Life is more than just skills

28th March 2008 at 00:00
As always, we appear to be turning full circle in the world of education in Wales. The current buzzwords are skills and entitlement. The need for young people to leave education with the skills required by employers means that the national curriculum is under threat. Not just of being reviewed - that's happened several times already - but of being abolished in favour of a curriculum that promotes skills.

And entitlement to as wide a range as possible of 14-19 courses for all young people means that learning providers will soon be required to collaborate.

Entitlement was a cornerstone of the national curriculum. All pupils would have to be taught the same curriculum because they were entitled to the breadth and balance this gave compared with the relative free-for-all that existed before. Over time, a degree of flexibility was built in as it became clear that the full national curriculum was not appropriate for all pupils.

But now the focus has changed. Young people will soon be entitled to choice post-14. This has always been true to an extent, but the choice is to be widened as far as possible, and has to include vocational options. The mechanism to bring this about is local collaboration between schools, colleges and other learning providers, with pupils travelling between them to access the courses they want.

There are a number of problems with this concept and model. First, the current model of GCSE options works well for most young people in most schools. Therefore, the changes are being brought about to benefit a minority of pupils. However, I'm sure most educationists would support the idea of wider options, including vocational provision where possible. The real difficulties lie with the logistics of making this happen.

Transporting pupils around between learning providers, at least in the 14-16 age group, is a daft idea. It is an enormous waste of time and money for dubious gain.

The kind of pupil that the policy is aimed at keeping motivated is the most likely to use the potential excuses that being transported around affords to avoid learning. And forcing institutions to collaborate makes them inevitable competitors.

They will not collaborate freely when pupils carry a set amount of money each - surely the most basic market economics has taught the politicians that - especially when the amount of money is insufficient and less than in England.

It is also true that only a small minority of young people have any real idea at the age of 14 of what career they wish to pursue. There is, therefore, no need to provide for every eventuality through the curriculum. The focus of compulsory education should be about providing a strong grounding in the basics, and a broad understanding of the world we live in.

A much better model for 14-16 education would be for pupils to remain in a single school. All schools should deliver a reasonable choice of options, including vocational provision, to all pupils. This needs to be properly funded. To achieve the level of funding necessary, a much more vigorous programme of school reorganisation should be put in place across Wales.

Secondary schools should deliver 11-16 education, and FE colleges should deliver post-16 education. Schools that are too small to deliver a reasonable choice should be closed and the money saved ploughed back into ensuring that viable schools have the resources to deliver this choice. Money should not be wasted transporting pupils around. The national investment in education must equal that in England.

Linked to this debate is the issue of a skills-based curriculum. Listening to the rhetoric, one could almost believe that the national curriculum and skills are polar opposites. In reality, it is full of skills and the opportunity to promote them.

We need to debunk the idea that compulsory education should be about providing what employers want. It should be about breadth and balance and promoting knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes - and more than are required in most jobs. It should be about preparing young people for life, not for work.

Employers who take on teenagers have to realise that there will be plenty they still need to learn, especially specifics relating to the particular job. We often seem to forget that we learn far more after we leave school or college than while we are there. This is not a criticism, just a fact.

One of the problems with a skills-based curriculum is that it can be boring. It conjures up images of ticking off checklists of competencies and endless practice of the same skill over and over again. I teach English, and I know that teaching English skills outside of content and context is excruciatingly dull. Experience tells us that if we practise spelling and punctuation skills every day, we won't actually end up with pupils who are technically more accurate because we will have bored them to death and they will have switched off.

Yes, we need to map skills across the curriculum and ensure that we are teaching and reinforcing them regularly, but we also need the wide content that will push the boundaries of pupils' knowledge and understanding.

When I started teaching, there was no national curriculum. What pupils learnt was down to the vagaries of individual schools and teachers. It was a genuine free-for-all and many young people missed out as a result. Sadly, the national agenda in Wales seems to be moving back in this direction. We are coming full circle.

Alan Tootill is headteacher of Penyrheol Comprehensive in Swansea.

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