Schools and colleges should be forced to work together and coordinate their provision to ensure all learners are adequately catered for, Ofsted’s national director for FE and skills has claimed.
In the watchdog’s annual FE and skills lecture in London this morning, Lorna Fitzjohn called for greater focus on helping 18- to 24-year-olds stay in education or employment, and hit out at “weak” careers advice and inconsistent implementation of 16-19 study programmes.
She also criticised the “lack of definitive data” on how many young people are not in education, employment or training (NEET), citing the example of Worcestershire, where the status of 40 per cent of young people was classed as “unknown”.
In an exclusive interview with TES, Ms Fitzjohn called for greater collaboration between FE providers and schools, particularly academy chains, both in terms of sharing data on learners and coordinating provision. She also suggested that local enterprise partnerships and business leaders could act as intermediaries to ensure that the provision in their local area reflected employment opportunities available.
“Someone has to be responsible for making sure there is a cohesive provision… a little bit of competition is good, but not a competitive environment where everyone’s struggling to fill an A-level class because everyone’s offering it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. Why doesn’t the best one offer it?”
The message appears to contradict the prevailing attitude of the Coalition government, which has been keen to encourage schools to open sixth forms, with the aim of driving up standards through competition.
Colleges have long complained that schools receive preferential financial treatment, as they are able to cross-subsidise their post-16 provision with funding for younger age groups. FE providers have also repeatedly claimed that they are being denied access to students by competitor schools.
Ms Fitzjohn conceded that reversing the trend “won’t be easy”. “I think left to their own devices, it perhaps won’t happen. But if you’ve got someone holding them to account, [it could]. Where are the local enterprise partnerships? Where are those sorts of people? Where’s the chamber of commerce, these other people who have got a broader view of the local economy? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have some conversations with all of those people?”
She also revealed that the watchdog was considering carrying out reviews of all 14-19 provision in local areas, and suggested it could give more prominence in inspections to how well further education provision and curricula were tailored to the local labour market to reduce the number of NEETs.
“We’ve certainly been talking to the sector about that; you will see clearly judgements there, perhaps even more so, about the quality of the curriculum,” she added.
The survey of study programmes, also published today, found that “too many” providers were “not ensuring the programmes meet the needs of learners”, while “too much teaching of English and mathematics [was] not good enough”. The report also warned that too few learners progressed to further learning or employment, while careers guidance in many schools was described as “weak and not giving learners a clear idea of the paths available to them”.
Ms Fitzjohn also called for local authorities to be given legal powers to ensure all schools and FE providers provide full information on all learners who drop out of education. This was welcomed by Kirstie Donnelly, UK managing director of the City & Guilds awarding body.
“Ofsted is right to urge local authorities to more effectively monitor the status of learners in FE colleges,” she said. “The prospect of a postcode lottery in terms of available FE opportunities is immensely worrying, and proper destination data is vital if we are to ensure gaps in provision are filled.”
Nigel Whitehead, commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, also backed the calls for closer cooperation between schools, FE providers and employers. “We need to break down the divide between education and employment and set out clear expectations of the role businesses and educators should be playing, alongside examples of where it’s working well,” he said.
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