Mix up future options

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Students need better vocational choices and educationists'

attitudes must change, writes Jim Bennett

Cross-sector competition continues to hinder a truly radical approach to education and training in Wales, and is in danger of jeopardising the Assembly government's ambitious 14-19 agenda.

The facts remain depressing - 50 per cent of 16-year-olds in Wales fail to achieve five GCSEs at grades A*-C. These statistics, coupled with high truancy rates and other symptoms of disaffection, show the effect of a curriculum which does not meet the needs of every young person. These problems are widespread across Wales and reflect the very real need for a mixed curriculum post-14.

While the Assembly government's policy framework, 14-19 Learning Pathways, endorses the need for a broader curriculum offer at key stage 4, the reality is that we continue to marginalise vocational options to the less able. If we are really going to be in a position to address disaffection and improve skills levels in Wales, further education colleges should be providing vocational options for those 50 per cent who currently fail to achieve five good GCSEs at 16. This is not to say that a more mixed offer, with vocational provision, would not benefit many of the more able students too.

FE colleges have highly-skilled professional staff, often with vast industrial experience in their field, not to mention first-class facilities, so why the resistance to date?

Funding, as always, has played a critical role. The absence of specific funding for this work has militated against the extension of collaboration.

Partners have been required to find external funding or transfer existing sources.

The sector welcomes this week's announcement by ELWa, the post-16 funding agency, of a "common investment fund" aimed at facilitating cross-sector partnerships. But this is limited to post-16.

Funding is not the only difficulty preventing collaboration. There are legal implications for teaching 14-16. Colleges have limited experience of the legal framework specific to this age group. Staff are not always confident to deal with the issues and behaviour of the young people, and need training.

The biggest obstacle of all is the legacy of mistrust between colleges and schools used to competing for older students. Expectations of pressure from the national planning and funding system, and the possibility of rationalisation of provision, have entrenched defensive attitudes.

It remains to be seen whether new initiatives can overcome these very real barriers.

Competition between colleges and schools post-16 seems unlikely to dissipate under present arrangements. The post-16 sector is still structured and funded as a competitive market. In these circumstances, choice will remain limited for many.

Although schools make credible efforts to maximise options to students, clearly they struggle to do so efficiently with the low numbers within many sixth forms. In the face of such difficulties, there is a danger of schools acting without colleges, either independently or in local consortia, to set up "skill centres".

Inevitably these will absorb public funds to build capacity which will, in most cases, already exist in the FE sector. Any such effort is likely to result in a diluted model of vocational options, met largely by a limited number of applied GCSEs coupled with an entitlement to work-related experience. This approach would have a limited impact on pupils, would ultimately increase competition and duplication, and is unlikely to serve the interests of pupils.

If we are going to tackle choice and disaffection seriously at KS4, and increase skills levels post-16, a change in structures and funding is required, and also a change in attitudes. The common view in schools - that vocational provision is suitable only for the less able - must be addressed.

We must address also the low esteem in which much of vocational provision is held by society. This problem is exacerbated by the national preoccupation with higher education, which presents the traditional route of A-levels and university as the most advantageous. We believe the group most in contention are in that half of the population who will not achieve five good GCSEs and are not destined for university.

We know that many of the group would prefer a vocational mix, benefiting the young people concerned - and industry. This approach fits well with the broad thrust of Assembly government and ELWa policy.

Effective partnerships are the key to these and other reforms. Only real, energetic collaborations between schools and FE colleges committed to extending choice will be able to provide the mix of academic, vocational and occupationally-specific training which is needed to provide the options that many young people need.

Jim Bennett is vice-principal of Coleg Llandreillo Cymru

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