From education to employment

14-16 Curriculum – a new role for colleges?

The manifesto of the Association of Colleges (AoC) includes a recommendation that all colleges who wish to should be able to teach 14-year-olds full time where appropriate; it is encouraging to see AoC policy directly reflected in the Liberal Democrat’s own manifesto on this issue.

So what is the thinking behind this and why is it important? Many colleges already teach this age group; traditionally mainly part-time but increasingly full-time as well. The manifesto recommendation aims to give all colleges the freedom to choose to do so. My own college, St Helens, has provided part-time work-related learning to over 400 under-16 students for over 20 years. More recently that has included a cohort of full-time students commissioned by a local secondary school. Since the college is based in an area earmarked for significant social and economic regeneration it has been possible to attract European funding to support the provision. Increasingly schools have funded the programmes directly.

This is a pattern of partnership that is replicated around the country with colleges, including City of Bath and North Lindsey, offering extensive opportunities to this younger age group. The range is broad, covering all vocational pathways, meeting the needs of the gifted and talented as well as the disengaged, who are at risk of dropping out. For these young people these courses offer the chance to learn a new skill, to test out their interests and to assess their capabilities. For all it creates the chance to extend their Curriculum Vitae, to achieve, to progress and to celebrate achievement. The ingredients to make it successful are no different to any period of learning; well qualified staff, high quality learning resources and curriculum that is appropriate, relevant and engaging.

After a cancelled trip, as a consequence of the recent flight ban, I attended the launch of the Rainhill Learning Village. Rainhill School has just successfully achieved Trust status in partnership with St Helens College and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). The relationships across schools, Further and Higher Education are changing as we learn to work more effectively to raise attainment and increase the aspirations of young people. In common with many colleges, St Helens is increasingly working in diverse ways to contribute our expertise to the benefit of the communities we serve. In September Sutton Academy opens in St Helens, sponsored by St Helens College in partnership with Edge Hill University. Barnfield College in Luton has already opened two Academies and is contributing to a studio school development, as well as expanding Apprenticeship opportunities. Hull College is sponsoring an Academy. Walsall College is the lead for a new University Technical College. These developments represent exciting opportunities to work in new ways to improve attainment and progression for young people; to enhance the professional development of staff and to engage the wider community.

While the political parties differ in their solutions, they are united in their determination to raise standards in UK schools. All of their proposals provide opportunities for colleges to contribute to this agenda. Under Labour college leaders would be able to head up a federation of Schools, sponsor Academies, become Trust Partners or sponsor University Technical Colleges. The Conservative commitment to the ‘Swedish model’ of open schools would presumably create a climate in which colleges could lead the development. The Liberal Democrats would open the way to full time 14-16.

Parliamentary focus on this issue precedes recent party political pronouncements. The Children’s, Schools and Families Select Committee, chaired by Barry Sheerman, recently published an analysis of education policy over the past 20 years. Of particular interest was the evidence provided by four previous Secretaries of State for Education, as well as the incumbent. They all acknowledged the challenge of making a difference to young people’s lives whilst recognising the risk of undermining the professionalism of educators. The national curriculum was centre stage and while the Conservatives are offering Further Education greater autonomy, Michael Gove provided interesting insight into his vision for a school curriculum in a recent newspaper column. It is Lord Baker who seems to have grasped the potential for a phase of learning from 14-19 as a coherent phase. He sees the Dearing report as a missed opportunity, is sceptical about the potential for reform from within, hence his commitment to this new 14-19 development, the University Technical Colleges.

As colleges are able to lead these reforms, and if we see 14-19 as a coherent phase of learning, then it makes every sense to open up learning in colleges from age 14 as part of the landscape of choice. Part of the Learning and Skills Council legacy in St Helens was investment in a purpose-built centre for 14-16 year olds which houses part of what we deliver for that age group. With provision in literacy and numeracy across all vocational pathways, our Higher Education programmes and our focus on enterprise, employability and progression, colleges like mine are well placed to meet the needs of those who are gifted and talented and who could aim higher – as well as those who by 14 are switching off from learning. The landscape of choice would be greatly enriched. Our experience at reengaging the disengaged, of careers and employer engagement and the breadth of our curriculum would greatly enhance the current offer. As we demonstrated to our local MP recently, colleges not only deliver academic learning and skills but do so within an environment focussed on the individual in terms of personalised learning, safeguarding and Government’s Every Person Matters agenda.

Pat Bacon is President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of St Helens College

To register for AoC’s University Technical Colleges conference on May 12, hosted by former Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker, click here.

Read other FE News articles by Pat Bacon:

The General Election: Too close to call?

Where have all the adults gone?

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