Valleys trial to target tomorrow's dropouts at 11
Teachers and youth workers are being asked to single out 11-year-olds in danger of becoming dropouts as part of a radical "experiment" to lower the number of Neets - jobless 16- to 18-year-olds not in education or training.
Year 7 pupils chosen for the Pounds 7 million PreVent scheme, which was launched this week in five south Wales local authorities, will be taken off timetable for one week every term to experience vocational courses. They will also receive extra lessons in basic skills at school.
If the trials prove successful, the Assembly government said this week, it would consider making the scheme policy.
Around 12,000 16-18 year-olds in Wales are classified as Neet (not in education, employment or training) which amounts to 10 per cent of the age group. This is the highest percentage anywhere in the UK.
But despite the scheme being generally welcomed, some fear it could be counterproductive to label pupils as potential "failures" so young.
Prevention strategies in the UK have so far focused on teenagers aged 14 or over, but academics increasingly believe this is too late.
Under the PreVent scheme, pupils with a low reading age will be targeted, although other "risk factors" - such as truancy and poor behaviour - will be considered.
The aim is to spark an interest in learning at a young age, and to give children the emotional intelligence to make the right life choices.
Supporters also say it will better equip less academic pupils with work skills and better prepare them for the vocationally led 14-19 learning pathways curriculum.
Colin James, head of Glyncoed Comprehensive in Ebbw Vale, agreed the scheme would help to bed down vocational learning, but said: "I would be loath not to have the opportunity to expose every pupil to aspects of this."
Dr Philip Dixon, director of teachers' union ATL Cymru, said officials were right to target educational disengagement early, but warned that the separation of some pupils from their peers at a young age could be detrimental.
One head, who did not wish to be named, said: "I failed the old 11-plus exam, but I was a late developer. I would hate to think we were going back to a system where we make decisions on children's futures before they have a chance to develop. If this scheme is to work, it would have to be in full consultation with parents."
But Frank Callus, strategic programme manager at Blaenau Gwent council, said PreVent was not about being judgemental.
"We can give children an understanding that there's a different way of learning than simply that which is academic. This is a huge experiment to reshape and reconfigure what we do in secondary schools, so all young people get the most out of the system."
The project, which aims to help around 7,000 pupils in 44 secondaries in the Valleys authorities of Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Bridgend and Caerphilly over three years, is part-funded by the European Union. Schools will devise their own strategies and will be expected to share best practice.
Dr Christopher Arnold, a senior educational psychologist for Sandwell in the West Midlands, who runs an intervention programme targeting Year 9s at risk of becoming Neets, said Wales was tackling the problem well. "Early intervention is very popular, and quite rightly so; we often don't intervene until situations have degenerated. The danger of intervening too early is that the information gets less reliable, but it is possible to identify risk factors that apply at 11."
He has identified a list of risk factors, including a family history of unemployment, truancy, poor behaviour, and inadequate housing.
At the launch of PreVent, John Griffiths, the deputy skills minister, said the idea was to engage young imaginations.
"If we are not properly capturing the interest of young people through our school system, we need to change the way we do things."
Editorial, page 2.