Tired of all the waiting?

21st July 2006 at 01:00
Examples from abroad suggest some pupils in Wales would be better off learning workplace skills, writes Kate Wolstenholme

It was a sunny morning in mid-May and the conference minibus pulled up outside a castle in Graz, in Austria. I thought we were lost (again) until we saw the sign, which marked the castle out as a school.

Furthermore, it was a school for young people who do not achieve academically. Incredibly, it was also state-funded. I thought this would be the biggest shock until I found out what the school teaches its youngsters.

Pupils cultivate an organic garden, cook the school dinners, learn how to present a formal table and even clean the toilets. Their core subjects - German, maths and English - are focused on the service industry and pupils go out on work experience every year. These children, who are not considered capable of completing a traditional school diploma, are succeeding in a very real and practical way.

What do we offer the equivalent young people in our schools? We need to look at our entry-level students, who finish their exams in April and have to stay in school until June 30. Most schools provide a stimulating programme for these students, but they are embittered by the fact that their friends are on study leave while they are unable to move on from school, despite no longer seeing the value of being there.

I empathise with them. I would not have stayed on at school for two months after completing my A-levels for no reward. The Welsh exam board WJEC is launching a work skills programme designed to give young people the skills to enter work and that can be completed within that time.

But this might be a case of too little, too late. A street-wise young person may well see this as the time-filler it actually is. Maybe it is time we stopped expecting children in our schools to fit a particular system and instead redesigned the system around them.

Changing a system is a radical move, but in some parts of the Netherlands they are tackling the challenge head-on in an attempt to stop young people dropping out of education. Their premise is that young people are used to working in a multi-sensory environment - at once checking their emails, doing their homework, watching television and practising their favourite video game. The solution in this case is to create office-type environments for students alongside a teaching style called "self-organised learning"

(SOL).

In it, the student is given a work-plan of tasks and topic areas to complete while teachers work in teams to cover the classes. Each class now comprises 60 students in a large, open-plan area with private study rooms and banks of laptops for the students.

There is also a focus on peer teaching and research projects, and developing skills for work in every subject. The idea of using this method with our "difficult" students may seem daunting, but teachers involved in the trial in the Netherlands say it is they who have found it hardest to change their methods.

The removal of "teacher as king" has had a positive impact on the students, who now see school as a co-operative experience, which is far removed from our current teaching style. Indeed, in a recent personal and social education lesson, a group of Year 8 students in Mountain Ash, Rhondda Cynon Taf, were designing a campaign to make one aspect of their school better, and they suggested this same scheme - but without a word from me.

The SOL system isn't perfect, and the visits I have been on have directed me to the best schools. But it is time for Wales to take the initiative and be brave with its education system - in the way we have been for our more academic students by introducing the Welsh baccalaureate.

Clearly, this cannot happen overnight, but there are some first steps we can take. Schools could develop links with businesses, allowing students to develop projects for real companies. Schools should also be encouraged to create more student-led projects with teachers working together. This would show students that teachers could display the same skills we demand in our students and allow young people to work most closely with the teacher they felt most aligned to.

In the end, it depends what we want: a real choice for our non-academic students or a constant remoulding of courses to squeeze them into the existing system.

Kate Wolstenholme is assistant education officer at the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru. The views expressed here are her own

Join the debate Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ.

Email: cymru@tes.co.ukFax 029 2066 0207 Beth yw'ch barn chi?

Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, CaerdyddCF11 9LJ.Ebost: cymru@tes.co.ukFfacs 029 2066 0207

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