We have 11-16 schools and 16-plus colleges and yet they are talking about a new age range that bridges the two. Confused? Andy Stanley tries to unravel the issues
If you're in an 11-18 school or an FE college, you might be puzzled by talk of a 14-19 phase. After all, what sense is there in such an age range - especially when half of all 16-year-olds in the UK study in separate 16-plus institutions?
The 14-19 idea started with a few publications from the Department for Education and Skills which tied in with a review of national qualifications led by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools. On the agenda was the idea of a baccalaureate and a bridging of academic and vocational qualifications. The possible abolition of GCSEs was also up for discussion.
At the heart of this debate is the will to extend opportunities for 14- to 19-year-olds and give parity of esteem to vocational qualifications. There is also a recognition that an inflexible national curriculum has failed some secondary pupils. As a result, some schools can now "disapply" the curriculum.
A new baccalaureate has been well received in Wales so far. Steve Bowden, head of Porth County community school, says it has been stimulating, especially since the business enterprise modules began. "The Bac gives credit to the things we always added on - community work and employment-related education, for example," he says. "We had a carefully planned induction - in the end, every student we expected to join the sixth-form did so and is in the scheme."
There is also a 14-plus foundation phase - another overarching qualification with a strong vocational element. Porth County is offering health and social care, leisure and recreation, and engineering.
In England, there is no baccalaureate yet. Developments have been piecemeal. One problem is that there are two funding bodies involved: local authorities for schools and the learning and skills councils for FE.
Competition for students between schools and colleges remains cut-throat.
The focus in England will remain on the 14-16 age range until Mike Tomlinson's final report is published next summer. Despite England being beset by so much bureaucracy, a lot of imagination is being applied to make the 14-19 phase work. In one project at Farnham College, Surrey, students take day-release courses in catering, motor vehicle maintenance, hairdressing, animal care and landscape gardening. Lesley Herrington, the project co-ordinator there, is positive. "We disapplied the national curriculum and re-structured the timetable for groups of students. They have two days in school for core subjects, one day of work experience, one day in college and one day with a training provider for key skills. We aimed for a range of students but in the first year they were of slightly lower ability. This year we improved the induction, and the colleges interviewed carefully to get pupils on to the courses they really wanted.
It's worked a lot better."
Down the road in Godalming, the local sixth-form college has been going to schools to help them launch vocational GCSEs. Sylvia King, Godalming's co-ordinator, says that "timetabling is crucial - the higher-ability group has not had the school timetables re-arranged so they go back and are catching up on the work they've missed. But they seem to be thriving on it and some will end up with the equivalent of 12 GCSEs."
She explains that close tutoring is essential - as has also been found in Wales. "The 14-year-olds feel quite small in a college environment, and find it hard to integrate," she says. "A base room for them to use has been vital to the success. What has been good is the way they've taken to the structure of the day.
"With traditional school lessons, 50 minutes is often too short for the level 1 students to achieve something, while the double lesson is too long.
But with a whole day to plan, they've really got into their projects."
In post-16, there are also deep-rooted cultural barriers. Employers like A-levels - which is not surprising given that most bosses did them when they were at school. But Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors says that A-levels now, as the employers see them, are not the A-levels of 20 years ago.
Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector, is wheeled out every year to demand that A-levels be made harder, while the phrase "gold standard" is on the lips of traditionalists who remain convinced that no matter what happens elsewhere, A-levels should remain sacrosanct. It is on this issue that developments in the 14-19 phase hinge.
The demand for parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications is fraught with difficulty. Whenever parity of esteem is attempted vocational qualifications often end up looking like academic ones. For example, the perfectly good GNVQ, which the Confederation for British Industry wanted to be made more practical, was transformed into the inappropriately academic Vocational Certificate of Education.
For the past two decades or so, practical skills have been greatly diminished in vocational education as the academic lobby has become involved. Indeed, some argue that this is set to continue and that if the Tomlinson review tries to bring vocational studies into an overarching diploma, then these are bound to become less vocational as a result. Far better, the argument goes, to keep vocational training completely separate.
The Surrey experience would seem to confirm that. Lesley Herrington says that applied GCSEs have not taken off as well as the purely vocational college-based courses.
Sylvia King at Godalming goes further: "Applied GCSE Business looks as if it's reverted to what it was 15 years ago. There's too much dull bulk, too much jumping through hoops to meet the need for parity."
Complex as this issue might be, it is one that is bound to take on increasing significance - especially in the run-up to the publication of Tomlinson's final report. Certainly, new entrants to the profession would do well to keep one eye on these developments. Your awareness and knowledge of any reforms could have a crucial impact on your students' careers. As Karen Newby, assistant head at Porth County, says, "What's been so good is that it's really pulled the staff together, and parents and students really value it."
You can view progress with the Welsh Baccalaureate at www.wbq.org.uk
What does the 14-19 Curriculum mean?
* If you're in a school, the 14-19 phase does not mean a chance to get rid of naughty pupils and farm them out to FE colleges. Good students might reap huge benefits too.
* If you are involved in it, you are bound to become embroiled in consortium arrangements and extra meetings.
* If you are in FE, it almost certainly means you'll be being paid a lot less than school teachers for teaching the same age group, and you should be querying this vociferously.
* You will have some training needs met - all being well, not just revolving around the word "challenging".
* It is likely that you will have the chance to give groups of children who are not suited to the rigidities of the national curriculum a real chance to succeed.