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Let's keep advice free from bias

The Association of Colleges welcomes the Government's move towards greater flexibility for young people aged 14-plus to decide what and where they study - in a school, further education college, or a mixture of both. There has been much talk about joined-up thinking; we now need to see joined-up action.

Advice for 13 and 14-year-olds is central to the new 14-19 strategy. But if not delivered properly, this has the potential to be the Achilles heel of the policy. The Government's response to the Green Paper refers to the importance of advice and guidance but suggests that it should be predominantly carried out by the school.

Frankly, this role is much too important to be left in the hands of a single organisation - independent advice and guidance is absolutely crucial.

Young people need to know that advice on their education comes from a disinterested source - and not one with a vested interest in the future of a particular institution. I am not attacking schools, but rather the system itself. Schools cannot be expected to know all the options available, or to remain unbiased when the future of their school sixth-form may depend on it.

The Government stresses the importance of impartial advice, but the reality is that children may be short-changed. Most guidance will come from schools, with the Connexions service helping only the disengaged or those who have left education. This is not impartial - an idea confirmed by information from FE colleges about the advice given to 14-year-olds where local schools take students from 11 to 18.

I quote from our recent postbag: "High-achieving pupils in an area are not given careers interviews because it is assumed that they will attend the school sixth-form, and that can be sorted out laterI "Pupils whom the local school has found difficult are those who are most positively encouraged to try FE. Often the school's references understate the difficulties encountered by school and studentI "Pupils who request time off to attend a college taster or open day are often denied, and sometimes protests are received that such an invitation is ever made."

But there are some positives. Colleagues in colleges refer to successful partnerships with schools; "impressively making use of all of the post-16 options (work-based learning, full-time education in a range of different colleges, and employment options) and ensure that their pupils can access impartial and independent advice".

Colleges want to build on the co-operative ventures with schools, but we need a more creative way of doing it than giving the school sole responsibility.

The most recent Ofsted report reveals: "In 11 of the areas inspected, (children's) choices were found to have been influenced by advice that was neither impartial nor comprehensive. Schools often provided inadequate information about work-based learning and indeed about opportunities outside their sixth-form in general."

But this is nothing new. In the research Staying on at School: the hidden curriculum of selection (2000), John Eggleston of Warwick University reported on "staying-on policy at schools based on a series of detailed interviews". He wrote: "Schools wanted quality staying-on in school.

Motivated, able students were courted for their tonic effect on numbers and results. They and their parents formed a classic captive market and the hard sell was unmistakable. In many schools, information on further education was regularly withheld."

I believe the Government has allowed schools the lead role because it appears to be the most expedient and the cheapest option. But this is not fair to school teaching staff or the young people involved.

In the AoC's response to the Green Paper, it recommended that the Connexions service take on the lead role. But they have been placed as supporter. Connexions advisers are already overstretched and it is likely that additional resources would be needed to make this a realistic solution.

This issue needs to be addressed urgently - otherwise the very real gains of flexibility and increased options for young people promised by the 14-19 strategy may well be cut off at the knees.

Judith Norrington is the director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges

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