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FE's image problems cast a long shadow

Colleges are too often characterised as `the risky option' for 16-18s. It's time for the sector to correct those misconceptions

Colleges are too often characterised as `the risky option' for 16-18s. It's time for the sector to correct those misconceptions

Further education has an image problem - a statement that will come as no surprise to anyone working in the sector. Some don't understand what it has to offer sixth-formers; others perceive it to be a risky option.

My FE colleagues will be used to responding to parents' concerns about how their child will fare when they leave the relative safety of school for a semi-urban college campus - a place where they will have greater freedoms, follow a more flexible timetable and potentially mix with a more diverse student body.

Some secondary school teachers don't help our cause. I've heard numerous stories of college life being described from inside the school gates as rife with drug-taking, poor behaviour and low aspirations. But if those claims have any truth to them, why are schools failing their young people by letting them leave and go to college? If that's the environment they'll face, vulnerable and low-achieving students are unlikely to do well. It's tantamount to writing them off.

Meanwhile, the more academic, independent-thinking, middle-class students - the ones most likely to thrive on challenge - are told to remain in what is perceived to be the safe, nurturing environment of the school sixth form.

Stepping stones

Of course, I don't agree that colleges are dangerous or risky. It is precisely because they are different from schools that they are so important to our educational system.

Our students tell us that they value the college environment because they are treated like adults and expected to make decisions accordingly. Of course they need support and guidance, but they are responsible for attending classes, completing work on time and ensuring that they don't let their peers down when it comes to group projects. These are all important life skills. So, too, is the ability to make decisions about how to socialise and achieve a work-life balance.

There may be a level of risk but this is exactly why FE colleges make such a good stepping stone between school and university, or school and employment. If your son or daughter is unable to manage their time and workload by the time they reach 18, they will be in for a shock when they leave home.

Career investment

Of course, it's easy to blame others for the sector's image problem, but the ongoing reduction in funding for careers advice in schools isn't helping.

Since the national careers services network, Connexions, was abolished in 2012, schools have been responsible for providing their own careers advice - without any extra cash for doing so. It's hardly surprising that a subsequent report by Ofsted criticised the quality and availability of guidance on offer.

The report, published in 2013, raised concerns that pupils weren't finding out about the full range of career pathways available to them; as a result, they couldn't make informed choices about their next steps. In some cases, school careers advice is now the responsibility of a teacher, who may only be able to draw on their own experiences and career decisions.

Although I would call for greater investment in careers advice for young people and adults, I would also call for greater investment in FE - the only education budget unprotected from future cuts. At a time when the adult skills budget for 2015-16 is down 11 per cent on the previous year - and non-apprenticeship adult skills down by almost 24 per cent - it is difficult to feel backed by government.

And yet our vocational education is one of the things that international markets most admire. My own organisation, Activate Learning, has recently set up teacher-training programmes in China, Malaysia and Burma, where college and university staff want to learn from our hands-on approach to engaging young people.

We are also seeing university graduates returning to FE seeking the advanced apprenticeships and higher-level skills that will enable them to enter the jobs market. A degree does not guarantee you a career and students are becoming increasingly focused on value for money when exploring the higher education route.

I do not want to rubbish other forms of education to advance our own cause. As the Ofsted report into careers advice rightly found, students need to understand the full range of educational options and career pathways open to them. It is this rich diversity that we must work hard to maintain, to ensure that young people have the chance to develop the academic, technical and soft skills they need in an environment that is right for them.

We should do all we can as a sector to build the FE brand - to help challenge previously held perceptions and encourage young people, their parents and their teachers to see it as an aspirational choice. And we must also demonstrate the impact of FE as we campaign for greater investment.

Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Activate Learning, a group of colleges, schools and university training colleges in Oxfordshire and Berkshire

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