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'It is because colleges are different from schools that they are so important to our educational system'

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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.

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.

For the full comment piece, get the 12 June edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.

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