Vocational boost harms traditional subjects
It was supposed to radically expand the number of academic and vocational courses available for 14 to 19-year-olds and trigger fundamental change to the perception of vocational education in Wales. But there is growing evidence that the 2009 Learning and Skills Measure - a law passed by the Welsh Assembly that attempted to place academic and vocational courses on an equal footing and expanded choice at key stages 4 and 5 - is in fact damaging traditional subjects.
Indeed, signs from within the Cardiff administration suggest that Assembly government ministers could already be backtracking. Last week, an Assembly committee launched an inquiry into the progress of the initiative, which proposed that students should be able to choose their courses from a local curriculum containing a minimum of 30 subjects, including five vocational options. These would be offered by a collaboration of local schools and colleges.
But the committee was warned that the popularity of a number of traditional academic subjects at post-16 is suffering as a result and several could "wither on the vine" unless schools work together more closely.
John Fabes, the 14-19 network co-ordinator for Cardiff, said music, modern foreign languages and Welsh as a second language were already vulnerable. Given more choice, pupils were often tempted to drop these subjects, he said.
Heads' union NAHT Cymru said the "dramatic" expansion in the number of subjects on offer was causing a shift in the student population, so some traditional subjects are no longer financially viable. "Languages and second-language Welsh may be particularly vulnerable, but equally humanities or separate sciences," the union said.
Small schools are suffering most, and could axe courses that fail to recruit sufficient numbers, NAHT Cymru claimed.
It pointed out that a rule barring institutions from re-offering subjects that had failed to recruit students for two successive years could have "interesting consequences" for these schools, which could be forced to drop subjects such as French or geography.
In its evidence, heads' union ASCL Cymru welcomed the wider choice of vocational courses on offer, but said there are very few that students actually want to mix with their A-levels, and forcing sixth-forms to offer access to five options is "counterproductive". It added that the vocational gain for a "very small percentage" of students had come at the expense of the majority, for whom it has had an adverse effect.
The union called for the "arbitrary" 30-subject minimum rule to be removed from legislation to give schools more flexibility in drawing up curriculums that reflect the local jobs market.
It seems likely that the Government will be receptive. Senior sources have already told TES that the regulation is unlikely to be enforced, and that institutions that fail to meet the minimum will not face censure.
Education minister Leighton Andrews has been critical of the "doctrine of learner choice" and has called for an "open debate" on whether students are following the right courses and whether the quantity of choice is compromising the quality of provision.
Although video-conferencing technology and staff travel have overcome some of the logistical issues, student transport is still a major drain on resources, especially in rural areas. In one 14-19 network in North Wales, for example, the annual cost of post-16 transport is #163;85,000, or #163;230 per student, per year.
However, the Learning Pathways grant funding is set to be cut by 12 per cent in 201213, and a further 7 per cent in 201314, pushing more of the cost on to schools and colleges.
When this happens, NAHT Cymru warned, institutions may have to reconsider their policies and existing partnerships could be unable to function.
"At this point, the future of the measure becomes cloudy," the union said. "This is a time of shrinking budgets, so maintaining costly provision will be difficult for all partners."
IMPACT ON NEETS
The Welsh Government estimates that the Learning and Skills Measure has helped reduce the number of Neets (those not in employment, education or training).
78.2% - 16 to 18-year-olds in education or training at the end of 2009
80.1% - 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training at the end of 2010
12.2% - 16 to 18-year-old Neets at the end of 2009
11% - 16 to 18-year-old Neets at the end of 2010.