Schools see benefit of Welsh Bac as A-level grades falter
The value of the Welsh Baccalaureate has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after figures revealed a decline in the number of students gaining top A-level grades.
Education minister Leighton Andrews said the Welsh Bac had become "embedded as the qualification of choice" for 14- to 19-year-olds after almost 7,000 students gained the advanced diploma, equivalent to an A- grade A-level. In a typically robust exchange, Mr Andrews accused the media of being "cynical" for concentrating on the A-level figures and overlooking the Bac.
Launched in 2006 to complement traditional qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels, the skills-led qualification was designed to provide students with a broad, balanced range of experiences and promote parity of esteem between vocational and academic choices.
This month it is being rolled out to a further 53 schools, FE colleges and training providers, making it available to 70,000 students.
Although critics are few and far between, and most educationalists agree it has been one of the few success stories of Welsh education since devolution, the Bac still has some way to go before it is considered an equal to traditional qualifications.
Earlier this year Jeff Jones, a former council leader who helped develop the qualification, was widely criticised for calling the Bac "nonsense".
Exam board WJEC, which administers the Bac, says a growing number of schools are now using the qualification to improve teaching and learning at all levels.
Development officer Ross Thomas said: "A lot of schools are seeing the Bac as a whole-school initiative, not just a key stage 4 qualification, and it is changing their entire learning culture and ethos."
At Ysgol Cwm Rhymni in Bargoed, Caerphilly county, all pupils from Year 7 upwards have timetabled Welsh Bac lessons where they are taught the core components: key skills; Wales, Europe and the world; work-related education; personal and social education; and individual investigation.
In addition, the school's transition team promotes the Bac during visits to Cwm Rhymni's feeder primaries to prepare pupils before they arrive.
Sara Davies, Welsh Bac co-ordinator, said: "We didn't want the situation where pupils got to Year 10 and asked, `What's the Welsh Bac?'
"This gives pupils the opportunity to do things they have never done before, such as making presentations, carrying out projects and working in teams.
"There's no doubt it's improving their learning. It's amazing to see them evolving and gaining confidence. Education is changing and evolving and you have to keep up with the times. We need highly skilled, more rounded individuals, and the Welsh Bac is an ideal way to get that."
Additionally, a small number of special schools are seeing the potential of the qualification for some of their more able pupils.
Ashgrove School in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, which caters for autistic pupils, is putting seven of its highest-functioning youngsters through the Bac.
Starting this month, they will study the foundation-level Bac for three years alongside BTEC qualifications.
Headteacher Chris Britten has been working to enrich Ashgrove's curriculum since he joined the school two years ago, in an effort to give pupils more opportunities.
He said: "We started to look at whether we could broaden our offer in terms of qualifications, and the Welsh Bac seemed ideal."
After discussions with WJEC, it was agreed that the pupils could study sign language in place of the modern foreign language requirement, and the school was accredited to start delivering the Bac from this September.
The pupils will gain work experience by doing shifts in a purpose-built coffee shop on the school grounds.
Mr Britten said: "It's really important for our kids to have something everyone else has. These are not five A*-C students; they are not going to get through the rigours of GCSEs. This means they leave school with something real.
"Even if they are just working towards the Bac, at least we are lifting their expectations and those of their teachers and parents."
Mr Thomas, who worked with teachers from Ashgrove on the accreditation, said: "It is unusual, but we are beginning to get applications from other special schools. The types of skills and experiences the Welsh Bac offers would be ideal for their students."
Such positive feedback will be welcomed by Mr Andrews as he fights for the reputation of Welsh schools. Whether it will be sufficient to deflect criticism of a dip in results among Wales's brightest pupils remains to be seen.
Photo credit: Russell Sach