It comes as no real surprise that attracting 14- and 15-year-olds into FE is a challenge for many colleges.
As reported in TES last month, fewer colleges than expected are recruiting these younger students and some have stopped taking 14- to 16-year-olds altogether.
However, here at London South East Colleges (Bromley College’s new trading name since merging with Bexley College and Greenwich Community College this summer), we appear to be bucking this trend. With 140 students joining our 14-16 Technical Academy this September, numbers are up nearly 30 per cent since last year.
Our Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College, which is a key part of our 14-16 offer, is thriving. Not only are numbers healthy, but also students are achieving highly across both academic and vocational elements of curriculum.
So why is it that some colleges are finding it easier than others to recruit viable cohorts of 14- to 16-year-olds?
'Selling' vocational education
When the government announced that it would allow FE colleges to accept full time 14- to 16-year-olds, there was much excitement within the sector. With times being so hard financially, this was potentially an additional income stream. It was also a way of creating a pipeline of future 16-18 students with strengthened progression pathways and seamless transitions.
However, the current education system in this country is not set up for transfer at 14. Apart from a few areas in which a three-tier system exists, the majority of the country operates very much on an 11-16 or 11-18 model.
It is never going to be easy to persuade parents to move their children from a mainstream school at what is deemed a crucial point of their education. The idea of their children leaving school at this young age and going off to college is something that many parents just wouldn’t consider – particularly if they know nothing about this "alternative" pathway.
But if parents are presented with the full range of options and the real facts about 14-plus college pathways, "selling" the idea becomes less of a challenge. And this is, in part, where the real problem lies.
Schools and indeed local authorities have a duty and responsibility to inform students and their parents about all the educational options open to them at the various stages. If a college in the area has 14-16 provision, then this simply must be presented as a viable option, and indeed it may the very best option for some young people.
Not every child is suited to the school environment. Many prefer a more hands-on and practical style of learning. With the national curriculum getting narrower, more and more schools are dropping vocational courses, which is a huge shame.
Not only do we and many other FE colleges give students the opportunity to study more career-relevant subjects, we also contextualise core maths and English skills within this practical learning. This is a game-changer for many young people who suddenly find that not only are they immersed in a vocational subject that really interests them, but also their maths and English lessons are suddenly far more interesting and relevant.
What’s more, our 14-year-olds will gain a widely recognised vocational qualification by the age of 16 (alongside their GCSEs), putting them two years ahead of their peers who start college courses at 16.
'Advice, support and guidance’
The routes we offer our students link closely with the government’s current policy priorities – apprenticeships and the Post-16 Skills Plan – and its ambition to provide world-class technical education. We prepare young people for all types of progression, expanding options rather than narrowing them. Much of this year's cohort chose to stay on with us, but others moved to local schools to study for A levels.
Sadly though, children and their parents are not always being informed about this valid alternative to school – and this is where I believe things need to change.
Clearly schools don't want to lose good students – and the associated funding – at the end of Year 9. Any child who is likely to achieve a decent set of GCSE results will not be encouraged to consider their options at age 14.
But there are many children who would, and indeed do, thrive in a different, more independent environment. There are many talented young people who have advanced practical skills in specific areas, which they should be allowed to develop.
Here in Bromley we are lucky to have not only a very supportive local authority, but also many headteachers who accept the moral obligation they have to provide impartial advice, support and guidance to their students.
Rather than seeing us as competition, our local schools see us as the alternative choice. We provide high-quality education in a very different setting, much more closely aligned to the world of work.
These positive relationships are ultimately key to our success in relation to 14-16 recruitment. FE can offer so much to people of all ages and I urge teachers, schools and LAs to work with colleges and do their duty to young people by being open and transparent about the many exciting educational pathways available.
Sam Parrett OBE is the principal and CEO of London South East Colleges
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