Forward to the Bac

16th May 2003 at 01:00
ntractable apathy, Shan Davies believes, is a challenge, not an incurable condition. Faced with a handful of disinterested Year 9s, she saw their lack of engagement as temporary, surmountable with appropriate degrees of invention. They had not failed; it was the mainstream curriculum that had failed them.

So Mrs Davies decided to broaden her school's curriculum to meet the needs of pupils. The three disengaged Year 9 girls were offered the opportunity to study sign language, an option not otherwise available. Its practicality appealed immediately to them.

"They're very excited about it. They're getting all fired up," says Mrs Davies, the head of Builth Wells comprehensive, in Powys. "We're trying to focus on what the individual's needs are, so children don't automatically want to leave school at 16. It's individual tailoring."

It is this element of the new curriculum that appeals to Mrs Davies. Builth Wells is already renowned in Wales for its broad programme of extra-curricular activities. Its 140 sixth-form students can choose from options such as work experience, community service and study-trips abroad.

"We call it an enriched curriculum," she says. "We don't leave school at 3.30pm. Pupils are welcome to stay on and pick and choose what they do. It develops their confidence as learners."

It was precisely in order to give official recognition to the pupils'

existing extra-curricular work that Mrs Davies entered her school for the pilot of the Welsh Baccalaureate.

Teachers at Builth Wells believe that the Bac's compulsory core offers great opportunities for innovation. "New strands of the Welsh Baccalaureate have to be hands-on, in line with the experience of a 16-year-old," says Colin Rees, deputy head in charge of its development at Builth Wells. "With Wales, Europe and the world, if you just asked kids to sit in class for a humanities lesson, you'd kill it. We want this to be community-driven, with outside parties playing a viable part."

For example, Welsh Bac pupils at Builth Wells will be offered a week practising language skills abroad, as an incentive for completing the Bac's 20-hour language requirement. So a week of intensive Spanish-learning would be followed by a week on the Costa Brava.

Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres comprehensive, in the Vale of Glamorgan, will also be piloting the Bac. He is particularly enthusiastic about the opportunities for cross-curricular study that the compulsory core will provide. For example, pupils studying French or Spanish will be able to apply their new knowledge within the Wales, Europe and the world module.

At St Cyres, too, pupils have expressed an interest in studying sign language. "We have hearing-impaired students at school, so pupils are very keen to learn sign language," says Mr Lightman. "They could then do community service with the hearing impaired."

The Welsh Bac will also demand reorganisation of the form-tutor system.

Because of the individualised nature of the qualification, each pupil will require personal time with a tutor to discuss his or her options. At St Cyres, preparations are already taking place for a university-like tutorial system. Each tutor will be responsible for a maximum of 20 pupils, who will discuss their progress at weekly appointments.

"If you're going to give pupils more freedom, you need to make sure they have a close monitoring procedure at the same time," says Mr Lightman. "The tutor will be responsible for ensuring that attendance is satisfactory, seeing that students meet assessment requirements. They facilitate - they tell pupils, this is what you need to do next. This can include transition into higher education."

And the advantages of extending this system across the 14-19 curriculum are clear. "One-to-one mentoring improves pupil standards and confidence," says Mrs Davies. "I think we should start in Year 7, so that each pupil has quality time with a tutor. Now that the national curriculum is breaking down, there's more time for it."

Mr Lightman agrees: "We have a wide range of ability at school, from top A-level grades to children with quite extensive special needs. So the idea of individual pathways from 14 is very interesting."

But the Welsh Assembly, he adds, needs to avoid overburdening teachers with the bureaucracy of change: "We can't have teachers taken out of school for endless planning meetings. We don't want to take staff away from the frontline of teaching and learning. That won't tackle pupil disaffection."

Conference dates: Keith Davies of the Welsh Joint Education Committee will be talking on The Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification on Thursday, May 22 at 11.30. Arthur Parker of the WJEC will be talking on The Future of A-levels on the same day at 10am

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