Segregation of teenage college students does more harm than good, new research suggests.
The first in-depth study of the benefits of mixed-age learning shows considerable advantages of teaching teenagers alongside adults returning to college. It challenges the long-held assumptions of ministers that young people are best-off in sixth-form colleges and 16-19 centres.
The study for the Learning and Skills Development Agency shows young people are more focused and "mess about" less if taught alongside adults.
Researchers say adults set an example and warn that segregation would deprive students of of vital learning support.
Fewer than one in 10 young students interviewed in mixed-age classes said they would choose to go back to segregation.
Stephen McNair, professor of education at the University of Surrey, and co-director of the Learning Together project, said intensive research from six large colleges in the South-east and Yorkshire was reinforced by data in reports from the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.
"Almost without exception, staff, students and college managers interviewed ... believed that students in mixed-age groups behave better, are more motivated and achieve more," says Professor McNair in this week's FE Focus.
He warns of possible tensions as local learning and skills councils try to create "distinct learning environments" for teenagers while also "respecting learner choice", which may be to study in mixed-age groups.
The Association of Colleges has expressed its concerns about the push to segregate people by age. In a recent letter to Alan Johnson, further and higher education minister, the AoC warned that it would be inefficient to create two separate learning streams, as well as potentially making the learning environment worse.
Judith Norrington, AoC curriculum director, said: "You cannot run two motor vehicle workshops or two engineering areas along discrete lines cost-effectively. Even if you could, you would lose the educational benefits that colleges constantly tell us are gained from mixed-age learning."
Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, said: "We have been very concerned about the pressures on colleges to set up separate sixth-form centres. In some cases it will be appropriate but not in every case. It can be a retrograde step.
"I am confident that we are persuading the Department for Education and Skills that our arguments are valid. Besides, by putting the emphasis on sixth-form colleges, people fail to understand how much these institutions have changed," he said.
Mr Pendle's views are underlined by new figures from the Adult Learning Inspectorate which show that 44 per cent of sixth-form colleges now have more adult students than 16 to 19-year-olds. Also, only 75 of all 450 colleges in England have more 16 to 19-year-olds than adults.
As FE Focus went to press, the research findings were being discussed at the annual conference of the Further Education Research Network at Warwick university.
The final report is expected in January, and Professor McNair said there was a need for more research to be done to work out the best models for post-16 organisation in the longer term.
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