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Learning has to go down new paths

Reforms are needed if schools and colleges are to work together for 14 to19-year-olds, says Jim Donaldson

ver the next decade, ways need to be found to offer 14-19s in Scotland greater choice in the courses, subjects and qualifications they take, making it easier to gain the skills required for life and work. At present, much provision offers poor choice and unequal opportunities for success.

Structures for the delivery of education should be learner-driven and responsive to the needs of individuals, businesses and their communities.

In 2002, the Scottish Executive initiated a national debate on education, culminating in A Curriculum for Excellence, which centred on the need to ensure that the school curriculum is responsive to the changing demands of work and life in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, demands for improvement surfaced such as making learning more enjoyable, achieving a better balance between "academic" and "vocational" subjects, and equipping young people with the skills and knowledge they need now and in the future.

Under present arrangements, many young people are denied the opportunity of accessing education and training programmes that meet their particular needs. The small size of school sixth years makes it difficult to obtain sufficient critical mass to offer the full curriculum range, and the difficulties are often compounded by less than expected levels of collaboration between schools and between schools and colleges. Demographic projections and forecasts of future pupil numbers suggest that the difficulties in offering a wide and varied curriculum are likely to persist.

If we want to reach out to those who are not doing as well at school as they could be, and those not in learning, we need to offer a range of high quality opportunities that will encourage them not only to enter but also to stay in learning and fulfil their potential. Executive policy is to encourage young people to stay on in learning and help maximise the contribution of education and training to economic performance. But if this is to play a full part in the drive to increase the numbers of young people participating in learning, improve standards and increase the effectiveness of learning in meeting the needs of young people, a number of reforms might usefully be introduced.

First, introduce area-wide inspections to set an agenda for improvement.

Area inspections are a powerful means of evaluating the range of provision on offer for young people aged 14-19 across a travel-to-learn area and, equally important, identifying ways of improving its quality. Drawing on evidence across an area, inspectors would, among other things, evaluate and comment on ease of access and participation, completion and pass rates and levels of progression, the range of programmes available and the mismatch, if any, with the needs of the labour market and teaching and learning.

The effectiveness of overall strategy and planning, cost effectiveness and value for money, and the extent of collaboration and liaison among providers, would also be assessed. Our large cities and large tracts of the central belt should be included early in the programme.

Second, ensure that all 14-19s have access to high-quality, relevant learning opportunities. The introduction of a national learner entitlement aimed at ensuring that all young people have access to a range of learning that is consistent and of high quality should be given serious consideration. The entitlement could also state the need for the right information and advice to help young people make the right choices.

Area prospectuses, explaining what is on offer across a travel-to-learn area should also be a key priority. But most important, we need to ensure that there is capacity in every part of the country to deliver a range of quality vocational programmes to 14-19s. In many places, only limited vocational options are available from age 14 and that must be increased.

Third, encourage greater collaboration to achieve curriculum choice. No single institution is able to provide the full range of programme opportunities that should be available to young people. Where substantial new or improved 16-19 education and training is needed, those providers already offering high quality provision should be encouraged to expand.

Dedicated centres of excellence in particular vocational areas should also be developed, with schools, colleges and work-based training organisations deciding together how they will deliver the full range of 14-19 options.

Barriers and disincentives to collaboration also merit attention. There are "start-up" costs to collaborative working as well as substantial logistical challenges to enable young people to learn at more than one institution at the same time. For example, schools and colleges would increasingly require to co-ordinate their timetables and arrange transport.

Finally, the 14-19 system is supported by two main funding streams, and two separate divisions within the Executive. Funding for 14-18s in schools is channelled through local authorities and funding for post-16 students in colleges through the funding council. If we are to extend choice to learners and raise levels of achievement for young people in the system now, pressure should be applied to the funding council and local authorities to develop increasingly effective ways to strengthen collaborative working, including the use of pooled budgets.

The alternative is to place responsibility for all post-16 funding in schools and colleges with the funding council, with school funding routed via local authorities. This post-devolution age has seen an unparalleled pace of development in Scottish education. The executive has clearly given education a central place in its policies and has embarked on a series of reforms. But creating a system better tailored to the needs of the individual pupil, in which teenagers are stretched to achieve, can only happen with the right level of support from schools and colleges and some changes to existing practices.

Jim Donaldson, a former member of the inspectorate in Scotland, was chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council for England and is now a consultant.

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