Coaches get the results
Learning coaches have been verbally and physically abused by parents, and some trainees say teachers have also been openly aggressive, a report released by the Assembly government last week says.
The latest additions to Welsh staffrooms have created a stir but are seen as pivotal to the success of the skills-led 14-19 learning pathways initiative that is gradually being introduced to schools.
Their role is similar to that of a sports coach: motivating teenagers during mentoring sessions and opening their minds to lifestyle opportunities. Primarily, they exist to help pupils to choose subject options and set them on a career path.
A school can have its own coach or a visiting one with links to the local learning pathways network.
At St Cyres School in the Vale of Glamorgan, every form teacher is being trained in learning coach skills - a first in Wales. Brian Lightman, the head, said: "Every teacher now has a dedicated session on their timetable to undertake personal interviews with pupils in their form group. Where students are struggling with an aspect of their work, teachers will be able to ensure they receive the support they require."
But there has been opposition to the non-teaching backgrounds of some coaches, as well as their cost. Most of the first cohort were drawn from backgrounds such as youth services, private training and counselling. Some were teachers who decided to take pastoral duties further.
Professor Danny Saunders, of the University of Glamorgan, interviewed the first cohort of coaches - trained over 19 months in 2005-06 - and concluded that their early work had been encouraging overall, if patchy and incomplete.
He said mistakes had been made in recruitment and recommended more time be taken to ensure the right candidates are trained. Above all, more research into their remit and clarification of their role was required. "If we are to demonstrate what might be a world-class act within Wales, further evaluation is really needed," he said in the report.
Despite positive feedback from pupils - three-quarters of those interviewed said the coaches had had a positive effect on them - Professor Saunders reported incidents of abusive encounters with parents, and even teachers. One coach said teachers, especially in struggling schools, simply did not like them. Some coaches also feared being accused of sexual or physical abuse of pupils.
But the report also detailed encouraging examples of coaches' successes, especially in deprived areas: one girl overcame her phobia of school, and a teenager boy who was aiming for just three GCSEs was convinced by his coach to go for 13.
Of the 299 on the first learning coach course, 210 completed. Two-thirds were women. A third cohort is in training.