Rapid route to improvement?

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
For the past two years there has been talk of a new "learning campus" at Corus's old Ebbw Vale steel works in Blaenau Gwent.

So the proposal from post-16 education funding agency ELWa to replace existing post-16 facilities with a new tertiary system at the site should come as no surprise.

Brett Pugh, Blaenau Gwent's director of education, admitted that the local education authority had hoped for ELWa's investigation to provide a case for the 3,500-student campus, which would replace sixth forms and provide a link to the University of Wales at Newport through foundation courses.

"It wouldn't just be an amalgamation of post-16 provision, it would bring in a raft of new vocational and academic courses under one roof," said Mr Pugh.

In Blaenau Gwent 16 to 19 education and training is provided by four schools, the Ebbw Vale campus of Coleg Gwent and a number of work-based training providers.

ELWa believes significant change is necessary because current arrangements are incapable of delivering rapid and widespread improvements.

There are four proposals: to strengthen existing partnerships between learning providers; to establish a formal partnership; to set up a full tertiary system by 200910; and to create two separate centres - for vocational study, and for academic courses.

ELWa has singled out the tertiary system because it says it should "improve choice, quality, engagement, participation, retention and achievement".

But it recognises drawbacks such as the loss of sixth forms and their associated pastoral care and mentoring benefits - and the cost. The ELWa document says there is "no guaranteed assurance that the funds are available".

There is support for the idea as a key part of regeneration in an area blighted by economic decline. Blaenau Gwent has the highest proportion of residents with no qualifications in Wales at 29.3 per cent, well above the average 18.8 per cent.

And 4.5 per cent of young people leave compulsory education without a formal qualification - nearly twice the national average.

Mick Fahy, head of Ebbw Vale comprehensive, thinks the change could play a pivotal part in regeneration. "There are too many young people who are not engaging after 16. We need to take account of what is best for all students at 16," he said.

Mike Norton, head of Brynmawr comprehensive, was also supportive, but concerned at quality assurance and pupil support.

"We realise that it would benefit a wider group of students. But are they going to guarantee the quality is as good as, or better than what is offered at the moment?"

He added: "Pastoral care would be absolutely crucial, that's a major area of concern."

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