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The false dawn of choice

A 15-year-old girl attends a college open evening, puts in an application, goes to an interview with her parents and is offered a place. The college then requests a reference from her school, prompting its headteacher to demand to see the girl. Why is she planning to go to that college instead of staying in the school's sixth-form? Doesn't she know it has no pastoral support and it's up to the student whether they work or not?

The girl persists. Invited to meet staff and other prospective students at the college's freshers' day held towards the end of Year 11, she dutifully asks permission to attend. Mysteriously, a new event appears in the school's calendar for the same day: a library day, when all leavers are required to return books to departments and the school library.

This example shows what happens when the interests of an institution override the needs and wishes of young people.

With large numbers of schools moving out of local authority control or acquiring academy status, and with more small sixth-forms multiplying, one would have thought that an all-age careers service, with a presence in every school and college, was an absolute necessity. Instead, despite numerous false dawns from previous administrations and bold statements by the coalition Government, we seem to be further than ever from protecting young people's freedom of choice.

The Government is committed to expanding apprenticeships, intending to develop that route into university education. It is determined to enhance progression into technical training. But, who will advise schoolchildren about these options when they conflict with a school head's desire, at a time of falling rolls, to build up their sixth-form?

It is extraordinary that the Government has committed itself to the proliferation of new institutions at this time, instead of reinvigorating what already exists.

Nigel Robbins, Executive director, Tertiary Colleges Group.

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