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Ministers must keep their eyes on 14-19 prize

David Egan on the purpose of the learning pathways initiative

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David Egan on the purpose of the learning pathways initiative

There are those in Wales - both inside and outside the education system - who still seem unsure about the purpose of the 14-19 learning pathways initiative. In essence, it has two closely related objectives.

First, it seeks to broaden the curriculum available to our young people by giving all students the opportunity to follow more applied learning courses (in schools and FE colleges) and work-based learning (including apprenticeships) outside traditional education settings. This is a long- winded way of saying we would like to offer students "a greater range of academic and vocational courses", but it is more accurate than that rather hackneyed classification.

Second, and less highly promoted, learning pathways are intended to improve the participation and outcomes achieved by students during this important phase in their lives. This is particularly the case for young people from our more disadvantaged communities, whose rates of participation and achievement are at their lowest - a fact that was clearly demonstrated in the results for 15-year-olds reported by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in 2008.

Of course, this needs to be set in context. Over the past quarter of a century there have been significant improvements in the results achieved by students in Wales. This is highlighted, and often debated, each August when further improvements are generally reported in GCSE and ASA-level results. But the actual situation is more complex.

As the Pisa results reveal, improvements in performance in Wales lag behind many of the most successful countries that participate. In addition, performance at GCSE and ASA-level is actually the low point of achievement in our education system. The main cause of this is the disengagement of our most disadvantaged youngsters.

Despite appearances to the contrary, therefore, what we offer students in our 14-19 education and training system does not sufficiently engage or motivate them to succeed to the levels of which they are capable. We quite simply have no alternative but to do something about this situation if we are to improve our performance in Wales.

The influential Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training recognises that necessity and that Wales is rising to the challenge. It gives particular attention and support to the Welsh baccalaureate. This validation of the qualification is particularly to be welcomed, as is the proposal that it should be at the heart of future 14-19 developments in Wales.

The review also provides a critique of 14-19 education and training in Wales, arguing that, given the energy and funding that has been expended on developing the policy, the outcomes it has achieved are disappointing. While it might be argued that this ignores the considerable advances that have been made in some areas of Wales, it has to be accepted that this overall judgment is probably a fair one.

The main reason for this is that achieving additional learning opportunities - particularly those necessitating collaboration between different providers - has been tortuous, with any progress hard won. This has been true at both school-to-school and school-to-college levels. Progress is now being made, but there is still much variability across Wales, and overall it has been extremely slow. What we need now is fresh leadership and drive from the Assembly government to ensure that best practice becomes the norm.

If the rather slow extension of learning opportunities is an area for disappointment, then this is even more the case in relation to improvements in student participation and outcomes. Given that this policy reform is now eight years old, this is both a reality check and a matter of concern.

It should not, however, be a reason for dismay or panic. Achieving fundamental and systemic reform of the type that is being attempted for 14-19 education and training in Wales is notoriously slow, and there are strong vested interests that have stood and will stand in its way. The government needs to stay strong both in commitment and purpose, for it can do no other.

What is needed now is to place learning pathways at the heart of the move towards greater educational effectiveness in Wales. It is too small a country to bear the weight of the number of initiatives we have at play. We need greater integration of these policies at the strategic level controlled by the government while, at operational level, we need closer working between Wales's four local authority consortiums, our FE institutions and work-based learning providers in order to take 14-19 reform to scale.

As the Nuffield report recognises, Wales is well-placed to achieve the prize of 14-19 reform - a high-quality education experience for all our young people. Now - through the curriculum offered by the Welsh bac, the leadership that only the government can provide, and a delivery network fit for Wales's size and capacity - that prize is in sight.

David Egan, Professor of education at University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, and adviser to the Nuffield Review since 2004.

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