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My radical idea: let KS3 pupils pick their school

I want to propose a radical solution in response to the disappointing performance of Wales's 15-year-olds in the recent international tests.

I believe this measure would be popular with pupils, their parents and carers, as well as a wide range of caring professionals in the education sector, from teachers and lecturers to administrators.

This proposal may help the education minister, who pledged to raise academic standards in schools before and during his election campaign for the Welsh Assembly. I believe it would assist him to meet the new targets he has set, while helping with the roll-out of the school effectiveness framework (SEF).

So here is my proposal: secondary pupils should have a statutory right to switch schools, taking their GCSEs in the one of their choice. They, their parents and carers would be able to make the decision at the end of key stage 3, no later than the start of the final summer term when they select their GCSE options.

I believe this one measure would raise pupils' self-esteem, give confidence to parents and help erase the downward spiral in educational performance that is endemic in some parts of South Wales. It would help lift academic standards in secondary schools and cause standards of teaching within some schools to rise immeasurably.

I believe it would significantly improve attendance rates, reduce truancy and improve standards of behaviour, as well as limit the damage caused to some pupils by various forms of bullying.

The Welsh Assembly would send out a clear message that it was determined to elevate academic standards while, at the same time, facilitating pupils' rights.

Also, unless some underperforming schools rose to the challenge of ensuring their pupils achieved as much as possible, their longer-term futures could look worse as market forces take full effect. The respective messages would soon reach Estyn, local authority staff, local and national politicians, school governors and the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS).

Successful schools should have no qualms. They could only stand to benefit, although a few unhappy or unsuccessful pupils, or those with attendance or behavioural difficulties, may decide to transfer even from these schools to make a fresh start elsewhere. Some teachers and schools might even welcome this respite.

Of course, this measure would require new legislation and would be a unique Welsh policy. But I believe we should do it. I would also introduce legislation to allow pupils at the start of KS4 to be allowed to take their GCSEs at an FE college if there was one available in their area, and they and their parents preferred it. It would be a particularly sensible choice for those pupils who would prefer to select a broader range of vocational options, rather than being forced to select from existing options in which they have little or no interest.

It would provide a massive boost for those less able or difficult pupils who currently have little chance of making a positive impact upon existing Welsh Pisa results, and provide a new challenge for some FE colleges. The legislative change would also make both economic and employability sense in the longer term.

In the absolute ideal world, I would like to see this concept extended to a third level. This would provide all pupils who leave secondary education at 16 with five GCSEs or fewer with the opportunity to re-enter education and study in designated "second-chance" schools for up to two years. There is evidence that these can achieve excellent results and would help to reduce the rising problem with young people who are not in employment, education or training.

Those of us who work in higher education all know how much better even moderate-background mature students can perform given a second chance. This was an idea I discussed with Jane Davidson when she first became education minister more than 10 years ago. But, although she liked it, the idea floundered because of a lack of support from within DCELLS.

I think this proposal deserves a new airing within the upper echelons of the Department and the Welsh Government.

Along with much earlier intervention for less able and difficult pupils, and much improved literacy and numeracy strategies, I believe the measures I have outlined here would make a huge difference to our long-term performance. Then Welsh education would be once again taken more seriously by our competitors.

Professor Ken Reid is research professor at Swansea Metropolitan University.

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