Students as young as 14 will be able to access the pioneering Welsh baccalaureate for the first time this term, with the launch of a new foundation diploma.
Schools and colleges say the extension of the bac to the 14-16 age group could encourage more students into further education and provide them with essential skills needed for the jobs market.
But unions are warning that some schools will find it difficult to programme in the extra lessons needed to complete the bac.
The new foundation diploma, equivalent to GCSEs at grades D-G, is being offered to students aged 14-19 across 18 pilot settings.
Previously, only post-16 students have been entered for the Welsh bac, at intermediate and advanced levels.
School pupils will be able to do a two-year foundation or intermediate-level bac at 14, alongside their GCSEs. FE students aged 16-19 will also be offered a year-long foundation diploma.
This will require four GCSE passes at grades D-G and completion of the "core" certificate - a programme of study made up of key skills, modules on Wales, Europe and the world, work-related education, and personal and social education.
The intermediate core is similar, but requires four GCSE passes at grades A*-C (or equivalent).
Hilary Thomas, assistant headteacher at St Cyres school, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, which is piloting both the foundation and intermediate bac with 14-year-olds, said she hoped eventually it would be rolled out to all key stage 4 pupils.
"It's about equipping pupils for the modern world and providing them with a rounded education," she said. Two PSE sessions a week are being used to teach the components of the Welsh bac.
However UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers' union, believes many schools will find it tough integrating the extra work into the already tight GCSE timetable.
Policy officer Elaine Edwards said: "If you're doing A or AS-level there are usually free periods that can be used, but this is not the case with GCSEs. We have to be careful that, as we squeeze everything in, we don't neglect some subjects."
Meanwhile, course tutors in FE colleges are raving about the new foundation diploma. They say it will give students on one-year courses, such as BTECs or NVQs, the opportunity to achieve a bac in a year. These students have struggled to complete the intermediate bac (designed as a two-year course) in a year, resulting in high drop-out rates.
"The foundation course will offer a good solid starting point for many,"
said Sylvia Davies, head of public affairs for fforwm, which represents Welsh FE colleges.
Lesley Tipping, Welsh bac co-ordinator at Coleg Menai, Bangor, said: "The whole idea is that a lot more students will have the opportunity to succeed."
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WHAT IT'S MADE OF
Four key skills* at level 1 (equivalent to GCSE grades D-G). Verification and evaluation reports for working with an employer. Team enterprise activity and community participation. Wales, Europe and the world. NVQ level 1 or BTEC introductory diploma or four D-G GCSEs.
Three key skills at level 2 (equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C). Other three key skills at level 1. Satisfactory reports on working with an employer and community participation. Individual investigation at level 2. Wales, Europe and the world. NVQ level 2 or BTEC First pass or four A*-C GCSEs or intermediate GNVQ.
Three key skills at level 3 (equivalent to A-level). Other three key skills at level 2. Satisfactory reports on working with an employer and community participation. Individual investigation at level 3. Wales, Europe and the world. NVQ level 3 or BTEC national pass or two A-E A-levels or equivalent.
* key skills are communication; application of number; IT; improving learning and performance; working with others and problem-solving.