Change of course for life after A-level

There would be clear benefits in separating FE provision for adults and young people, writes Nick Pearce

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called it "eternal recurrence".

The film director Harold Ramis called it Groundhog Day. Each year we do it with A-level results: repeat ourselves in a cycle from which there is no prospect of escape. Standards are up. Standards are down. And so on ad infinitum.

Fully fledged reform of the kind proposed by the Tomlinson Committee might have sprung this trap, forcing us to focus on the education of the whole of the age range, rather than simply those in the advanced level academic track. But Tomlinson fell victim to another of Nietzsche's concepts, the "will to power"; more particularly that of a government facing an imminent general election. Hence most of his proposals were ditched.

We'll have the opportunity to return to Tomlinson's proposal for a unified diploma to replace existing qualifications in 2008, when a government review is due. In the meantime, we should pause to think about whether we have got the balance right in our education system between courses for young people and those provided to adults. The implications for our further education colleges could be profound.

The English education system of initial (16-19) post-compulsory education is curious when viewed in international comparison. It is relatively permissive in curriculum terms, allowing young people to specialise at an early age and to combine subjects largely as they see fit. But it is more highly centralised and prescriptive in funding and planning terms, relying less on elected local authorities and more on central quangos and agencies, than other countries.

In Scandinavia, for example, 16-19 year olds are typically entitled to three-year learning programmes with minimum guided tuition hours in core and specialist subjects. But the business of delivering the system is in the hands of elected local government, not the central state. These countries score highly on measures of both educational excellence and social equity (the class gap in achievement).

Post-school education in these countries is also largely separate from that of adults, as it is in most of the world. Some countries, such as Sweden and Norway, offer all-ability 16-19 education in upper secondary schools, while others provide separate academic and vocational schools, as in Finland and Canada. Few appear to have further education colleges providing courses for everyone from disaffected 14-year-olds to mature students.

There would be clear benefits in separating provision for young people and adults in England. FE colleges would be organised around the curriculum and learning needs of their distinct client groups, with more prescription for young people (i.e. subject breadth, specified attainment in English and maths), and more flexibility and choice for adults. At present we have too much planning and not enough choice driving the system for adults, and insufficient prescription for young people.

Such a system would give greater clarity of institutional focus and branding, particularly for general FE colleges, as there is now for sixth form and tertiary colleges. Teacher education, career development and professional identity for lecturers would be more sharply defined by focusing on homogeneous groups of learners. And it would be easier to ensure area-wide strategic organisation of provision and the cost-effective use of resources for young people's training.

Tertiary provision for young people might also encourage positive peer-group effects, building an expectation of post-compulsory participation, particularly if selection into different institutions is minimised. At the same time, adults would have a recognisable local college for their skills and career development needs.

In this scenario, general FE colleges would become more like community colleges in the United States: providers of choice for business courses, higher education access and foundation degrees and second-chance opportunities for adults. For young people, there are different models of provision that might be considered, depending on local circumstances and national policy priorities.

The evidence shows that tertiary colleges compare well with sixth-form and general FE colleges in inspection reports and the award of Beacon status.

We have been here before, of course, with the stalled efforts of the 1970s and 1980s to effect comprehensive tertiary reorganisation. It is wise in the light of this history to be pragmatic about the scale and pace of change.

Crucially, however, system change depends on a leadership role for elected local government. Where government agencies lack a local democratic mandate, contentious reform becomes problematic. We see that repeatedly with hospital closures. Ditto the strategic area-wide reviews of 16-19 provision. Elected leadership does not guarantee a smooth passage for reform, but it makes it more acceptable. Could a quango have introduced congestion charging in London, for example?

The commonly cited objections to separate provision for young people and adults are that it is not cost-effective to provide separate capital facilities for courses such as engineering to young people and adults; that rural areas may not be able to sustain institutions catering for different populations; and that there would be significant disruption and financial volatility for general FE colleges.

None of these objections is overwhelming. Capital-intensive vocational education is limited to a small number of courses and long-term capital strategies could be designed to facilitate cost-effective investment across different areas. Most general FE colleges are in urban, not rural areas, and a long-term reform programme would minimise funding turbulence.

If we can bring ourselves to contemplate a life after A-levels, we should look again at whether our education system couldn't be configured better to meet the different needs of young people and adults.

Nick Pearce is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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