Coach is way forward
A new deal for all 14 to 19-year-olds, with the learner being placed at the fulcrum of their own learning, is a key concept behind the Welsh Assembly government's guidance document on learning pathways (published next week on the internet).
The guidance also seeks to take forward the Assembly's goal that, by 2015, 95 per cent of young people in Wales will, by the age of 25, be ready for high-skilled employment or higher education. If this happened, it would put Wales at the forefront of educational achievement in Europe.
Why is there a need for these initiatives? At present, 14 to 16-year-olds in Wales are doing better than their counterparts in England and achieving a higher percentage of GCSEs at grades A* to C. The top 60 per cent in Wales is doing as well as, if not better, than those in most countries in Europe.
Sadly, we are doing less well with our bottom 40 per cent and this large tail of underachievement urgently needs to be addressed if Wales is to be in the vanguard of educational development in the newly enlarged European Union.
The improvements in educational performance in recent years have projected young people in Britain up the international league tables to such an extent that the PISA report, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last year, indicated that the reading and mathematical abilities of 15-year-olds were better than most countries in the world.
By age 17, however, this admirable state of affairs has declined, and Britain is 26th out of 30 developed countries in relation to the proportion of 17-year-olds who are still in the education system. This apparent dramatic reversal in performance arises because 17-year-olds in the third quartile of attainment (who had done so well at 15) drop out of education.
Their contemporaries in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and France remain in full-time apprenticeships, together with part-time education and training, or in full-time vocational education. Quite simply, the major factor is a poverty of aspiration which is likely to provide a platform of underachievement for the remainder of their working lives.
A potential way forward comes through the inclusion, in the Welsh Assembly's guidance for the implementation of the learning pathways action plan, of learning coach provision for all14 to 19-year-olds.
This support is intended to "help the learner to identify goals and develop a learning pathway to meet them". Combined with personal support and careers information, advice and guidance, the provision is designed to help youngsters to overcome barriers to learning and to achieve their potential.
These concepts of mentoring support will be essential, particularly in relation to the third quartile who are underachieving.
People are rarely successful - whether at school, college or work - simply as a result of their own efforts. Successful people have usually had someone behind them at critical points in their lives, encouraging, guiding, challenging, providing essential information, and helping them to keep focused and on track.
The contribution of mentoring to educational success and career continuing progression is becoming more widely recognised, and a range of schemes using mentors - from educational institutions and business organisations - has been set up.
The mentor's role is to promote the student's learning. The concept not only covers academic learning but helps the learner aim for goals in relation to academic, career and personal development.
This is the concept of holistic mentoring, deploying a range of skills in the process including counsellor, coach, tutor and friend. The learning coach would have a sophisticated appreciation of the pathway approach and a good understanding of how young people learn, as well as what they need to raise their aspirations and achievements in formal and more relaxed educational settings.
They would also have a network of institutional support to draw on from schools, colleges or specialist agencies, as well as, in appropriate circumstances, a team of mentors drawn from students within higher education or from the business sector.
The anticipated guidance provides a framework for this support for learners and proposes to introduce it in targeted pilot areas from September 2004.
The timetable is tight, with an evaluation in spring 2005 and the issue of further guidance in the summer.
Hopefully the pilot will allow time for the holistic approach to learning coaches and mentoring to be taken, and for a range of possible ways of fulfilling the aims of the proposed learner support to be trialled and evaluated.
Alan Evans is national co-ordinator of the National Mentoring Pilot Project