Central campuses set to shake up post-16 education with broader choice of qualifications. James Graham reports
School sixth forms could be consigned to the history books in large parts of Wales, if pilot proposals for post-16 education are widely adopted.
Ditching sixth forms in favour of central campuses that provide academic as well as vocational qualifications is the preferred option in two out of five pilots drawn up by the post-16 education funding agency ELWa. It is examining ways to broaden choice for teenagers and keep more of them in education after 16 as part of the Assembly's 14-19 learning pathways programme.
ELWa says the "groundbreaking" pathfinder proposals could ultimately change the face of post-16 education across Wales.
It has launched public consultations in the pilot areas of Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent, the Dyfi Valley in Powys, and Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. Plans for GwyneddYnys Mon are due this month.
Options under discussion in all five pilots include closer collaboration between learning providers, formal partnerships - that could mean joint curricula, timetables and staff - or the replacement of sixth forms with a central institution.
ELWa says the latter is most likely to achieve the learning ambitions in Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, which both have four school sixth forms.
In the Dyfi Valley, chosen as a potential blueprint for rural areas, one proposal is to close the sixth form at Ysgol Bro Ddyfi. But the preferred option is a central learning centre based at the school, which would preserve its sixth form.
In Rhondda Cynon Taf, the largest of the five pilot areas with 19 school sixth forms, a tertiary system was proposed. But ELWa says stronger, binding partnerships between education providers would be more appropriate.
In Haverfordwest, the recommended option is for 14-19 learning to be provided and managed by a formal federation including the two local schools, Pembrokeshire college and the LEA.
ELWa admits that the closure of sixth forms is an emotive issue but stresses that shrinking numbers, high costs and a limited curriculum in many schools means an overhaul is essential.
The agency says the main drawbacks would be the loss of the pastoral support offered in schools and the loss of sixth-formers as role models to younger pupils.
John Williams, head of Pen y Dre high school in Merthyr, which has around 100 sixth-formers, said: "We've got to think of the interests of the learners, and I think they will be very much enhanced by the new proposals.
"It will be sad to lose the sixth form, but the excellent teaching which exists in sixth forms will remain in the borough."
Ysgol Bro Ddyfi head Lis Puw described the preferred option for her area as a lifeline.
According to ELWa, her sixth form of 31 pupils is the smallest in England and Wales, and the most expensive in Wales per head.
Mrs Puw said: "It's exciting and pioneering. This could be a blueprint that other schools might want to adapt to keep young people in the area."
The teaching unions expressed concern about the proposals.
Heledd Hayes, education officer for the National Union of Teachers Cymru, stressed that ELWa should not forget the value of sixth forms. Geraint Davies, secretary of the NASUWT Cymru, said a decision must not be based purely on financial considerations.
A spokesperson for the Assembly government declined to comment ahead of the consultation findings. The consultation ends on February 13 (March 8 for Pembrokeshire).