Assembly pins hopes on reform to boost number of pupils leaving school with a qualification. Karen Thornton reports
More than 1,000 Welsh teenagers a year are still leaving school without a single qualification.
The number of 16-year-olds who leave school empty-handed has fallen by 18 per cent since 1999, according to new statistics. But the Assembly government has fallen short of its target of a 25 per cent reduction, and the number of pupils with nothing to show for 12 years of compulsory education rose slightly this summer, from 1,064 to 1,080.
The figures would have been even worse were it not for the widespread use of the Welsh Joint Education Committee's entry-level qualification.
According to the Cardiff-based exam board, it was the only qualification achieved by around 3 per cent (1,170) of this summer's cohort.
The qualification, formerly the certificate of education, was introduced in a range of subjects in Wales in the 1980s, and is offered in Northern Ireland and England.
The 18 per cent reduction represents 242 fewer unqualified school-leavers.
The Assembly government hopes its Learning Pathways reforms of the 14-19 curriculum will further reduce numbers by offering more vocational and work-based opportunities.
A spokeswoman said: "We realise we have reached a plateau so we have invested in better qualification routes that young people see as more relevant. We hope that as the 14-19 agenda is rolled out the numbers will fall steeply."
But unions and academics are concerned about big differences in how well teenagers do depending on where they live. For example, while boys in Wales are 1.5 times more likely than girls to finish school without a GCSE or vocational qualification, in Blaenau Gwent they are 3.4 times more likely to do so. But in Flintshire, Bridgend and Monmouthshire, more girls than boys failed to pass a single exam.
In Gwynedd, only 1.8 per cent of 16-year-olds (25) left school empty-handed this summer, compared to 6.4 per cent (89) in Wrexham. Swansea and Cardiff also had above-average proportions of leavers without qualifications. But Newport was below average, with only 2.7 per cent (49).
Ken Reid, deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education, and an expert on pupil disaffection, said: "The statistics show improvement on 1999 but the variations between authorities suggest they are working at different speeds. We haven't moved forward enough with alternative curriculum opportunities for pupils. The 14-19 reforms will help, but will take a while to kick in."
Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, said: "We are still not providing a suitable education menu for post-14 youngsters. It is too academic."
Gethin Lewis, secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said in some parts of Wales, young people left school for jobs rather than take exams.
"Heads and teachers are doing their best to persuade families to keep their children in education, with some success, but it will take longer," he said.
But Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, fears the 14-19 reforms will not solve the problem: "While we welcome more vocational training and a more flexible curriculum, we don't think the complexity which surrounds the 14-19 plans will achieve that."
The national headline figures are based on responses from state and independent schools. The local education authority analysis also includes youngsters educated in pupil-referral units and - for the first time - gives information on those undertaking work-based learning rather than schooling.
The LEA data shows a much higher number of this summer's 16-year-olds finished compulsory education without a qualification (1,699), but that just under half (797) stayed on in education or work-based learning.