City that sets a shining example

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Wolverhampton's delivery of 14-19 learning is an inspiration for Wales, says Assembly government

Wolverhampton, the 13th largest city in England, provides a shining example of how to bring on a revolution in teenage skills, according to the Assembly government.

At conferences countrywide, officials have been using the West Midlands city's successful delivery of vocational learning to under-19s as a model for Wales to follow.

But Peter Hawthorne, who is in charge of Wolverhampton's 14-19 delivery, does not believe the Assembly government should be giving lessons to heads based on his city's success.

In an interview with TES Cymru, he insisted that Wales did not yet have the infrastructure to realise its ambitions.

Worryingly for the Welsh teaching profession, as compulsory 14-19 learning pathways loom, Mr Hawthorne said the Assembly government had "simply not thought it through".

By "infrastructure", he means a national system in Wales - a common timetable that would cross all 22 local authority boundaries and negate competition between rival institutions.

In Wolverhampton, 14-year-olds can choose from a plethora of vocational and academic courses delivered under a common timetable for schools, colleges and other learning providers.

The city began to overhaul its timetable in 2000 to tackle a huge skills shortage - a crucial move in a city famed for its engineering and aerospace industries but which suffers many of Wales's misfortunes: high levels of child poverty and too many teenagers dropping out of school without qualifications.

The plan for Wales is for every school cluster and its nearest FE college to provide 30 course options collaboratively by 2012.

But Mr Hawthorne said: "They (the Assembly government) are legislating to force more courses on each school, but they are not giving them the infrastructure to do it."

Critics in Wales of the Wolverhampton model say comparisons are specious because England's schools and colleges enjoy better funding and are therefore able to deliver wider choice without being out of pocket. In Wales, where funding is based on head count, school sixth forms could be depleted in numbers by the 14-19 scheme.

Neil Foden, head of Ysgol Friars in Bangor, said collaboration in Wales would only work if schools received funding on a par with England.

He said the Assembly government was "beating schools with a stick" over 14-19 legislation, while failing to consult teachers at the sharp end. "Give us the same funding as England and we will collaborate," he told TES Cymru after attending a conference that extolled the virtues of Wolverhampton's approach.

But for Mr Hawthorne, funding is a red herring. He said the Assembly government was right when it preached better use of resources instead.

Other concerns - over vocationally led education - are perhaps bubbling away under the surface. Many believe 14-19 learning pathways will only benefit teenagers of the lowest ability, despite assurances to the contrary.

Heads, such as Neil Foden and Mike Pickard of Blackwood Comprehensive, believe it aims too low - at level 1 NVQ standard, ie, those who might otherwise drop out of education.

Mr Foden said: "At my school, there is simply no call for vocationally led education from a majority of my pupils. My brightest students aren't even interested in the vocationally led Welsh baccalaureate . If all this is about doing the best for learners, I would question that absolutely based on my experiences at my school."

Assembly officials acknowledge some of these criticisms, if only behind closed doors. They know one of their greatest challenges is to ensure learners of all abilities have access to vocational education. They say more courses will be available at level 2 (equivalent to GCSE A*-C) as collaborative arrangements are developed.

But officials are adamant that change must be forced through in the sector to increase the skills of the future workforce.

The deputy minister for skills, John Griffiths, told a meeting of governors in North Wales last month that "change is not optional" because the education system currently fails too many learners.

He told doubters: "It will be challenging, but because of all the progress already made, we are confident that it's a challenge that we can rise to."

TEMPLATE FOR SUCCESS

Wolverhampton's city motto - "0ut of darkness cometh light" - aptly describes its successful transformation of 14-19 education to address a growing skills gap and the underperformance of its young people, many of whom were alienated under "old-style" schooling.

Since the scheme's inception, the city has seen a remarkable increase in the number of students gaining five good GCSEs, as well as improvements among those at the lower end of the ability range, who might otherwise be lost to education.

Every post-16 student has access to 60 A-levelhigher Btec courses - twice the number being proposed in Wales - and over 200 other options, known as enrichment activities, on a Wednesday afternoon. These can be as diverse as theatre design, cartoon drawing, astronomy or how to sentence criminals.

More than one in five Year 10 pupils spend one day a week on work-based learning, and each student has a web-based individual learning plan to chart their progress. This is an education experience that puts teenagers centre stage.

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