Businesses and other organisations receiving public funding from the Welsh Assembly government could be required to take secondary pupils on work-experience placements. The radical measure, which is opposed by CBI Wales, is suggested in new guidance on broadening the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds.
Learning Countries: Learning Pathways 14-19 envisages an expansion of work-based experience and training opportunities for youngsters but acknowledges that provision is now "often limited in range, quantity and quality".
Teacher unions welcome placing a contractual obligation on Assembly suppliers to help with work experience, claiming some companies are turning their backs on this responsibility.
But retired industrialist George Newson, CBI Wales's representative on the Learning Pathways steering group, said: "It could be that small firms can't provide training places but do offer good services. It would be a restriction of trade for small companies."
CBI Wales and other organisations have nevertheless given a cautious welcome to the Assembly government guidance document. It envisages teenagers creating their own individual courses of study ("learning pathways") by choosing options from a wider range of school, college and work-based courses and placements, both academic and vocational. The aim is to create a curriculum that motivates and benefits children of differing abilities.
Youngsters would still have to meet relevant statutory requirements, for example, studying English, Welsh, maths and science to 16 in schools. But "learning coaches" would be on hand to offer guidance and impartial advice on choosing courses, as well as helping pupils to learn.
Personal development targets for teenagers would form part of a new minimum "learning core" of key skills and experiences to be delivered to every student, regardless of whether they were studying at school, college, or "on the job".
The learning core is meant to be in place by September 2005, and the Assembly government has allocated pound;140,000 this year for pilots of learning coaches.
Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, is concerned that heads could put teachers under pressure to be learning coaches.
Union president, Suzanne Nantcurvis, is opposed to teachers taking on this role at all. But both welcomed the opportunity to provide a vocational curriculum more appropriate for some pupils.
Ms Nantcurvis said: "We have little flexibility and that's why a lot of pupils switch off from the school system, because the curriculum doesn't cater for them. We want a better curriculum, and this is the opportunity to get it."
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, highlighted concerns about whether children in rural or valleys areas would get the same range of choices as others in urban areas with more course providers in easy reach.
She added: "Placing equal valuation on academic and vocational training is an admirable ambition, but we are still unclear about how this will be achieved in practice. If this agenda is about trying to re-engage disaffected pupils, then massive change on this scale seems to be out of proportion."
The big questions are to do with money, according to CBI Wales's Mr Newson.
"Vocational is not a cheap option. If it becomes a cheap option, it's going to become a cheap and nasty piece of learning," he said.
But Frank Ciccotti, head of Pembroke high school, Pembrokeshire, which has won pilot funding for a learning coach, believes the 14-19 guidance is nonetheless the right way to go.
"The curriculum we deliver in schools must match the needs of students today. This is encouraging students to become active participants in their learning and to take more responsibility."