Deputy minister for skills Jeff Cuthbert has announced that traditional qualifications will remain in Wales, alongside a “more rigorous” Welsh Baccalaureate.
The decision means Wales’s education system will differ significantly from that in England, where GCSEs will be scrapped and replaced with a new O level style “EBacc”.
There are no plans to make “significant changes” to courses starting in September 2013, with the modified Welsh Bacc and new GCSEs in English, Welsh and maths (numeracy and mathematical techniques) set for launch in September 2015.
Mr Cuthbert told National Assembly members: “We will retain GCSEs and A levels. Where necessary we will strengthen and amend these, but ultimately we have confidence in these well established qualifications, which are recognised around the world.”
Mr Cuthbert said diverging from the existing three-country arrangements – and a system currently shared with England and Northern Ireland – would require “significant resources”.
Plans to introduce an overarching body to award and regulate all non-degree level qualifications in Wales have been formally accepted.
The launch of Qualifications Wales will see regulatory duties removed from the Welsh government and could lead to the absorption of examination board WJEC.
Mr Cuthbert said all of the 42 recommendations put forward by a qualifications review panel had been accepted and provided a “strong and sustainable basis” for developing a world-class system.
The review panel’s report received widespread praise from teaching unions.
Gareth Jones, secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL Cymru, said the Welsh government had made the right decision for Wales in accepting its recommendations.
Anna Brychan, director of NAHT Cymru, said retaining and refining GCSEs and A levels was a “sensible move”, while ATL Cymru’s Dr Philip Dixon said using “tried and tested” qualifications would provide stability.
The exam announcement came as the Welsh government faced criticism over an annual report from inspectors Estyn, which concluded that more than half of all primary and secondary schools need to achieve better standards of literacy.
Around half of schools inspected this year require a follow-up visit next year, as will five of eight local authorities.
Chief inspector Ann Keane said: “A number of aspects continue to cause concern, including standards in reading, writing and numeracy. Schools need to get better at planning ways for pupils to improve their skills in literacy and numeracy across all areas of learning.”