The Welsh Assembly government recently released its latest statistics on pupils who left full-time education without a recognised qualification in 2004 . These figures show that:
* 2.8 per cent left without a qualification, slightly worse than the previous year, but better than 1999, when the figure was 3.7 per cent;
* more boys than girls left with no qualifications (TES Cymru, December 24).
The Assembly government had set a target of reducing the 1999 figures by a quarter, but the overall reduction in 2004 amounted to 18 per cent. Was the target realistic or too demanding?
The national statistics for Wales do not present the total picture. First, there are some major variations between local education authorities.
For example, Blaenau Gwent has the biggest statistical difference between boys and girls, with more than four times as many boys as girls not achieving a recognised qualification, not entering work-based learning or continuing in full-time education.
While national performance statistics suggest that it is boys, rather than girls, who tend to underachieve, there is no valid explanation for a three-fold or four-fold difference. Moreover, this situation is not universally true. In Flintshire, Wrexham, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan the reverse is the case as more girls than boys drop out without any formal qualifications.
Second, there is huge variation in the emphasis being placed on out-of-school provision between LEAs in Wales.
A few, such as Rhondda Cynon Taf, have some excellent out-of-school provision, others have minimal or no alternative curriculum units. There are currently no second-chance units established in Wales for failing or disaffected pupils.
There is surely an opportunity for large urban authorities like Cardiff, Newport or Swansea to take a lead, possibly with help from the Assembly government.
Third, the delay between pupils being excluded from schools in Wales and finding alternative placements is generally much too long, with many LEAs taking between 45 and 75 days to achieve this goal.
The Assembly government and LEAs need to improve this fast. It is in no one's interest to have groups of disaffected pupils walking the streets with no alternative placements being found to enable them to re-enter education productively.
In some cases, pupils excluded in Year 11 never return to any form of educational provision.
Fourth, throughout Wales, alternative curriculum and out-of-school placements are in short supply. Many urban areas only have between 12 and 20 places available in a single pupil-referral unit for the whole authority. Some PRUs only admit pupils at key stage 4, with early intervention strategies particularly lacking.
Fifth, LEAs in some largely urban areas appear to have far more pupils leaving school without any qualifications than many of their rural peers.
Gwynedd easily has the lowest percentage of pupils in this category - up to six times lower than Swansea, Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen or Cardiff.
However, there are other major differences between LEAs in the Assembly's statistics. Variations abound between urban LEAs as well with Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea having around twice as many pupils leaving school without any formal qualifications compared to cities such as Newport. It is equally unclear why this is the case.
A recent Office for Standards in Education report in England acknowledged that many disaffected pupils who have failed to gain suitable or any alternative out-of-school placements subsequently get involved in crime-related activities or exhibit anti-social behaviour.
Wales needs to heed this trend as two recent reports published in Scotland indicate that, for the first time, more girls than boys truant and are also more likely to become engaged in criminal behaviour. Nevertheless, boys continue to exceed girls in serious criminal behaviour by a ratio of 3:1.
It will be interesting to see what impact the revised 14-19 curriculum for Wales will have on out-of-school provision. Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, is placing great store on the new curriculum improving opportunities for less able and disadvantaged pupils.
But there will continue to be a need for out-of-school, alternative curriculum and second-chance opportunities for a small minority of pupils at KS3 and KS4.
It would seem sensible, therefore, for the Assembly government and LEAs need to work together strategically to improve this type of provision within Wales.
Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education and author of Truancy: short and long-term solutions, published by Routledge Falmer.
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