Change is on the cards in Wales, where a radical overhaul of the exam system could eventually mean the end for A-levels. Adi Bloom reports
Paul Clark doesn't like to think of himself as a superhero. When fellow teachers tease him about his new role, the 43-year-old head of Year 10 at Builth Wells high school smiles in embarrassment, and shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. When they make jokes about costumes - flowing capes and ballet tights in primary colours - his awkwardness deepens and he remembers an urgent need to be at the opposite end of the staffroom. But he can't escape; his new nickname is "Bacman", and it's true, he is a man with a mission.
Builth Wells, in Powys, is one of 19 schools that will be piloting the new Welsh Baccalaureate qualification from September 2003. And Mr Clark has just been appointed the school's Welsh Baccalaureate co-ordinator: entrusted with overseeing the preparations through this academic year and, ultimately, with ensuring that it is a success.
The Welsh Joint Education Committee, the exam board running the Welsh Bac, aims to guide the 19 pilot centres through these preparations with a series of seminars and workshops over the coming year. Schools will be encouraged to meet, and to exchange ideas and initiatives. But, while the WJEC will issue guidelines and assessment requirements, its role is largely an advisory one. The specifics of delivery will be left to individual schools.
Which is where Bacman comes in. Paul Clark, working with three other staff members, has been charged with studying the WJEC objectives and developing a Welsh Baccalaureate programme that will reflect the needs of his school and its students.
Like the best superheroes, he brims with conviction in the justice of his cause. "This is a tremendously exciting opportunity for the kids," he says. "We're going to be able to turn out kids better balanced in terms of academic study, and more able to deal with change. We're equipping them for the future."
To pool collective thought, regular meetings take place, attended by the Welsh Bac team, as well as about 20 members of interested staff. Conscious that their success or failure will be closely monitored by teachers, parents and pupils throughout Wales, they look at existing methodology and teaching practices, gauging how best to deliver the new curriculum.
"There aren't many occasions in your professional life when you get to rewrite the rules," says Mr Clark. "We're looking at exactly what we do, and taking it apart: do we do this because it's good, or because it's what we've always done?" Innovation, he says, is key. For example, pupils 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.
Other modules cut across subject borders. The Wales, Europe and the world module includes a section on heritage and culture, which Builth Wells teachers hope can provide a link between arts subjects. There are plans to bring in visiting artists, musicians and poets, and to incorporate visits to galleries and concerts. And there will be opportunities to involve the wider Builth Wells community - to look at ways of giving the town itself a stake in the new qualification.
But, in a situation familiar to comic-book crusaders, Bacman's task is not an easy one. Rumours are rife among pupils about who will form the pilot cohort, and there is a mistrust of the new and unknown. "There were loads of rumours going round - that you could only do three A-levels, or that English universities wouldn't recognise it. I was considering leaving the sixth form and going to another school," says 15-year-old Kate Pearson.
For while Mr Clark may see the Welsh Bac in broad, theoretical terms - constructing models for educational innovation, creating a prototype that may one day be copied outside Wales - the putative examinees are more interested in specifics: Ucas points, the amount of work involved, and outside recognition.
So he created the BacPac, a group of Year 11 students whose role is to disseminate information among their peers. The BacPac were invited to a forum with teachers to put forward all the questions, fears and concerns they might have about the new qualification.
Kate Pearson emerged with the zeal of the convert. "I do drama outside school, and when I do shows, that can be part of my community service. And I'll probably do work experience at the youth theatre. I'm now 100 per cent for it."
Even those students for whom the new qualification will mean more work, rather than a handy catch-all for existing interests, have reacted with enthusiasm. Fifteen-year-old Cara Wood is unconcerned that the core elements of the course will steal time from an already overcrowded academic timetable. "If you set your mind to it, you could get half of it done before the exams come up at the end," she says. "Basically, it's stuff the school would have made us do anyway - PSHE, community service, work experience. But now there's an extra advantage: something you can show you've done."
The BacPac are converted to the advantages of a non-academic, unexamined core. It will provide them, they say, with the "communication skills" and "well-rounded personality" so eagerly sought by universities.
This message has been hammered home to them throughout their time at Builth Wells. The 625-pupil comprehensive, nestling in the rural foothills of the Black Mountains, is already renowned throughout Wales for its broad programme of extra-curricular activities. The 140 members of the sixth form can choose from options such as work experience, community service and study trips abroad.
In fact, Shan Davies, the school's head, entered Builth Wells for the Welsh Bac pilot primarily because she believed the qualification would give official recognition to much of her pupils' existing extra-curricular work. "We call it an enriched curriculum," she says. "One of the Welsh Bac's principles is to recognise informal learning - what are valuable skills and what's interesting for students?"
But if Welsh Bac students will merely leave Builth Wells with the same skills and experience as their predecessors, the benefits of the qualification might appear negligible. It is an impression BacPac members are quick to dispel. "You're given Ucas points for the core," says Kate Pearson. "So you can get equivalent to five A-levels if you take four other subjects."
Representatives from Ucas sit on the Welsh Assembly's baccalaureate group and have been involved in discussions with the WJEC about the number of points to be awarded for the core component of the course. The final number of points will not be decided until March, but it is likely to be equivalent to a full A-level, with A-grade points for those students who achieve top-level marks. "It's an extra qualification without having to sit an extra exam," says 15-year-old Tom Adams. "I love that. It gives someone like me, who's rubbish at exams, the opportunity to do something more."
Ionwen Spowage, head of sixth form, agrees. "If you're not that academic, it can be critical, in terms of Ucas points. If you take people who do just two A-levels, it tops it up. It fits into the framework beautifully with what they want and need." And, she adds, students will be encouraged to maintain an interest in subjects they no longer pursue academically. It is a chance to pursue that holy grail of education: the old-fashioned notion of a well-rounded individual.
"This pilot is going to be the beginning of a process that will eventually roll out across Wales," says Paul Clark. "It's exciting. We're at the forefront of a process that will put Wales - and Builth Wells - on the wider educational map."
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
The Welsh Baccalaureate forms part of the new educational landscape for Wales envisioned by Jane Davidson, Welsh Assembly minister for education and lifelong learning.
The baccalaureate system originated in France, where school-leavers sit exams in nine or 10 subjects. An international version, administered from Geneva, is offered by about 50 schools in Britain. International Baccalaureate candidates study six subjects, including maths, a science, a humanities subject and a language.
But the Welsh qualification encompasses existing A-level or vocational exams. These will be taken as academic options within the Bac, ensuring the qualification is recognised by universities and employers.
The Welsh Assembly insists its qualification provides the necessary breadth of curriculum. The Welsh Bac will include compulsory core elements, including work experience, community service, PSHE, a language requirement, and a module examining Wales, Europe and the world.
The Welsh Bac will be introduced in a six-year rolling pilot programme, to be managed by the Welsh Joint Education Committee exam board. By 2010, the assembly hopes all schools will have adopted the qualification. And there are plans to introduce an intermediate-level bac, incorporating GCSE exams.
But some educationists, along with opposition members of the Welsh Assembly, have attacked it as timid and lacking in ambition. They would have preferred the rejection of A-levels and the introduction of an International Baccalaureate-style exam.
Jane Davidson remains optimistic. The Welsh Bac, she says, will provide pupils with broad, far-ranging schooling, and establish Wales as an innovative leader in education. "The Welsh Baccalaureate is distinctive, modern and proudly Welsh," she said at the official launch of the pilot in April.