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VCSEs: What are Wales’ new vocational qualifications?

Most people in Wales remember sitting their GCSEs, but soon students in Wales will have the opportunity to study for a brand new qualification.

The Vocational Certificate of Secondary Education (VCSE) is set to be implemented from September 2027, catering to individuals aged 14 to 16.

As part of a substantial overhaul aligned with the new school curriculum, these modifications signify that students in this age group will no longer engage in existing work-related courses like BTEC. Qualifications Wales, an external body, expresses the hope that VCSEs will attain a level of recognition and esteem comparable to GCSEs.

VCSEs represent a fresh category of vocational qualifications, emphasising practical skills tailored to specific occupations or career paths. Diverging from general qualifications such as GCSEs, which are typically conferred in academic subjects, VCSEs aim to streamline the array of available qualifications under a unified umbrella.

A total of 13 to 16 VCSE titles will be introduced, with multiple awarding bodies authorised to offer them. This initiative seeks to replace approximately 300 existing vocational qualifications, including BTECs. However, BTECs will continue to be accessible to students post-16.

Cassy Taylor, the Director of Qualifications Reform and Policy at Qualifications Wales, emphasizes the importance of providing young people with choices that are regarded with equal value.

She said: “We’re really excited about the concept of a new VCSE brand that sit side by side with GCSEs and really raise the profile of vocational learning in schools,”.

Additional changes include the introduction of various qualifications:

  1. Foundation Qualifications: Geared towards students not yet prepared for GCSEs, these cover broad areas aligned with the new curriculum, such as humanities and the expressive arts.
  2. Skills Qualifications: Comprising bite-sized units under the categories of skills for life or skills for work, these qualifications encompass areas like financial literacy, practical gardening, job applications, and customer service.
  3. Personal Project Qualification: This allows students to explore a subject of their choice, evaluating skills such as planning and creativity.

As a consequence of these changes, the Welsh Baccalaureate and Skills Challenge Certificate will no longer be available at this level. The alterations extend beyond GCSEs, aligning with the new curriculum’s learning and experiential areas.

Qualifications Wales, the regulatory body, emphasises the goal of ensuring qualifications harmonise with the new curriculum while also streamlining the offerings to reflect the essential skills for young people in life and work, meeting employers’ expectations.

While some new GCSEs will commence in September 2025 and others in 2026, the introduction of the new vocational qualifications is slated for the subsequent year. Schools will have the autonomy to select the qualifications they offer, guided by Welsh government recommendations. However, concerns arise regarding the potential workload for teachers who must acquaint themselves with these new qualifications, as well as considerations about additional costs.

Unlike GCSEs, which are predominantly overseen by the WJEC exam board in Wales, various awarding bodies are involved in offering vocational and other qualifications. Qualifications Wales anticipates broad participation from these bodies in offering the new VCSEs.