Rush to specialisation ignores the social cost

There are many advocates for more specialisation in education, none more persistent than this Government. A white paper in March demanded that every FE provider must "develop one or more areas of specialist excellence, which will become central to (its) mission and ethos" and in The TES (September 1) Nick Pearce, Institute for Public Policy Research director and former adviser to David Blunkett, argued that FE should separate adult learners from young people.

So, should FE lecturers expect to see their A-level students migrating to sixth-form centres? Or for the lion's share of local LSC funding to be prioritised to specific vocational areas? Both could occur, even if it does take longer for the mixed age population of colleges to separate. But whether FE should go down this path still needs to be assessed.

That only one general FE college was in this year's Times list of top A-level results by Ucas points may suggest that reform has not gone far enough to enable ambitious colleges, but under scrutiny a different picture appears. Rather than adopt Tomlinson's proposals, which would have led to greater parity between more vocational and academic courses through a universal diploma model, the Government seems bent on pushing the status divide further.

As long as two distinct qualifications exist and FE colleges are mostly vocational and sixth-forms largely academic, the former will be hard-pressed to gain the same recognition, particularly given the status afforded to progress to university.

Ministers can persuade themselves that with private money and greater freedom from LEAs, state schools can become as good as fee-paying, yet none are willing to admit that the increasing divide between the richest and poorest reveals itself in students' choices of course. FE provides post-16 years education for the lower end of Brown's economy.

Given the differing long-term objectives of courses, it surprises nobody in FE that the tariff for vocational qualifications makes achieving high UCAS points difficult. Yet rather than accept the worth of both achievements, the Government, by removing academic courses from FE, may be seeking to obscure its failure to provide equal opportunities. If no academic courses are provided by FE, the argument might go, why put them on Ucas points tables?

Every course is equal in Blair's world, it seems - it's just that some are more equal than others.

Although FE colleges will be unlikely to accept specialisation without the benefits afforded to specialist schools, they may have little say. Despite scant evidence of greater success in sixth-form than FE colleges, the Government continues to encourage more of the former. This will allow specialisation to emerge as if by choice because only students who choose vocational options will need to go to an FE college. And while funding for sixth-form students is higher, they would be wise to stay put.

But what about the cost of social cohesion if this occurs? A report on specialist schools from the RISE Trust (Research and Information on State Education), published in February, cites research that says, because of specialist status, secondary schools have become more socially segregated since 1997. Comments that the majority of these schools are in deprived areas simply fails to confront reality.

So, why aren't the excellent pass rates of Btec and GNVQ students celebrated? Because underpinning this is a social snobbery that fails to admit the value to the community of happy, college-educated chefs, builders, plumbers, IT technicians and all the myriad careers which FE students pursue.

Nigel Newton is a lecturer and educational researcher at New College, Swindon

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