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A distinctive Welsh accent

The radical curriculum that is to be introduced in little more than a year has captured teachers' imaginations, writes Adi Bloom

From their first day at school to their final qualification, pupils in Wales are now to be educated in a distinctively Welsh system. Three-year-olds attending nursery school will no longer follow the same curriculum as their peers across the River Severn. Instead, they will begin their schooling in a new, play-based foundation stage, which delays any formal education until the age of seven. The plans have been sent out for consultation and pilots are expected to start in September next year.

The curriculum will focus on children's achievements in seven areas of educational and social development such as knowledge and understanding of the world, creative development and bilingual and multicultural understanding. Language, literacy, communication skills and mathematical development will also be measured.

Objectives, though, will be informal. Among the goals for foundation-stage pupils will be an awareness of their own bodies and personal hygiene: how to go to the toilet themselves and to blow their noses.

Seven-year-olds in Wales are no longer required to sit national tests at the end of key stage 1. In 2001, statutory testing was abolished at this level.

The first set of key stage 1 results measured by teacher assessment alone were published last year, and showed little change on preceding years: 80 per cent of all Welsh pupils achieved the expected standard of level 2 or above in all subjects, compared with 81 per cent in 2001.

Educationists across Wales rejoiced at the decision to abolish the tests and the speed with which it happened. Gethin Lewis, Welsh secretary for the National Union of Teachers, said: "On behalf of the children of Wales, I can't thank Jane Davidson (the minister for education) enough. But this must bring about changes in key stage 2. We need to spend more time and energy looking at the continuity from primary to secondary, instead of wasting money on tests."

But Assembly officials have defended the key stage 2 tests, claiming they provide a useful tool for international comparison. Instead, she is focusing on the development and implementation of the new Welsh 14-19 curriculum. This will incorporate work experience and out-of-school study into secondary learning. Pupils will be able to pursue work-based or academic qualifications, or to mix advanced study and work experience.

The new curriculum begins at "springboard" level, with either GCSE or NVQ qualifications. Those pupils who do not achieve five top-grade GCSEs will be encouraged to move directly on to a work-related traineeship, which will provide the skills necessary for employment.

Those who achieve either five high-grade GCSEs or an NVQ level 2 qualification will be encouraged to stay on at school, following one of three advanced learning routes: general, modern or combined apprenticeships. The first leads to a school or college-based qualification, such as AS or A-levels. The modern apprenticeship leads to a work-based qualification. And the combined allows pupils to select elements from both academic and vocational routes, matching school-based study with extended, accredited work placements.

Consultation on the proposals ended in February, and the Assembly intends to have a pilot programme in place by 2004. Its ultimate aim is to see 95 per cent of school-leavers ready for high-skill employment or higher education by 2015.

"It's potentially extremely radical," says Elizabeth Williams, leader of the 14-19 curriculum-development team for the Assembly government. "We're changing the way education is delivered. We want all young people to have the opportunity to acquire the wider skills that only the most advantaged have at the moment."

All three learning routes provide increased opportunity for out-of-school study and work-experience placements. Because pupils will be able to choose from a wide range of study options, no one institution will have the facilities to deliver all elements of the curriculum. Instead, schools will be encouraged to work in partnership with neighbouring colleges, industries and community-based organisations.

Such a broad programme, Ms Williams adds, is unlikely to be accommodated within the conventional, 9am-3pm school day. Instead, the new curriculum will give academic credit to extra-curricular activities already undertaken by pupils.

"The Duke of Edinburgh Award, for example, will be creditable as part of the 14-19 curriculum, as will work experience, public-service work and artistic and creative work," she says. "We want young people to have more practical experience, and a wider base of knowledge. We'll be looking at teamwork, communication, a willingness to learn."

The 14-19 programme will conclude with the Welsh baccalaureate, a qualification combining existing A-levels or vocational courses with broader, skills-based study. Nineteen schools have already been chosen to pilot it from September this year. The "Bac" will be introduced in a six-year rolling pilot programme. By 2010, the Assembly hopes, all Welsh schools will have adopted it.

The Welsh Bac syllabus encompasses existing A-level or vocational courses.

These are taken as academic options, ensuring that the qualification is recognised by universities and employers. But it will also include compulsory core elements, such as work experience, community service, PSHE, a language requirement, and a module examining Wales, Europe and the world.

Most heads have welcomed the breadth and diversity of the new curriculum, although Helen Mary Jones, education spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, has questioned the fractured implementation of change in Wales.

She has said: "We're giving children an exciting experience until they're seven, then stuffing them in the sausage machine of the national curriculum until they're 14. When they come out at 14, they're not going to be able to make choices.

"We would introduce changes by following through groups of children in a logical manner, so that they're able to make informed decisions about the directions they take."

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