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John Widdowson, Principal and Chief Executive at New College Durham

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Entry and Level 1 Pathways for 16-18 Year Olds in FE Colleges

Much of the debate around technical and vocational education has focussed on the need to create new qualifications which will have equal value to existing academic awards and aimed at high achieving students at Level 3.

Although this ambition is clearly laudable and overdue, colleges of Further Education have long had a key role in helping those young people who have been unsuccessful at school, leaving at the age of sixteen with few qualifications, ill prepared for the world of work and without the firm foundations needed to make a positive contribution as active citizens.

Around 18% of students on full time FE courses arrive in this position and undertake programmes at Entry and Level 1. Despite the fact that successive governments have sought to address this persistent problem, a significant number of young people fail to achieve at sixteen, or perhaps more accurately, emerge from an education system which has failed them.

The Forgotten Third

This is compounded as every year around a third of school leavers fail to achieve a grade 4 GCSE in English and Mathematics. Ironically, for many that failure is reinforced when they are obliged to re-take those subjects whilst on a vocational FE course or as an Apprentice, with only 21% achieving the re-sit grade in mathematics and 30% in English.

Apart from the all too apparent waste of resources this represents, the re-sit process demotivates and discourages young people who could spend the time better in developing the skills they need for employment.

Even for those students who achieve below grade 3, the functional skills curriculum barely meets their needs and is often seen by students as irrelevant to their career choice and reinforcing the negative experiences they have had at school.

Entry and Level 1 Students aged 16-18

The students studying at Entry and Level 1 have a broad range of needs. Some have learning difficulties or disabilities which have adversely affected their school performance or in the worst cases, gone unrecognised. Although some of these students attract additional funding there is an increasing number whose behavioural problems do not fall within the current support system. Others have had disrupted school careers due either to the same issues or to ill health.

Another group have simply failed to engage with a school curriculum they find uninteresting and irrelevant and leave school with no clear idea of what they want to do and without the skills they will need to achieve the ambitions they have.

Inadequate information advice and guidance at school particularly for this group of students with complex needs is either under resourced or in the worst cases entirely lacking. This results in either inappropriate choices based on inadequate information or making no real choice at all, with the higher risk of becoming NEET that this implies.

Continued Commitment from FE Colleges

There have been severe cuts to FE budgets for many years, with a consequential impact on programmes of study and the student experience. This has had particular implications for students needing at least an extra year in full time post sixteen education.

The funding system itself has discriminated against the very students who need more support and a longer period in the post sixteen phase by reducing that already meagre funding per student once they reach the age of eighteen.

Despite this, FE colleges have remained committed to giving those students not just another chance but a much better chance to succeed.

Best Practice

There are many examples of how colleges are doing this, starting with recognition that although some of these students can present as “problems”, many have the ability to progress to higher level study and employment, including Apprenticeship, within a relatively short period and all can improve on their low starting point.

Successful programmes recognise the crucial importance of improving literacy and numeracy but do so in a context which also develops employability skills. The best programmes build on this by providing a clear focus on improving personal skills such as confidence, independence and resilience.

Initiatives such as the National Citizen Service have been targeted at students on lower level courses, knowing that these young people are often the least likely to participate without encouragement and support from their tutors.

Many students benefit from tailored advice and guidance which links better literacy and numeracy skills, coupled with completion of their study programme, to progression into a higher level course or an Apprenticeship.

Effective advice and guidance programmes recognise that students may well want to use the skills and knowledge they have acquired to change direction at the end of their Level 1 programme. In this way, students make better, more informed decisions about their next step and thus are less likely to drop out.

Meeting the Needs of Entry and Level 1 Students

Whitehall in general and DfE in particular need to recognise that a significant number of young people leave school at sixteen with poor levels of achievement and are likely to continue to do so until major improvements are made in achievement levels at sixteen. Such students and their often complex needs should be recognised and taken into account in designing the right course to meet those needs.

Rather than place such students in a deficit position, requiring “remedial” attention and risking the reinforcement of failure, provision up to Level 1 should be seen as transformational rather than transitional, in most cases providing the stepping stone to higher level study and Apprenticeship rather than into low skill employment.

In addition, the curriculum at Entry and Level 1 must be reformed. It must have sufficient breadth to provide not only support to develop literacy and numeracy skills in a vocational context but also to provide a diagnostic approach which ensures young people can experience a range of vocational options before making a choice of employment or the best progression route for them.

In other words, providers must recognise that these students are not simply at the lowest level in a vocational hierarchy, with all that may imply, but constitute a significant group across most colleges deserving of just as much thought and attention as those able to study straightaway at a higher level.

More Funding

And it goes without saying that the 16-18 funding must be reformed to ensure that those students with the greatest needs are afforded the right level of resource.

The treasury and DfE must accept that young people who have failed to succeed at school pre-16 will need more contact with their teachers/ lecturers and may take at least an additional year of study to progress to either employment, apprenticeships or the next level of study.

John Widdowson, Principal and Chief Executive at New College Durham


No 16-18 Year Old Left Behind

The Spring Budget in March and Spending Review in the summer will be pivotal moments to see if the government will prioritise funding for the education and training of 16-18 year olds compared to other phases of the English system.

These will be against a background of reported 5% cuts in departmental spending and the apprenticeship budget facing overspend. The recent falls in the number of 16-18 year olds starting apprenticeships will also cause concern of a rise in the young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).

In this #No1618LeftBehind mini-series, leading authorities from across the education sector offer policies and measures to help the new Government level-up education and training opportunities for all 16-18 year olds in England: No 16-18 Year Old Left Behind - wherever they live.

 The authors are:



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