The fact that Further Education is woefully underfunded is not news. Nor is the fact that FE colleges are reducing the curriculum offered. According to research by the Association of Colleges in partnership with TES, almost two thirds of colleges offering A-levels have reduced the number of subjects available, with half of those attributing the cuts to lack of funding (TES 4th August 2017). Even more worrying is the fact that some FE colleges are ceasing to offer A-levels completely, focussing instead on apprenticeships, BTECs and other vocational courses. I will argue that this trend has to be reversed.
Compared to A-levels in school sixth-forms, A-levels in FE colleges have a higher drop-out rate and lower success rate. The disparity is openly acknowledged in the AQA Enhanced Results facility whereby centres can compare their results with ‘all centres’ and ‘similar centres’ separately. In an FE college a cohort could well be below average compared to all centres but above average for similar centres. In short, colleges perform less well. This is due to many factors. FE colleges are stuck in a funding catch-22 where recruiting target numbers are paramount, yet this results in large class sizes, exacerbated by teacher redundancy in some cases. The large class sizes are detrimental to results and add to drop-out rates, with some courses over-recruiting with the expectation of losing students.
20 years ago far fewer schools had sixth-forms of their own. Indeed in my own area of the West Midlands there were very few, so the majority of those wanting to study A-levels went to FE colleges with a minority traveling to another school’s sixth-form. Now practically all schools have their own sixth forms and this increased competition has had an effect on A-levels in FE. Schools are often more selective about which students are allowed to progress to an A-level programme.
Some may say there is an argument for keeping A-levels purely in the domain of school sixth-forms. Here they are more academically elitist, have smaller class sizes and arguably have established the sort of practices in their students that are required to be successful at A-level. Perhaps there is a difference in culture and if students are suited to A-levels they should stay at school. FE colleges can then specialise in vocational courses. I suspect this is what the Conservative government, with their nostalgia for 1950s education, envisage.
But this is exactly what must not happen. FE colleges have a duty to provide A-levels and must be supported in doing so. I am not arguing this because I think A-levels are more valuable than vocational courses. Rather I am arguing that it would be a devastating mistake to assume that traditionally ‘academic’ students should stay at school.
Having delivered A-level Philosophy in a very large FE college for over 14 years, I have seen a number of quite outstanding students who have left school to join us. Occasionally this was not their first choice. We have received some quite excellent A-level students who had not been allowed to remain at their grammar school. The vast majority, however, have made the decision not to continue at school sixth-form. The reasons are varied but incredibly important. I have had students tell me they did not receive the pastoral care they needed, that they had surrounded themselves with the ‘wrong friends’, that they had been bullied or that they simply felt that 5 years in the same place was enough. Another reason was often the breadth and combinations of subjects offered at FE college were so much better than school (although this is sadly less the case now as the curriculum is pruned due to funding cuts). Often the attraction of wearing one’s own clothes, addressing lecturers by their first name and being able to leave the site in their breaks can be very appealing (if not the best reasons).
Some students feel that they are ready to be treated more as an adult and this can be a very important function of FE colleges. The vast majority of A-level students apply to university and an FE college can provide valuable skills to prepare them for this. Students are offered the support of personal tutors, progress reports and parents’ evenings etc. while at the same time having to manage their own time in what is often a reduced timetable compared to schools. There is an expectation that they will develop independence. They may get used to being part of a very large organisation where they do not know everybody while still being offered effective pastoral care and this can be a useful ‘half-way house’ between school and university.
What should also be noted is that moving from school to FE college is not an easy option for many students. In my own college it is common for students to travel over an hour each way, catching two buses. I have a student who travels two hours each way just because he wanted to study Philosophy at college.
Now studying A-levels in an FE college is not for everyone and some students are not suited to the environment. At school sixth-form your day may be more structured for you, there may be more boundaries and there is the security of staff and students that you have known for some time. That is what some students need, at least for now, although the increased independence will need to be developed at some point. Some students simply do not thrive at FE college.
But it would be disastrous not to offer the traditional academic route of A-levels outside of the school setting. Not to do so would alienate many students who need a second chance, a fresh start or a chance to develop in a way they perhaps could not at school. To assume all students who leave school are better suited to vocational courses would deprive universities of some of the most inspiring and exciting students. I know because I have seen them. FE has a duty to offer A-level study and this government has a duty to provide the means for them to do so.
Sally Latham, A-level Philosophy Lecturer