College provides an excellent alternative

Studying at school and FE college at the same time is, according to some, like being a teetotaller at a wine tasting. My school teachers painted a picture of college as the "dropout option" for the less academic, where I'd be "throwing away my chances". Yet, from the age of 13, I'd hankered to go to college for a bit of freedom. But, after my GCSEs, staying on at school was promoted as the only appropriate option. I'd started five AS-levels (art, chemistry, general studies, maths and RS) and it soon seemed I had too much work and too little free time. I realised then that I wanted to study medicine. I could get into medical school on this subject combination but I wanted a subject that would be more relevant.

I researched the available options and decided on a fast-track evening class in A-level human biology at a local FE college. But the idea of doing a new A-level in little more than two terms, combined with dropping two of my school subjects for home study, did not impress my head of sixth form. He warned me against this mix of school and college with every argument he could think of from his 30 years' experience. Reluctantly, though, he finally agreed to allow me to take control of my learning and timetable.

So I attended evening classes at FE college two nights a week, continued A2 school lessons in three subjects, continued a fourth without timetabled lessons and used the remaining time for "home study". I did not miss a college lesson all year and achieved a grade A in human biology. I have hardly "thrown away my chances" with five A-levels at grade A (as well as maths AS-level at grade A last year) and a place at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.

College teaching has been of the highest standard. The environment is relaxed with a mature, friendly teacher-student relationship where students are treated more as clients than children. The small class size of five to eight allows more interaction than in school.

The combination of school and college, day lessons and evening classes, has produced a varied timetable and worked perfectly for me. I have benefited from my school's structures, guidance, support and familiar friends but also from the new environment, freedom and older friends of FE college. I only wish I had discovered it a year earlier.

Schools should encourage pupils to explore all options for post-16 study to determine the best combination of subjects and institutions for the individual, rather than push them on to the conveyor belt of staying on at school full-time.

Beth Owen

Beth Owen, 18, lives in Bingley, West Yorkshire

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