Editorial - Warning shot fired in 14-19 campaign

13th March 2009 at 00:00
The government is in for a fight if it tries to revolutionise education and cut costs

Whoever said teaching was recession proof? Amid a furore in England over plans to fast-track jobless bankers into teaching in six months, there is talk of experienced secondary teachers being made redundant in Wales.

At the start of this year, teachers' unions said the progress - or otherwise - of the flagship 14-19 learning pathways would be the story of the year. It has certainly lived up to its billing; no one in the teaching profession expected the government to make such massive cuts to sixth form and college budgets.

Some suggest last month's 7.43 per cent slash in funding was a clandestine way of axeing sixth forms and marching inexorably towards to a tertiary-style system. Whatever its reasoning, the government's action was provocative.

Let's go back to last year when the big education story was the "severe underfunding" of the foundation phase - a government initiative adored by the profession for its fun-loving focus on play. All fairy tales and teddy bears, this new method of learning could not fail to convert the traditionalists. So it was easy for the government to find more funds - as education minister Jane Hutt rightly did - and see the smiles return to the faces of smitten primary teachers.

But finding more money for the less popular pathways will never appease the teaching profession because the 14-19 initiative is the revolution the foundation phase never was. Yes, the foundation phase is a new curriculum, but - let's be honest - nurseries have been using the methods for years, and there was always an element of play-led learning in reception classes. The pathways initiative, on the other hand, uproots the mindset many secondary teachers hold dear: sending their brightest and most enthusiastic students off to university with good A-level grades from the nurturing confines of their sixth forms and small classes. Ultimately, it challenges the need for these sixth forms - and it threatens teachers' jobs.

Some heads have told TES Cymru they believe the pathways programme sets Wales on course for a two-tier system. They fear sixth-form education will become the preserve of middle-class pupils in leafier suburbs. But will such sixth forms even exist for those pupils wanting to study purely academic courses in 10 years' time?

This week, we have strike action by NASUWT members and heads from two local authorities writing letters to Ms Hutt warning that they can't deliver the pathways programme because of the cuts. As Powys headteacher John Hopkins puts it, the cuts are the worst he has seen in 14 years.

Despite this, the government stands defiant. It sees a need for change and believes offering students more vocational choice under the pathways initiative is the way forward. It also believes it is possible despite the cuts.

But schools - and parents - won't go down without a fight and clearly this week's events are just round one in a long and, it seems, bitter bout.

Nicola Porter, Editor. E: nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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