Pathways may be strewn with banana skins

Nigel Stacey

In preparation for the ASCL Cymru's annual conference, we surveyed our members about the impact of the new 14-19 learning pathways initiative. Not surprisingly, the study confirmed school leaders' strong support for this initiative.

Members are excited about the opportunities to provide a wider, more relevant curriculum. They express support for collaboration, and of curriculum development, and we wholeheartedly subscribe to the Assembly government's aim to provide a world-class education for all pupils in Wales.

But the survey also showed real concern about the funding and practicalities of this ambitious scheme. There are worries about the lack of progress in eliminating the barriers that exist because of lack of funding, as well as rural and Welsh language issues.

Welsh secondaries have maintained excellent standards, despite a well documented lack of funding. But there is a real possibility of these standards being eroded if collaborative working is not established effectively. Our members want this initiative to succeed, but not at the expense of other schemes of work in schools.

Wales can be proud of the successful changes made to its educational provision, including the foundation phase, the abolition of Sats and league tables, and the introduction of the Welsh baccalaureate. The common factor in these initiatives, despite the concerns about funding, was a collaborative approach and a timescale that gave the opportunity to pilot initiatives fully and learn valuable lessons. ASCL Cymru is concerned that this successful approach has not been adopted in the 14-19 learning pathways agenda - specifically in terms of timescale.

As one school leader said: "The reality of collaboration is truly challenging, and is unlikely to be established in the timescale envisaged by the Assembly government. Despite the valuable work carried out by the network groups, this has only served to establish the fact that there are huge obstacles to overcome, particularly with businesses."

Members, who responded to the survey from all parts of Wales, reported significant inconsistencies in pupil numbers involved, the costs associated with the courses on offer, and the difficulties in offering shared timetables between institutions.

It is difficult to determine how this initiative is going to be sustained once funding is reduced. The hidden costs associated with the administrative, strategic and organisational planning represent a huge commitment in terms of staff time. It is also likely that the more institutions involved in the network or provision, the greater the time demands will be. The exercise showed that for some schools it is only once they began to quantify the time commitments already made that they started to grasp the full implications of their involvement.

There are also the constraints associated with the curriculum reorganisation needed to consolidate timetables with partners at key stages 4 and 5. The real impact is on the core subjects. Timetable demands will result in them being taught in a reduced number of days. The price to be paid for developments at KS4 would be a poorer educational experience for KS3 students. This may not be acceptable to parents.

The funding arrangements for the networks are disguising the true costs of the initiative. There is a lack of transparency, and it is difficult to disentangle the direct funding for the new curriculum models being developed by the networks. Since this funding is coming from additional grants, there is real concern about sustainability. Once the grants cease, it is difficult to determine how the savings necessary in the core funding can be made. A small school with a limited number of pupils involved in courses outside the school will have to maintain a substantive curriculum for pupils still in school. It is therefore unlikely that the school will see any savings because it will still have to offer classes in option blocks as well as fund courses for a minority travelling to different venues.

There is a real commitment to making the pathways work, but the barriers to progress should not be underestimated. We are far from identifying the true costs of partnership working, but above all it is clear many school leaders feel that the timescales for establishing these key partnerships are unrealistic.

The lesson from the foundation phase and the Welsh baccalaureate is that the best results come from a full pilot testing of proposals that enables the real costs and barriers to be assessed in the light of experience.

The ASCL Cymru today calls on the Assembly government to delay implementation for all schools for two or three years and to seek volunteer networks - in differing contexts - to take part in a full trial, from September 2009, of the proposals contained in the draft Learning Skills Measure. In the light of these pilots, we would be more certain that all pupils in Wales had access to the educational experiences that would best equip them for their roles as adults in the coming decades.

Nigel Stacey, President of the heads' union ASCL Cymru.

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Nigel Stacey

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