Pathway to learning paved with problems

28th November 2008 at 00:00

The Assembly government, in its wisdom, has decided to raise the bar on 14-19 learning pathways. There are now strict deadlines for implementation, with local authorities, area networks and education establishments being asked to provide their plans by the end of March next year. But it is unclear how robust these plans should be; there appears to be no uniformity.

On a personal level, I have grave concerns about this initiative. The Assembly government should be careful to avoid a repeat performance of the foundation phase fiasco. Extra funding was found for this in the last budget review - money that was warmly welcomed - but it seems to me that without even more "extra funding" for learning pathways, the whole initiative is doomed.

I am head of a medium-sized comprehensive in rural north Wales. Our nearest comparable educational establishment is 16 miles away. With a catchment area that covers 740 square miles, and approximately 90 per cent of our pupils living more than three miles from school, a significant number have a substantial distance to travel. Every day, 18 coaches transport pupils to and from school, with around 15 taxis completing the journey to the remotest areas. But is a scheme that asks young people to travel up to 80 miles a day really acceptable? And what about their carbon footprints?

Distance is not my only concern about learning pathways. Why is it that choice is now regarded as the best thing since sliced bread by so many people? Are 12 GCSE passes of greater help career-wise than, say, eight? The qualifications these young people take at 16 will become less relevant when they go on to gain other qualifications - A-level or vocational. These will then be surpassed again when other work-based successes or degrees at higher education are gained.

It seems to me that giving pupils extra subject choices at 14 will not enhance their education and could well lead to the introduction of more of the "ologies" famously mocked by Maureen Lipman in that 1980s BT television advert. Some schools will decrease the time allocated to teaching core subjects in order to teach so-called new subjects. This thought saddens me. Again, consideration should be given to the "rurality" issue. In the interests of fairness, all pupils across Wales should be offered the same options, regardless of where they live.

It has been suggested that schools and colleges could use a common timetable, but there are logistical issues to consider. Buses transporting key stage 3 pupils home leave my school at 3.30pm, so lessons on a common timetable would have to end at 2.45pm in order for pathways pupils to be back in time to catch them. Surely, no one would argue that laying on extra transport at a later time would be cost effective?

Possibly, increased use of video conferencing would allay this concern. But with the minimum number of subjects being offered to pupils increasing from 24 in 2009 to 30 in 2012, this would cause a demand for extra rooms on all sites to house the required technological facilities - an expensive idea indeed.

Another concern is the language issue. Pupils at my school have a choice of being taught either in Welsh, English or bilingually. Due to the linguistic complexity of my school, and because we try to be a community school, I could not possibly approve a reduction in the language options.

Yes, bilingualism is expensive. But surely all pupils should have the right to study in their language of choice at an educational establishment near to where they live?

We already have several bilingual classes at KS4 and 5 in order to minimise costs. I consider these successful, although some argue that those teaching them should receive a greater salary than those teaching in one language.

Despite all my concerns, there are some positives to the pathways scheme. The move towards offering more vocational education at schools and colleges in this part of north Wales has prompted several partners to look into setting up a bilingual centre of excellence. Its aim would be to prepare young people for apprenticeships in various areas of the construction industry, as well as other professions, such as hairdressing and health and beauty. Such a centre could provide level 3 (A-level equivalent) training and tuition in careers such as architecture and quantity surveying.

These discussions are still at a very early stage: talks are being held with landowners and proprietors of companies that wish to employ local young people.

If nothing else, learning pathways have succeeded in prompting discussion around tables here and across Wales. But turning such debate into concrete plans and schemes is quite another matter, especially during a period of recession.

I believe that the Assembly government should seriously consider the above points to ensure that the young people of Wales are being provided with the highest quality education. After all, no one would wish to see a repeat of the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.

Ifor Efans, Head of Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy, Llanrwst, writes here in a personal capacity.

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