Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Breath of fresh air

An outdoor scene

In August 2005, the first cohort of students completed the Welsh Baccalaureate Advanced Diploma, similar to the rejected Tomlinson 14-19 diploma. Brian Lightman explains why St Cyres School in Penarth chose to participate in the pilot.

When the opportunity arose for St Cyres to become part of the pilot for the Welsh Baccalaureate, we jumped at the chance.

We had always been interested in an overarching qualification but it would have been a very bold step, some would say foolhardy, for any school to abandon the tried and tested A levels which are the main currency of university offers.

The Welsh Baccalaureate (WBQ) removed this tension by building an umbrella qualification around existing qualifications. It is therefore an enhancement, rather than a replacement, of existing qualifications and as such adds challenge and new breadth to our post-16 curriculum.

In the light of the rejection of the Tomlinson proposals, which was met with such dismay by school and college leaders, we have every reason to be proud that Wales is at the forefront of this important development.

Ministers take note

Any school leader can recite numerous examples of badly managed and planned initiatives - we all bear the scars. The Welsh Baccalaureate pilot, on the other hand, is a textbook example of how a new initiative should be managed.

It would make a massive difference if policy makers would adopt the following as a standard for curriculum developments.

  • A whole year was set aside for planning before any student programmes commenced. This common sense approach ensured clarity of purpose and adequate time to brief staff and students, market the course and allay parents' understandable concerns in this uncharted territory.

  • A professional team was put in place to lead and manage the development. Through the entire project, this team worked tirelessly to raise awareness amongst the public, higher education and employers. They remained in close contact, approachable and highly supportive.

  • Teachers have worked with the team to develop resources and the curriculum. This practitioner led approach ensured that teachers had full ownership of the curriculum and that the content and methods of delivery are rooted in what practitioners knew could be achieved.

  • Developments were costed in detail and funded on the basis of evidence of need. The vast majority of funding has been used at St Cyres to meet the need for increased staffing to deliver the programme.

  • The project has been supported by the minister for education and lifelong learning and her officials publicly and in very practical ways such as visits to the pilot centres and speaking to students and staff.

  • Evaluation of the project was built in from the outset with a professional team from Bath University.

A key feature of the baccalaureate at St Cyres is that all students are allocated a personal tutor or 'learning coach'. This member of the teaching staff interviews each student at regular intervals to guide them through the requirements and provide support. They are also available in the sixth form centre for regular informal contact.

The sixth form centre was extensively refurbished to meet the needs of WBQ students, with high spec ICT facilities, broadband access and a central point for storing portfolios. A full-time WBQ administrator supports staff and students.

Not an option

At the outset we made a conscious decision to make the WBQ a core element of our post-16 curriculum for all students. We felt this was essential to demonstrate our belief that it was a meaningful and worthwhile qualification.

We are convinced that this was the right thing to do. Making it an option would have devalued it. Consequently we have some 250 students following this programme at present.

The first cohort of students knew they were doing something special from the outset (having the minister open their induction conference in person helped enormously). New facilities and the 'buzz' of being a part of something clearly signposted as the future for Wales helped to reinforce this.

The curriculum itself is thoroughly permeated by the WBQ. Sometimes visitors misunderstand what it is about by expecting to see WBQ lessons in which the whole curriculum is taught.

However, many of the requirements relating to the six key skills are delivered through subject departments. All students have to achieve these, with three at level 3.

The WBQ co-ordinator liaises with all departments that have incorporated elements of the WBQ into their schemes of work.

There are lessons which cover some of the core elements such as the module on 'Wales, Europe and the World' and aspects of personal social education and citizenship. There are also specific programmes such as an internet business course which delivers elements of the key skills programme.

These core lessons cover a fascinating range of topics, such as capital punishment, terrorism and the dangers of binge drinking, and provide opportunities to learn important skills such as creating Powerpoint presentations.

The requirement to reflect on and document the key skills inevitably causes the students to become more engaged in the learning process and aware of their relative strengths and weaknesses.

The need to carry out a substantial piece of independent research ensures that students go beyond the A level syllabuses. For example, geography students studying the Cardiff Bay development have also carried out comparison research with similar developments as far away as Sydney and Boston.

HE reaction

A major breakthrough was the acceptance of the WBQ by UCAS as equivalent in terms of university admission points to a grade A at A level (120 points). At the same time large numbers of universities in Wales and England, including Oxford and Cambridge, have publicly announced their recognition of the qualification.

Increasingly the WBQ is being incorporated into offers of places. There is still more to do in spreading the message to UK universities, but we believe that the first graduates of the baccalaureate will accelerate this when universities see what they have to offer.

So what has all of this done for our students and why are we so confident about the benefits? Firstly they have had to work extremely hard. As headteacher I have no problem with that.

We should be ambitious and maintain the highest expectations and the WBQ has proved that our students can rise to the challenge. This qualification is not a walkover and nor should it be - after all it is equivalent to a top grade A level.

In order to pass the advanced diploma, students have to complete all elements of the baccalaureate. There are no half measures and inevitably some students did not achieve this.

Misleading media report

When the results were published there was some thoroughly misleading media reporting about those students who did not achieve the full diploma. The qualification was accused of having a high 'dropout rate' which is not the case.

Those students did not drop out. They did follow the programme and the majority of them did complete some of the core in addition to their A levels. The irony of course was that the same reporters were simultaneously denigrating A levels because of their high pass rates.

Secondly, A level results were as good as they have ever been so the extra work did not have an adverse effect on their performance. In fact I would argue that their greatly improved study skills helped them.

In addition to their A levels, 85 of the students - some 65 per cent of the cohort - gained the full diploma and therefore had an additional A grade on top of their A levels. These are the best results the school has ever had.

Large numbers of the students have gone to their first choice of higher education. A number of students have gained access to higher education because of the WBQ - some are the first in their families to achieve this.

Most importantly, the benefits of the baccalaureate for the students are evident to anyone who meets them. I genuinely believe that the programme has transformed the ethos and culture of our sixth form.

Throughout the pilot, students have been the subject of intense external interest. They have entertained visitors including a parliamentary select committee, Assembly members and officials and inspectors.

They have addressed national conferences confidently and even been interviewed on radio and TV. Visitors and staff have consistently commented on the students' outstanding confidence and communication skills. There is a level of political and community awareness which far surpasses anything I have ever seen amongst sixth form students.

We now look forward to the probable introduction of intermediate and foundation diplomas for 14-16 year-olds which have the exciting potential to replicate this successful model at key stage 4.

My only regret is that not all students throughout the UK are able to access such a challenging and rewarding curriculum.

Brian Lightman is headteacher of St Cyres School in Penarth, an 11-18 school.

Information about the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification can be found at www.wbq.org.uk

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders