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Pioneers in the art of the possible

Citywide co-ordination of timetables is giving sixth-formers a new range of options, writes Warwick Mansell

Is this the future of secondary education? Schools across one city in the Midlands are co-ordinating timetables so that hundreds of teenagers have a vast choice of subjects and courses.

Anticipating government plans to offer a more "personalised" curriculum, pupils in Wolverhampton are being educated in more than one school to maximise their options.

For the past three years, the city's 18 secondaries and a further education college have been co-ordinating their timetables to enable youngsters from various institutions to come together to study minority subjects.

In the sixth-form, lessons are organised in two-and-a-half-hour blocks so that students study subjects for a whole morning or afternoon. Now, the city's 2,700 sixth-formers are taking 1,200 lessons every week away from their "home" institution.

One student said he was studying art and drama A-levels at his own school and film studies at a neighbouring comprehensive. Another took English and computing at "home" and chemistry "away".

Wolverhampton students are now being offered a choice of 35 A-level courses, and 10 in vocational A-levels. Previously, say the organisers, students at small schools would have had a choice of only eight A-level subjects, and one vocational A-level. Even at larger schools, choice has now been substantially increased.

This is not the only innovation on offer in Wolverhampton, which is part of a government "pathfinder" project to test new ways of providing education for 14 to 19-year-olds. By September next year, a modified version of the shared timetable system will be working at key stage 4, enabling more students to study vocational and minority subjects outside their usual school.

The schools are already co-operating to offer more courses for their 14 to 16-year-olds. Last year, students were asked to choose from subjects including motor maintenance, plumbing, hair and beauty care and childcare.

From the autumn, a new "coursefinder" website will be available to help youngsters to see all the options available to them across the city.

According to one source, the partnership was originally born more out of fear than altruism. In the late 1990s, with the advent of the Learning and Skills Council, heads worried that their small sixth-forms would be closed unless they worked together to broaden provision.

The co-operation, which is key to the success of such schemes, seems genuine, but there are many pitfalls. The problem of transporting pupils between schools, which has been manageable so far when confined largely to sixth-formers, will get bigger when more GCSE pupils take advantage of the scheme.

There are worries about how schools, which are legally responsible for the welfare of pupils during the school day, will keep track of so many under-16s moving around the city. But for now the pathfinder can bask in being in the vanguard of government moves to put more power in the hands of educational "consumers" (pupils and parents) rather than "suppliers" (schools and teachers).

Twelve of the secondary schools involved have specialist-school status, and the idea of offering pupils the benefits of a range of specialisms is something that ministers are also keen on.

Peter Hawthorne, Wolverhampton's 14 to 19 co-ordinator, said: "Our education system has traditionally been very supply-led with the choices available to young people limited by the way that schools are organised.

"If we change to an area-based curriculum, pupils will be much more able to follow their own choices and specialisms."

FE Focus 3

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