable.

While many universities technically accept the Baccalaureate, many are generally unaware of its content, while many more do not accept it on a par with A-levels. The Baccalaureate title makes some assume that it is simply a version of the International Baccalaureate. One of my university interviews included a question on what exactly the WelshBac was. This prompted an awkward explanation of how the Welsh Bac was a Baccalaureate in name only, and that I was not the academic Hercules studying both the IB and three A-levels at the same time.

More worrying than this, however, is the trend of students who, already taking only three A-levels, drop one in the hope that the WelshBac will substitute for it. The promotion of so-called ‘soft’ A-levels has already resulted in considerable numbers of students being shunted on to subjects which unfortunately have less credibility with universities.

Providing an incentive for students to drop an A-level in this way is likely to place them at a disadvantage when competing for university places with those who have four academic A-levels. Indeed, many of the most competitive courses and universities do not accept UCAS points and instead demand three A-levels. Many simply refuse to take the WelshBac as a third A-level.

Even if it is accepted, the students who study it with only two A-levels are at a clear disadvantage. In addition, UCAS points themselves are now likely to be abolished, which makes determining what the independent worth of the Baccalaureate is to universities even more essential. It is difficulties such as these that have led to significant criticism of the current qualification from students as well as from those who originally devised the qualification.

Its popularity with universities aside, is the Welsh Bac useful for students? Does it genuinely equip them with needed skills, encourage community involvement and broaden minds as its proponents claim? As someone who studied and completed it, the answer to all of these questions is, in my opinion, sadly, no. The course had more to do with literally ticking boxes than being stretched academically. Too often Bac lessons consisted of filling in forms and printing off documents to ‘prove’ you had completed the work you claimed. Lessons which could have been used to study a fourth A-level, which would have been accepted by all universities and which would have helped develop the kind of research skills needed for a degree course, were instead spent on completing tasks for a qualification very few universities value in the same way.

A recent study also confirmed that the WelshBac often failed to equip students with the skills needed for a university degree. While focusing on students at one university, it does indicate underlying problems in terms of its effectiveness as a university preparatory course. As a researcher concluded, the study does “at a minimum, raise a question mark over how effective the WelshBac core is”.

We are therefore left with a qualification which many universities do not accept in terms of parity with A-levels, prevents many from studying another A-level, which encourages many to ditch further A-levels, and which may not even equip students properly for the demands of a university course.

There are however deeper issues raised by the difficulties associated with the Bac. In many ways the Bac is functioning as a last-minute solution to more fundamental problems in Welsh education, particularly with earlier secondary education. International rankings place Wales last in the UK for secondary school pupils’ performance in all key skills. A quarter of school leavers in Cardiff have a reading age of less than ten. Simply bulking up students’ university applications with a qualification of disputed value does nothing to address these issues, which limit both pupils’ chances of gaining university places and being sufficiently prepared for them. The answer to these problems is to hold schools accountable for poor performance, ensure that extra provision is made for students who are struggling academically and to ensure that academic qualifications such as A-levels are front and centre.

The Welsh Baccalaureate itself is in serious need of reform. If it continues to be promoted as having equivalent value to A-levels, and to divert time away from the study of academic subjects, Welsh pupils will be disadvantaged even further than they are now. It does not need to be scrapped. Instead, it should be optional, At the same time, those who would benefit from taking a fourth A-level should be encouraged to do so. In conjunction with a sustained drive to improve the performance of secondary schools this would greatly enhance the prospects of Welsh pupils after leaving school, enabling them to put in far more competitive applications to universities than the status quo allows.

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Gareth Williams is studying History and Politics at Oxford University.

6 Responses to:“Why the Welsh Baccalaureate is a soft option”

  1. carol o'byrne says:

    Gareth, I was very interested in your article as it reflects my daughter’s experience. She did her A levels this summer. Box ticking exercise? Well, yes tick that particular box. She missed some of the sessions as she was participating in a Nuffield scheme for young scientists. Surely the kind of activity that the Welsh Bac should promote? Well, no, it caused numerous problems for her. She applied for medicine at four London universities. They were not really interested in the Welsh Bac – the attitude could be summed up as “Welsh bac is fine but you need grade A’s in Chemistry and Maths”.

