Should the minister extend the bac to all? Jill Tunstall sifts the evidence
Three years into the brave new world of the Welsh baccalaureate, the first students with the qualification are finishing the first year of their university courses.
As schools, colleges and universities are still finding their way around the qualification, the pilot is being evaluated. A final report is due in June when officials will advise on the way forward.
In the autumn, Jane Davidson, the Assembly's minister for education and lifelong learning, will make an announcement on rolling out the bac at intermediate (GCSE level II) and foundation (GCSE level I) levels in post-16 provision. Roll-out is expected from September 2007.
Now 36 months old, the Welsh Assembly government's baby has grown into a demanding toddler - baffling admissions tutors, putting teachers under pressure to sell the course to universities and giving timetable-planners headaches.
On the other hand, pupils talk about the added extra it gives them to get into university, the confidence they have gained, and a taste of skills they wouldn't otherwise have encountered. Course tutors too have inspiring tales of trainee hairdressers studying European electoral systems and builders learning French and loving it.
The Welsh bac was compulsory for all sixth-form pupils at St Cyres school, Penarth, in the Vale of Glamorgan, which initially worried the parents of aspiring doctor Caroline Stewart.
"They were anxious that it would be a lot of extra work when I needed high A-level grades to do medicine," says Caroline. "But it gave me organisational skills, and made me an expert at PowerPoint, which has helped enormously with all my presentations."
Caroline's University of Birmingham offer to study medicine was the Welsh bac plus one A and one B at A-level instead of the usual two As and a B.
Yet her admissions tutor knew nothing of the bac before he met her, and when she applied to Nottingham it "wasn't even included in the offer or talked about at my interview", she says.
Yet it is the University of Nottingham which has been asked by Ms Davidson to advise on whether to extend the bac throughout Wales.
"In five years' time it will probably be accepted everywhere, whereas some of my friends weren't able to get on courses because it's still unknown," says Caroline.
Her experience isn't unusual, and a look at university websites shows real inconsistency in the bac's profile. There is no mention at Durham, Glasgow and Bristol, a general welcome at Newcastle and Keele, and full descriptions of how it fits into entry requirements at Oxford and Cambridge.
Cardiff university's prospectus is surprisingly cautious, stating "the University's academic quality assurance committee, in conjunction with admissions tutors, will continue to review Cardiff's position and monitor our approach to the new Welsh baccalaureate advanced diploma in light of our experience".
Dr Mary Hayden, of the University of Bath's centre for the study of education in an international context, heads the team chosen by the Assembly to evaluate the bac and raise awareness of it among admissions tutors.
"One of the challenges has been that not all universities use the UCAS tariff and some want a grade," says Dr Hayden. "But the admissions tutors we have spoken to have been very positive about the core skills (see key below). Universities like students who are good undergraduates as well as being good students. What is clear is how much the centres have learned from the experience. Because it's not a prescriptive model they have each come up with what works for them. I can't see any reason why Jane Davidson wouldn't roll it out through Wales."
Llandrillo International college in Colwyn Bay has made the course compulsory.
"It was the only way we could manage it," says bac co-ordinator Louise Jowett. "Once students start opting in and out you lose the plot. I was very sceptical at first, but the advantages are far greater than the complexities. The students learn skills they wouldn't normally acquire. One of our hairdressing students has compared electoral systems in France and Britain, and all our intermediate courses have said the big bonus was learning a language. You would never have had that in the past."
The Welsh Assembly's intention was to make the bac as accessible as possible to all Welsh students, which makes Mathew Tankard unusual as he is from England.
"I chose to do it because I thought it would give me something extra," says Mathew, 19, who travelled from his home in Chester to Deeside college, a distance of seven miles. Mathew said he enjoyed learning about the culture of Wales "even though it isn't my country. I would never have had the opportunity to do anything like that on my ordinary A-level courses."
He was accepted to study business law and finance at the University of Central England on the strength of his bac's 120 UCAS points plus two other A-level passes.
"The university knew what it was and included it in my offer, but some of my friends think I have done a course in speaking Welsh," he says.
* The bac was piloted in 2003 by the Welsh Assembly government.
* An initial 18 schools and colleges across Wales were enlisted, followed by a further 13. Individual centres decide if they want to make the bac compulsory.
* It is currently offered at intermediate and advanced levels and runs in tandem with GCSEs, A-levels and vocational courses such as national vocational qualifications and BTEC.
* Two A-level passes are needed to pass the advanced level. The bac is worth 120 UCAS points, equivalent to an A grade at A-level.
* Core requirements are common to both levels: key skills, Wales, Europe and the World, work-related education and personal and social studies.
* A new foundation course for 14-year-olds will start in September.
* Around 4,000 students signed up for the qualification but approximately 50 per cent quit before completion. This is not wildly different from drop-out rates for other exams at the same level, according to the WJEC.
Keith Davies, project director of the Welsh baccalaureate, will talk about progress to date and the way forward on Friday, May 26, at 10.30am