Flexibility is the key
On the outskirts of Bristol, a group of schools is helping to shape the future of education for 14-19-year-olds.
The Kingswood Partnership is a collaboration of six comprehensives and the City of Bristol college. This partnership allows pupils to move between different schools and further education college, offering them a diverse choice of subjects and qualifications at 14.
Of the 7,000 children educated by the partnership, more than 500 are taking one or more of their courses in more than one centre.
Jez Truelove, the partnership's 14-19 co-ordinator, said it is beginning to bridge the traditional divide between academic and vocational subjects.
"Simply by having many more courses which have a specialised or vocational component means that students from a much wider ability range are doing them," he said.
One of the partnership schools, Sir Bernard Lovell, is at the cutting edge of the 14-19 agenda. It is working with the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to develop aspects of the 14-19 white paper. The area it serves, Oldland Common on the outskirts of Bristol, is in a former coal mining area and is relatively insular despite its proximity to a big, urban centre. Most adults have not experienced higher education and while unemployment is low, the area offers limited, low-paid prospects.
As well as re-shaping its curriculum, Sir Bernard Lovell is now looking at alternative approaches in key stage 3 to prepare pupils for the 14-19 phase. It is incorporating what it calls "personal challenge" - an opportunity to undertake a specialist piece of work that may be linked to a particular interest. So, if students want to develop presentation skills, they could take on a project culminating in giving a public presentation.
The school is introducing this at all key stages and is accrediting it through ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network).
Sir Bernard Lovell's headteacher David Turrell said: "We have seen an increase in motivation with those youngsters who may have previously felt disaffected with the curriculum."
The education system faces enormous challenges. Nearly half of all students taking GCSEs get fewer than five grade Cs or above. And staying-on rates post-16 are very low. In the past four years a raft of measures has been used in an attempt to address this, and many schools in England are now allowing young people to study and achieve qualifications in vocational subjects before the age of 16.
The increased flexibility programme for 14 to 16-year-olds encourages schools, FE colleges and other agencies to collaborate, allowing pupils to study at a college or with a training provider for one day a week. So far, the programme has involved around 2,000 schools, 300 colleges and more than 90,000 pupils. Also, 14-19 pathfinders were set up to test local partnerships delivering education and training, the aim being to identify and spread good practice.
New vocational GCSEs were launched in 2002, and from September 2004, 14 and 15-year-olds were able to enrol on a new young apprenticeship programme, giving them experience of work-based learning while still studying at school. Nearly 3,000 pupils are currently on young apprenticeships in art and design, business administration, engineering, health and social care, the motor industry and performing arts. A further 3,500 are due to start in September.
The Government says it will offer young people even greater choice with the introduction of specialised diplomas alongside GCSEs and A-levels in 2008.
And under the changes, GCSE English, maths and ICT will include functional skills to help youngsters in the world of work.
There is also concern over tackling the so-called NEET group - those not in education, employment or training. Entry to Employment was launched in 2003 to help 16 to 18-year-olds progress into further learning or jobs.
Last year's budget allocated pound;140 million over two years to pilot new activity and learning agreements in a dozen areas from April 2006. The schemes will aim to reach 35,000 16 and 17-year-olds to lure them back into education or training with the promise of between pound;20 and pound;40 a week.
Another initiative, the key stage 4 engagement programme, is to be piloted by local education authorities and learning and skills councils from September with a national roll-out next year. This will target disaffected 14 to 16-year-olds who are in danger of dropping out of education.
But amid this breathless barrage of reform, what about the students themselves? What impact is the 14-19 agenda having on them? Last year, an independent evaluation of the increased flexibility programme for 14 to 16-year-olds revealed improved exam results, a more positive attitude to education and a 90 per cent staying-on rate among young people of school-leaving age.
The evidence indicated that there were particular benefits for students with lower attainment at key stage 3. But it also highlighted an increased need for guidance - around half of those surveyed said they would have liked more information advice and guidance about their post-16 choices.