An endless seam of learning

4th January 2008 at 00:00
During the year spent taking evidence for the recently published report, one thing became abundantly clear to our review panel: education is seamless.

Our proposals for post-16 education would mean nothing without taking pre-16 into account. Our report is therefore as much about the role of schools as it is about FE colleges.

Post-14 learning has improved since devolution, but there is still a huge amount to do if every learner is to gain an education fit for a fast-changing world. We need to tackle the large numbers who, at 16, have little to show for their education. We must also close the gap between the skills young people possess and those needed by employers.

Despite the progress already made, 16 per cent of our population still lacks qualifications of any kind, a further 17 per cent are below skill level 2, only 40 per cent gain five good GCSEs including English or Welsh and maths and science, and many thousands are NEETs - young people not in education, employment or training.

When we set these gaps in attainment against the growing skills demands of the domestic and world economies, we saw that radical change was necessary in post-14 education. Tinkering around the edges won't give us the rapid advances we need.

There are complex reasons for underachievement - in families, society and in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. But where the education system itself falls short, we must do everything we can to rectify it and improve the life chances of young people.

We simply don't have the range and quality of vocational and practical learning - and qualifications - to convince many more learners that education has value for them. We also lose money, for example, through empty places and unduly small learner groups, that we desperately need to expand opportunities.

Clearly it's impossible for any one provider to meet the wishes of every young person but, with goodwill, effective collaboration and synchronised timetabling, this is perfectly achievable. In practice, schools and colleges are far too competitive and the sharing of scarce teaching skills, equipment and capital has been shown by inspection body Estyn to be sorely lacking. The 14-19 Learning Pathways are a long way from resolving this.

Central to our recommendations is the idea of creating "hard-wired" area consortia consisting of, say, 18 to 25 schools and an FE college working together to deliver a broad and more efficient range of both academic and vocational options. We've offered a model based on real examples, already delivering major improvements in staying-on rates, learner achievements and schoolcolleges success rates.

Far from marginalising small schools and small sixth forms, our proposals would give them a new role and a potential lifeline as the age cohort shrinks by something like 25 per cent over the coming years.

We distinguish sharply between the role of a school as a "home base" for students and its role as a provider of courses. For stability and pastoral care, each learner would have a base whether that be a school, college or other provider.

As the home base, a school would be funded to "commission", from anywhere in the consortium, the best possible personalised programme for each post-14 learner.

As providers, schools and colleges would specialise in subjects and, by focusing on their strengths, would gain learners from other parts of the consortium. The successful consortia we identified brought benefits to all participating schools and colleges - not least higher staying-on rates to off-set the demographic downturn.

Sir Adrian Webb is chair of the Pontypridd and Rhondda NHS Trust. He led a landmark review into the mission and purpose of Further Education in Wales.

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