Lies, damned lies and statistics. As the adage says, statistics don't always tell the full story. This is certainly true in the case of the recently released Progress 8 data for 14-16 direct-entry provision in colleges.
At first glance, the small number of Year 11 students who completed full-time key stage 4 in further education colleges – more than 1,000 in summer 2017 – didn't make the expected progress or achieve that well. But look behind the numbers and you will see a very different story of incredible added value, high levels of post-16 progression to level 2 and 3 programmes and apprenticeships, improved progress from entry point, better attendance and increased engagement.
Colleges have been enrolling students aged 14-16 who wish to study high-quality vocational qualifications alongside general qualifications, such as English and maths, at KS4 since September 2013. In the 2017-18 academic year, 19 colleges are delivering 14-16 direct entry. This number has remained static since 2013, probably because of the hurdles faced by these providers.
Colleges report that the student intake is not the "average" 5 A*-C ability that was anticipated. Many students have already experienced alternative education, had disrupted education and have barriers to learning. There is a high percentage of students with varied special educational needs, but colleges find it difficult to access central local authority funding. In addition, many students are "school action plus", requiring staff attendance at external agency meetings.
Colleges delivering 14-16 direct entry face two major challenges: funding, which is lower than KS4 funding in schools and accountability measures, based on school models where students have been in a secondary placement for five years and have a wide range of ability.
The 14-16 direct-entry provision in colleges was not included in the schools funding mechanism when they were designated because there was no national funding formula for schools. In 2015-2016, the minimum Age Weighted Pupil Unit (AWPU) was set at a minimum of £4,402, while college funding for 14- to 16-year-olds is £4,000 per student.
Colleges report that their 14-16 cohort often has complex learning and pastoral needs. Students are at risk of exclusion or becoming not in employment, education or training (NEET), but there is a huge funding differential between Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) or alternative provision and direct entry to college. Alternative provision places saw an increase in funding from £8,000 to £10,000 per place in the 2015-16 academic year, while no change has been made to funding for a similar cohort in colleges. For some direct entry colleges, working with schools as alternative provision providers might be more attractive because the funding is better.
High-quality vocational qualifications
Government guidance on direct entry, full-time provision for 14- to 16-year-olds in colleges notes that the rationale for a young person taking up such an opportunity is so that they can study high-quality vocational qualifications alongside general qualifications including English and maths. That is college direct entry. Full-time provision was set up to be an alternative offer to the school curriculum. The college package offers bespoke programmes with line of sight to further study and work, based on individual need.
The students find the vocational hook attractive and benefit from the opportunity to focus on and succeed in the core skills of English, maths and science alongside vocational qualifications, rather than struggling with a much broader academic curriculum. The ability to focus on these core skills – as well as comprehensive, informed and impartial careers information, advice and guidance – encourages progression to higher level courses or apprenticeships post-16.
The greatest challenge for colleges is that the Progress 8 accountability measure which they are measured against for this age group reflects a broad, academic curriculum and a diverse cohort. This is not the case for the majority of college providers who in light of poor data and its implications may well now be rethinking their policy of reaching out into the community to support young people who are vulnerable to becoming NEET.
Behind the statistics
Direct entry providers would like to be recognised for the work they do by the introduction of alternative accountability measures in line with 16-19 measures more appropriate to this cohort. They would also like to see direct-entry provision included in the new national funding arrangements for schools.
This is the story behind the the statistics. Statistics deal with numbers, colleges deal with people and all the challenges and delights they bring. For the 14- to 16-year-olds whose lives they change for the better let's hope they continue to do so.