GCSEs in Wales don’t reflect the needs of society as we rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic - and leave teenagers unprepared for life, says the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.

The current crisis has illustrated the need for change to education, said Sophie Howe, who is calling on Welsh Government to further consider replacing the qualifications.

Year 11 pupils will this summer be given GCSE grades based on evidence, including teachers’ assessments, after exams were cancelled because of school closures.

Ms Howe said she hoped such an approach would be extended when schools reopen, arguing the pandemic has provided a pilot for moving away from testing at age 16.

The commissioner favours pupil-centred assessments, reflecting the new Curriculum for Wales 2022. Her latest Future Generations Report calls for a “radical rethink” of GCSEs.

Qualifications Wales (QW) has just published its vision for qualifications in the future, reporting plans to update content and assessment of GCSEs to meet future needs and reflect and support the new curriculum.

In its consultation, QW suggested it will bring in new work-related qualifications and move schools away from so-called ‘teaching to the test’, where lessons are focused on pupils passing an exam.

Ms Howe, whose role is to protect future generations from the political actions of today, is now urging Welsh Government to reflect the Well-being of Future Generations Act in its approach to the new qualifications.

“The education system prepares young people for exams. Education has to go beyond that and prepare us for life,” she said.

“Teaching young people to think long-term, seek to prevent problems and collaborate with others is critical.”

While the pandemic has brought huge challenges, Ms Howe said it has also given us an opportunity to reevaluate how we teach our children.

She said: “As a result of the pandemic, schools are showing that they can assess pupils in a fairer way than testing the knowledge which can be regurgitated in two hours.

“The world is changing. I’d like to see GCSEs better skilling our young people as global citizens trained in the latest technology.”

The climate crisis is impacting work, community and well-being, said the commissioner – and education needs to quickly adapt to the challenge.

She has called for a Universal Basic Income, a four-day working week and for Welsh Government to commit to a green recovery from COVID-19, since her Future Generations Report was published in March.

In a paper outlining five steps to reset the economy, Ms Howe asked ministers to show political courage while ‘building back better’, with a focus on quality of life over GDP.

An emphasis on teaching creativity, resilience, innovative thinking and design, says the commissioner, could help enable Wales to be a leader in the low carbon revolution.

She said: “Wales is going to need to teach more care-givers, more green employees to help meet carbon emission targets in Wales and the UK.

“Providing people with education and the opportunity to develop the right set of skills for their future widely improves health, socio-economic position and life expectancy.

“We need to react positively to the changes in how we’re living, to ensure people have the right skills for our future Wales.”

The Future Generations Report also found Welsh schools need more diversity, particularly more Black Asian and minority ethnic role models. The commissioner backed a petition calling for Black and POC UK histories to be taught in the Welsh curriculum. She made a statement on the need for people in power to work to dismantle systemic racism in Wales and the rest of the UK.

The emotional impacts of COVID-19 on communities are going to be felt long into the future, she said, adding mental health and well-being education should be prioritised in the delivery of the curriculum.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has published the results of a young person’s survey, Coronavirus and Me, where many reported a pleasure in spending time with family and enjoying the outdoors during lockdown, while 16% of secondary age pupils felt sad ‘most of the time’.

Ms Howe said: “Teaching vital skills like team-work, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and problem-solving are vital if we’re to nurture a generation of emotionally resilient children.

“That’s the education they need to help prevent cycles of lifelong inequality and adversity.”


In 2019, Future Generations Wales produced a white paper, Education Fit for the Future in Wales, with Professor Calvin Jones of Cardiff Business School which found that GCSEs were “no longer fit for purpose” and our “obsession” with exams was failing to equip young people with the right skills they needed for the future.

It called for a revision of disciplines in favour of holistic, cross-curriculum teaching, finding the new curriculum would need a ‘significant’ increase in the numbers of staff, adding teachers are not adequately trained to deliver what is needed.

The Future Generations Report cites countries including Australia as models of good practice, where its new curriculum has the tagline ‘Ready for a world yet to be imagined’ and seeks to provide pupils with capabilities they will need in the workplace.

Welsh Youth Parliament has asked for life skills to be taught as a designated lesson and integrated into other subjects as part of the curriculum.

Countries with world-leading education systems such as Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan have reformed their assessment methods, away from standardisation, and centred around empowering learners to conduct their own learning.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales also found that young people aged 11-18 years old wanted to learn about life skills in school.


Media enquiries to Claire Rees at clairefrees@gmail.com