Victoria Neumark discovers great enthusiasm at a Glamorgan school that is piloting the new qualification
The whole point is to capture the enthusiasm of the students and get them motivated," says Ross Thomas, co-ordinator of the Welsh Baccalaureate at St Cyres school in Penarth, Glamorgan. St Cyres is one of 18 schools and colleges taking part in a pilot of the Welsh Bac, with six more due to join them this September and six in 2005.
If the scheme is successful, Welsh schools could be offering the qualification by 2007. What goes on in the sixth form at St Cyres today may therefore be a foretaste of school life in the future for thousands of students.
The Welsh Bac is different from the International Baccalaureate. It is conceived at qualification levels from entry (special needs) to level 3 (A-level). Instead of demanding six or seven subjects across the range, the Welsh Bac is woven into existing exams. It also has a strong Welsh identity and demands community involvement and awareness (see panel, right). It is being trialled so far only at advanced level (A-level equivalent).
St Cyres has found that time is crucial in planning the Welsh Bac; so, too, is getting all the members of staff onside. No one likes a greater workload and, says Mr Thomas, offering the qualification took a year of planning, drawing up workbooks, allocating teacher time, getting funds for computers, devising timetables and embedding key skills targets into existing A-level syllabuses.
Mr Thomas, head of the sixth form, is enthusiastic about the power of the Welsh Bac to motivate students by recognising the importance of extra-curricular activities (one pupil is involved with a youth orchestra, another with a small business). He also likes its stress on key skills such as communication, ICT and problem-solving, believing it gives students confidence and adds enormously to their understanding of their own abilities. Shan Winslade, key skills co-ordinator, agrees: "Key skills don't take over but are embedded."
Embedding is the key to designing a Welsh Bac programme that does not swamp the students, Mr Thomas explains. Although the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) specifications call for four-and-a- half hours a week to be dedicated to the extra elements, students at St Cyres are regularly committed to only two extra hours.
One formal classroom hour deals with "Wales, Europe and the World" (see panel). Some students have opted to travel abroad and others to run language clubs (including signing) for younger pupils as part of this strand's language module.
The second hour is for work-related education and personal and social education. For students Hannah Jarvis and John Evans, this involved spending a "brilliant" week in London at the parliamentary office of local MP Alun Michael.
Every half-term each student meets their learning coach, a staff member who guides their curricular and career choices, advises on study skills and stands by as their mentor on pastoral matters.
The idea of a learning coach is the one that staff praise the highest. It means that the nine teachers involved have deeper contact with their students, and often develop great respect for them. "These kids are doing so many projects outside of school that we wouldn't have known about before the Bac," says Julie Davies, personal and social education co-ordinator.
The coaching relationship also means that any problems are picked up easily, that progress is monitored, and that the whole group of 150 Year 12s shares a sense of purpose. "They're better students now, and will be better ones at university. They're learning how to be independently motivated," Ms Davies says.
Students Laura Ellis, Caroline Stewart and Dan Wiggins are thrilled to use St Cyres's new study centre, with its 30 workstations. And they hope that UCAS's pledge to award 120 points to winners of the Welsh Bac becomes universally known among English universities (a spot-check at a universities' fair revealed a dismaying amount of ignorance in university admissions offices).
The students are delighted with the credit given to out-of-school activities. Laura, for instance, plays the clarinet in a local youth orchestra and helped to arrange a lower-school talent show. The group got sponsorship from businesses, gave the proceeds to a childhood leukaemia charity, and made a minor celebrity out of the winner, a Year 7 boy with a unique rap.
Not only that, but the work that went into the show in the form of publicity, accounting, planning and working in groups met the students' key skills targets in communication, number and IT.
Caroline has been working with Year 7 and 8 pupils who need help with reading. She enjoys her status as a mentor to younger pupils: "It's lovely how they come up to you in the playground, really gratifying." Other St Cyres pupils have helped elderly people in a residential home, or taken wheelchair-bound women to chapel on Sunday evenings.
Dan, meanwhile, is helping to organise a business to sell gifts at the school tuck-shop and donate the proceeds to cancer research. He is working within the Young Enterprise education programme, which he says is "fantastic: the meetings are so interesting and you know you're gaining key skills, UCAS points and finding out how things work." As with the other two students, when Dan discusses the Welsh Bac his language is filled with self-awareness.
Students also learn how much you get back from giving. One weekend, sixth-formers organised, without prompting, a collection for Save the Children. But they don't think they are particularly altruistic. "We need time to have fun, too," says Laura.
The stipulation that students carry out an independent investigation into a Welsh issue also meets with approval. "It's important to know where you come from," says Caroline. "It stretches you, explaining it to others," Laura adds.
Mr Thomas feels that the independent investigation will prove one of the Welsh Bac's most lasting legacies for students because of the way it builds confidence in communicating ideas - a skill that is increasingly in demand in the workplace. "We're all very excited about it," he says.
"We're treating it like an umbrella, where we can bring in our own experiences, reinforce key skills, value our students' out-of-school efforts and make the whole sixth form a positive culture. It's already working."
Welsh Baccalaureate: www.wbq.org.uk
ANATOMY OF THE QUALIFICATION
At advanced level. students take a core programme, plus options.
The core has four components:
* Key Skills. There are six elements: communication, application of number, IT, improving own learning and performance, working with others, and problem solving.
* Wales, Europe and the World. There are four elements: political issues, social challenges and responses, the impact of economic and technological change, and heritage and cultural perspectives.
Students study two key issues within each element, using discussions, visits and speakers. They also undertake an individual investigation into an area that particularly interests them, and make a written or oral presentation. There is also a module to develop skills in a foreign language.
* Work-Related Education. There are two elements: work with an employer for at least 30 hours, completing a self-evaluation form; and a team enterprise activity for at least 30 hours, to understand how businesses work and build entrepreneurial skills.
* Personal and Social Education. There are five elements: positive relationships; good health, including sexual health; the rights and responsibilities of being an active citizen; understanding development issues and education for sustainable development; and engaging in an activity in the local community for at least 30 hours.
The options are the courses or programmes already being offered, including GCSEs and VGCSEs, AS and A-levels, and vocational qualifications.