From education to employment

There’s more than one road to Timbuktu – When it comes to 14-16 #FEpathways

Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust

Last year the Government introduced legislation that would allow Further Education Colleges to accept 14-16 year olds on a full time basis.

Whilst this was seen as a very encouraging move by many, it was also met with some trepidation… would it mean FE Colleges taking on schools in the battle to fill places?

Unlike the traditional ‘day release’ schemes that have been in operation for many years, FE Colleges could now be responsible for the entire programme of study for 14-16 year olds, combining GCSEs in core subjects with a more vocational element.

In theory, this opened up a new world of opportunity for colleges and young people. It would provide Year 10 students and their parents with more choice and the college themselves could benefit from an additional income stream for investment and a wider range of progression routes for learners.

Indeed, Career Colleges were launched on the basis that they could take advantage of this new legislation. Recruiting students at 14 provides them with a head start within an industry experiencing a skills shortage and thus real job opportunities.

So surely, opening these opportunities up to 14 year olds can only be a good thing? Of course, there are students who thrive in a school environment but there are others who would benefit greatly from a different way of learning, specialising in subjects that are of real interest to them with a career focus. The more mature learning environment is also a real advantage for some children.

Yet just a handful of FE Colleges have taken up the opportunity. We speak to many colleges who love the idea of setting up a Career College, but are nervous about opening up to Year 10 and 11 students.

And I believe that in many cases, this fear comes from the perception that opening up 14-16 pathways will mean taking on the local schools. In a climate where budgets are tight, schools are generally unwilling to lose students before they begin their GCSE courses – particularly those who are expected to achieve good grades.

Many FE Colleges are wary about setting up such a direct challenge and concerned about what support, if any, they would receive from the Local Authority.

But asking for support from LAs is not always asking the impossible and Bromley College is a great example. The LA here is so supportive of the College that it is consulting with it on the re-planning of local provision. Bromley College has recognised that one pathway doesn’t suit all and has developed multiple routes, providing the local community with learning opportunities to suit all ages, abilities and interests.

And as a result, Bromley College has had no issues filling all its places at both its 14-16 college and its pioneering 14-19 Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College.

In Bootle too, Hugh Baird’s Career College has had similar success, with its 14+ entry being oversubscribed from the outset. The key here has been the fact that the new Career College has raised career aspirations in an area of high economic and social deprivation. Offering 14 year olds an educational pathway that will provide them with a direct route into work, led by employers themselves, is of huge value to the local community and the economy.

Using a rather different tactic, South Tyneside College has joined forces with a local, outstanding secondary school to create Career College North East – rather than setting themselves up as competition. St Wilfrid’s will be delivering the academic element of the curriculum, with students splitting their time between sites. This is a progressive example of how FE College and schools can work together to provide first class, career-led education.

And in Hull, the college developed its direct 14-16 entry in the context of badly performing local schools – offering people a higher quality alternative. This could only be a positive move and the 14-16 college is, as you would imagine, thriving.

All young people have a right to high quality Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) but I am fully aware that this is not always delivered as well as it should be. Schools in particular may not be supportive of the new pathways opening up and this is indeed a challenge.

But rather than fight local schools, I feel it is more important to focus on ensuring parents are well informed about the options out there for their children. Research reveals that parents are the No.1 influence for young people, so it is vital that they understand that there truly are many paths to career success.

Many parents are worried about their children getting jobs at the end of what can be many years of education. The Career College concept is all about providing that line of sight to work early on and this is without doubt, something that appeals to parents. This is evidenced by the decline in arts enrolments in many FE Colleges; people are being put off by the fact that there is no clear pathway to work.

With this in mind, demonstrating to parents just how involved the employers are in the delivery of a Career College curriculum is essential. Employers have become involved in a wide-range of excellent career advice events, showcasing the opportunities available within specific industry and the educational routes available.

As we get ever closer to the General Election, each political party claims to be supporting the skills agenda. For example, support for a 14+ model was much in evidence from the Conservatives with David Cameron calling for a ‘University Technical College in every town’.

This is good news and I very much hope that any incoming Government sees the clear value of giving all young people access to high-quality, career-focused education. This can come in many forms but it is crucial that schools and local authorities do not stand in the way of pioneering and innovative vocational pathways.

Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust

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