Bac pulls it all together
With the Tomlinson report on the future of 14-19 education published this week, the spotlight will no doubt fall on the Welsh Baccalaureate pilot programme now entering its second year.
There is no argument that Wales is ahead of the game, but there remains much to be done if this made-in-Wales qualification is to fulfil its potential.
Cynics remain unconvinced of the value of this qualification. But even they cannot fail to be impressed with the statistics. The first year of this two-year programme has delivered a six-fold increase in the acquisition of key skills among intermediate (level 2) students. No question then - the Bac is already better equipping students for work and progression to higher education.
Unlike school sixth forms, colleges in Wales do not offer the Bac across all programme areas. Instead they have to convince prospective students of the value of this course. The stark increase in student enrolments since the beginning of the pilot is testament to student support for this qualification. There are an estimated 3,000 students enrolled on the Bac in further education colleges this year, a figure that is set to double for 2005-6.
In addition, 120 points (equivalent to an A grade at A-level) are awarded by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to the core element of the Bac - no doubt a major attraction for many advanced-level students.
A number of universities have already indicated that the core would substitute for an A-level as an entry requirement. Even where students continue to pursue three A-levels, the added value provided by the Bac is a big selling point.
Already this year, students have been involved in work-experience exchanges to Milan, combining language study with work-based education, and there have been visits to Brussels, Cardiff Bay and Westminster as part of the Wales, Europe and the world module.
But we should not neglect the inclusive nature of this qualification. It was never intended to serve just the elite. The Bac's central core is available at level 2 (intermediate) and level 3 (advanced). The common core was designed to halt disaffection and re-engage students who are turned off by the limitations of the present system. Indeed, much the same objectives as Tomlinson.
Predictably, many of the students in colleges pursue the intermediate Bac in conjunction with their national vocational qualifications, which range from motor vehicles to tourism and leisure.
We remain hopeful that the Bac will succeed in breaking the artificial barriers between academic and vocational routes, where other approaches and qualifications have failed. It remains clear that if the Bac is to deliver on its objectives and re-engage with the most vulnerable students, the pilot programme must be extended to a foundation stage. The Bac should be targeting the 3 per cent of pupils who leave school without any qualifications, failed by the existing system.
The need for an inclusive curriculum does not begin at the arbitrary age of 16. In view of the Assembly government's 14-19 agenda, it seems inevitable that the Bac will be extended to 14 to 16-year-olds. But why not take a more radical view? If the consensus is that existing qualifications remain too academic, then let us provide some real vocational options for 14-year-olds.
Such a system is obviously dependent on an enlightened collaborative agenda, and there is much work to be done on this. There are excellent examples of collaboration between schools and colleges for 14 to 16-year-olds, but these arrangements are often ad hoc and unsustainable.
What is needed, of course, is an inclusive 14-19 qualification framework which is standard across Wales. Extending the Bac to 14 would provide an opportunity to build a progressive 14-19 education and training offer, capable of tackling the damaging culture of failure operating at the moment. Success or otherwise will obviously come down to funding. Colleges and schools must be given incentives to work more closely together.
Changes are also required at the intermediate and advanced levels. Colleges participating in the pilot stage have consistently claimed that the intensive teaching, mentoring and innovative approaches demanded by the Bac are costly and under-funded.
Given the current financial situation facing the sector, which has been exacerbated by two years of no growth, the Bac can only flourish with increased funding.
The flexible nature of the Bac could easily accommodate any changes proposed by Tomlinson to the general qualification structure. Clearly Tomlinson would benefit from following closely the exciting developments already evident in Wales.
John Graystone is chief executive of Fforwm, the representative body for FE colleges in Wales