It's time to talk about our sixth forms

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Teachers need to know where they stand as the 14-19 learning revolution marches on

So teachers from the NASUWT teachers' union are going out on strike over proposed sixth-form closures in Rhyl. Is it any wonder? The future of sixth forms and teachers' jobs across Wales is on a knife edge.

The strike action planned for next Thursday in Rhyl is not some local storm in a teacup. There will be demonstrations across the country as more and more sixth forms face closure. Shutting these bastions of educational excellence will stir up passions that have lain dormant in the secondary school fraternity for years.

Catherine Britton, head of Blessed Edward Jones RC High School, clearly does not see the proposed closure of her sixth form as just a faith issue. Yes, she is livid about the lack of faith provision in her county's school reorganisation plans. But it cuts much deeper than that. Many sixth formers at this school, which recently came out of special measures, are first-generation university applicants. These young people act as role models for younger pupils. She believes an FE alternative will not serve her sixth formers well. Many could fall by the wayside and not realise their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers or accountants.

Mrs Britton is a firm believer in the nurturing quality of sixth forms and sees her school very much as a "flagship" case for sixth forms facing closure across Wales.

Emotions aside, however, there is doubtless a need for change. Too many young people are not motivated by the academic bent of school life. We only have to look at the number of school-leavers without qualifications, jobs or ambition to realise this.

There is a great deal of support for the vocational learning philosophy of 14-19 learning pathways. But, as ever, it is the way change is being managed from the top and by some local authorities that is the problem. When tensions were already high and paranoia was growing last month, the government suddenly announced a 7.43 per cent slash in funding for sixth forms and FE colleges.

These cuts came as a huge blow to sixth forms, and many heads see them as the beginning of the end for the institutions. Some also lament that it is the most academic pupils who will be affected by the cuts.

Change is a good thing, but it rarely happens to good effect overnight.

If the NASUWT ballot comes back as expected at Blessed Edward today, and members join those at Rhyl High in strike action, then the government needs to heed the warning that is being sent to them.

Not only is there growing unease over job security in Welsh secondary schools, but there is increasing disaffection over the government's apparent disregard for sixth-form education, so lovingly cherished by many.

It is time for the government to slow down, consult further - and even make a few concessions - before it plunges headfirst into a new era of unwanted discord in the Welsh teaching profession.


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