    I also note that the research by “Wiserd” found that students with Welsh Bac at Cardiff University were not doing as well as students without it. One explanation being that Welsh Bac “over-promotes” a student as a grade A in the Welsh Bac is not equivilent to a grade A in other, academic A levels.

    Time for a rethink by the policy makers?

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  2. Sion Acciaioli says:

    Carol, would you be able to provide evidence of that? As a student at Cardiff University I would like to know, even though my school didn’t offer Welsh Bacc when I was in Sixth Form. Such an alligation cannot just be down to the fact that these students have done the Welsh bacc. I study Spanish and Italian and needed a specific grade in Spanish to be allowed to study at Cardiff. Most universities are the same. All my other offers such as Bath and Bristol all asked for a specifc grade in Spanish but they did also accept the Welsh Bacc for those who had it, but the crucial point is that you needed a high A level in Spanish to get in.

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  3. Gareth says:

    Carol-thank for your comment- it was very interesting to hear your perspective on it. I finished it a few years ago and sadly it doesn’t sound like it’s changed at all. One of the worst aspects of the Bac is that it’s almost completely valueless for students applying for very competitive courses like Medicine. I’d argue it does little to help students applying for less competitive courses either, especially if UCAS points are being scrapped. I fully agree that there needs to be root and branch reform of the qualification, ideally pushing it towards the IB type qualification it was originally meant to be. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much support there would be for a complete restructuring -as it was effectively created by the WJEC who would strongly oppose any changes, reforming it would be very challenging politically.

    In the interim, a good compromise would be to make it fully optional; students who genuinely needed the UCAS points or an extra qualification could still take it, those who would be held back by it could avoid it and focus on the subjects that are best for them. Schools also need to be very clear on the limits of the Bac and not to, as often happens, imply it’s equivalent to an A Level which is accepted by most universities. I think a lot of the time they do take the spin on the qualification at face value, which only leads to students finding out the reality about the Bac when it’s too late. I’m not sure how many takers it would end up with if it was fully optional and the truth about how universities see it was widely known though

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  4. carol o'byrne says:

    http://www.wiserd.ac.uk/
    Sion, I am not an educationalist nor a statistician so I can’t really explain the research! I include the link to the web site which did the piece of research. You are correct that some courses ( medicine for example) will specify exactly specific grades in specific A levels. However, some courses will accept a grade A in the Welsh bac as equivient to a grade A in any other subject. I would suggest that it is not academically the same – it is much “easier” to get a grade A in Welsh Bac.
    Finally, I would not suggest that the Welsh Bac “causes” students to do well/not so well at university – correlation does not prove causation. I am suggesting that Welsh Bac is not really a very worthwhile qualification and that there should be more research into it before any more time and money is spent on providing it.

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  5. Geth says:

    Hi, I did the WBQ last year and went on to do dentistry at University. Although certain elements of the qualification could be deemed as “ticking boxes” namely essential/key skills, there are parts that challenge, extend and promote the development of new skills vital for study at HE. Indeed, having done the Individual Investigation on the merits of both public and private dental care internationally meant I was able to demonstrate during my university interview that I had sound research skills in an appropriate field away from compulsory spec material. Having worked hard on this qualification I would welcome proposals to grade it.

    PS. I chose the WBQ as one of my options rather than as a compulsory add on topic

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  6. Beth says:

    Hi, I found this a very interesting topic, as a student currently taking parts of the Welsh Bacc I can agree with those opposing the course as a compulsory subject. I moved to Wales half way through the GCSE level Bacc and was therefore told that I could not participate as the maths skills section had already been graded, despite this I was forced to waste my time filling in booklets and then told that I didn’t achieve the qualification as I “didn’t want to do the maths bit” which was spoken to me most elegantly by my head of year.Now in the Sixth Form I was told in year 12 that due to the incompletion of the GCSE I couldn’t do this level either, yet after being forced to sit through what I had been told were only for those completing the Welsh Bacc, was told this year (13) that I had to complete aspects such as the Problem Solving (which could easily be filled in by a 10 year old) and the Individual Investigation which I am basing on the unsuccessfullness of the Welsh Bacc. I believe that in my school, fewer than 20 pupils would either want or need to complete this qualification and if the WJEC or my school had any priority with the success and grades of it’s pupils, then this scheme would either be made optional or be scrapped completely.

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