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Reforms backed amid cash fears

Better work placements for post-14 pupils needed. Nicola Porter reports

Radical reforms of 14-19 education in Wales will receive a pound;41 million cash injection in 2008, it has been revealed. But younger pupils could miss out as cash is redirected from school budgets to satisfy the demands of the ambitious new curriculum.

The Assembly government's learning pathways initiative envisages offering teenagers personalised study programmes built up from a wider choice of vocational and work-based courses, in a bid to keep more 16-year-olds in education or training.

Millions of pounds have already been allocated to help colleges and schools develop joint provision, and pilot work began last year on providing extra learning and personal support to some pupils via new "learning coaches".

Jane Davidson, minister of education, lifelong learning and skills, said schools would not be expected to fund the new initiative.

Grants for 14-19 schemes will be given over three years to allow for better planning by schools. But Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's shadow education minister, said it was inevitable that cash would be taken from funding for the key stage 3 curriculum.

The Assembly's new 14-19 learning pathways action plan, published last week, proposes:

* a revised key stage 4 curriculum from September 2009, including more vocationally-based English, Welsh, maths, science and languages syllabuses;

* all young people to be offered a choice of high-quality, work-related and general learning options from 14 by 2010;

* a national counselling service for 14-plus pupils by next year.

Professor David Egan, education adviser to the minister, told the National Union of Teachers Cymru's annual meeting, held last Saturday in Cardiff,that the changes would "transform the landscape of 14-19 education and training in Wales".

However, concerns remain about funding, staffing levels, training and recruiting of learning coaches and the commitment and capacity of Welsh businesses to deliver more and better work-based experience and training.

The quality of work-based training has been heavily criticised by inspection agency Estyn.

Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, strongly supported the reforms. But he said the current policy on learning coaches seemed confused and further debate was needed about effective support for learners.

"There is a great deal of good practice in Wales which should be built upon rather than replaced," he saiid.

He and Mal Davies, head of Willows high, in Cardiff, are also concerned about the bureaucracy involved in accessing funding for learning pathways - currently distributed via local 14-19 networks.

Mr Davies welcomed the changes, but said: "Like many good things in education, it comes with an expensive price tag."

Around 220 learning coaches are due to start training after the Easter break, but the 14-19 action plan concedes that more work is needed on training and recruiting them. More Welsh employers, particularly more Welsh speakers, are also needed to deliver the reforms.

Officials are compiling a database of participating employers, and asking them to sign a concordat pledging support for the scheme. Concerns remain about how the curriculum can be delivered in rural areas where businesses are more scarce.

Officials said rural schools and employers would be expected to come up with "creative ways" of making the curriculum work.

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