SCHOOLS appear to be no nearer to ending their "turf war" with further education colleges over the recruitment of able sixth-formers.
The Association of Colleges says that its members no longer ask schools for references because headteachers then interview the students and browbeat them into staying on at school. Many schools refuse to supply colleges with names of school-leavers and some misinform students that college courses are full.
These claims have been borne out by a study, funded by the Leverhulme Foundation, that I undertook with Dr Gillian Klein. Further education is not being presented as an option - indeed, in many schools, information about FE is regularly withheld because teachers believe they are involved in hostile competition.
Students therefore have to "discover" FE through college brochures, glossy and expensively produced, that are augmented by local radio, bus and mail advertising.
At a time when there is intense governmental enthusiasm for FE, much of it specifically designed to rescue the talent being lost through leaving education at 16, the failure of schools to prepare students for FE is surprising.
Virtually all the teachers we interviewed seemed to believe, almost as an act of faith, that extended education was valuable and that staying on at school was the best way to get it.
But our study of four comprehensive schools, which was preceded by visits to a wide spread of English schools, confirms that another rationale underlies this enthusiasm - schools' self-interest. 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.
Many students had absorbed their schools' strong and unambiguous message:
"Don't be stupid enough to leave at 16." Students often put it simply: "I'll get a better job if I stay on." Others answered with a single word when asked why they were staying on at school: "Money".
However, students were also sharply aware of their schools' economic motives. Many felt they were being manipulated. "They want to get bums on seats," one girl said.
A handful even identified a form of teacher bribery: "If enough of us stay on they have promised to set up a new media course we have been asking for."
With few exceptions, the schools got what they wanted - a post-16 group of committed students, working for predominantly academic qualifications and well supported by their homes. Overall, this accounted or less than half of the 16-plus group. In the process, virtually all the disaffected, the trouble-makers, the unmotivated and the low achievers quietly disappeared.
The desired result was achieved by a two-fold process - guidance and curriculum. When asked "What would lead you to discourage a student from staying on at 16?" teachers produced a long list topped by pregnancy. Truancy, lack of motivation and a range of unwanted behaviours - some of which had already led to exclusion - were also mentioned.
African-Caribbean-British boys were more frequently thought to display these traits, although teachers emphasised that they were "not the only ones". Social class was referred to more obliquely - "What can you expect from a family like that?"
But school guidance was crucially reinforced by curriculum. Most teachers agreed that "traditional" academic subjects were the best choice. The old advice that success in English, maths and science "really proves your capability" is now being supplemented by the argument that these subjects make it easier to gain a university place and a job.
For the students, however, one of the main attractions of FE - apart from the promise of freedom - was the curriculum. Media studies, business studies, child care, leisure studies, pre-nursing studies; all these were frequently frowned upon by schoolteachers. "I want to take IT and graphic design but the school wants me to do A-level French and history" was a typical comment.
Overall, the outcome was consistent - students from the upper end of the social spectrum tended to stay on at school to study "traditional" A-levels, while those at the lower end tended to find their own way into FE, employment, or simply disappeared from the screen. The fault line at 16 is so fundamental that most students who enter FE have to be recruited to education all over again at formidable cost and often with only modest success.
The unavoidable conclusion is that equality of provision does not deliver social equality of opportunity. The prevailing tradition of schools, the gulf between schools and FE and the substantially unchallenged social system make sure that it does not.
Staying on at school - the hidden curriculum of selection is being published by Trentham Books, Stoke-on-Trent ST4 5NP, available, priced pound;5.95, from mid-March.John Eggleston is emeritus professor of education at Warwick University. Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries of no more than 750 words to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68
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