'Seize this chance to end snobbery towards FE'

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It’s about time to crack open the champagne. At long last, the government is prepared to get tough on the “outdated snobbery” towards further education.

Yes, ministers this week announced that they will be introducing a law that compels schools to “collaborate with colleges, university technical colleges and other training providers to ensure that young people are aware of all the routes to higher skills and the workplace, including higher and degree apprenticeships”.

According to the announcement, the new legislation (coming in at the unspecified “earliest opportunity”) will see staff from apprenticeship providers and colleges visiting students from early secondary phase onwards to explain the full range of non-academic career pathways.

This, the Department for Education insists, will end the "'second-class' perception of technical and professional education”, which has led to some schools being unwilling to recommend it for “any but the lowest-achieving pupils”.

Since I started writing about FE in 2010, I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve heard (and written) about this issue. Stories about colleges being denied access to schools, almost always those with their own sixth form and keen to keep hold of students (and funding) for themselves. Stories about the proportion of young people who have never heard of an apprenticeship. Stories about headteachers’ “moral duty” to keep young people out of the clutches of colleges and on the A-level route.

All the while, the government line on the issue has been somewhat spineless. While there has been an acknowledgement that there was a problem with schools failing to welcome competitors, doing something about it was another matter. Back in 2011, even John Hayes, the skills minister at the time and arguably the most passionate political advocate for FE in recent memory, told me that headteachers “know best” when it came to allowing FE providers access to students (in the same way that travel firms “know best” when putting up prices for half-term, one assumes).

One of the most intriguing policy shifts under the majority Tory government has been the tacit acknowledgement that letting the market decide doesn’t always work. Back in September, in area reviews guidance, was the groundbreaking admission that small school sixth forms often duplicated college provision, and were often worse and more expensive – a far cry from the days of Michael Gove, when competition was seen as the panacea for all our ills. Similarly, the introduction of an apprenticeship levy – effectively a tax on businesses to pay for training – amounts to what must be the most un-Tory FE policy in recent times. And this week, we learned that public sector bodies will be required to ensure at least 2.3 per cent of new hires are apprentices.

It’s remarkable how the fear of failing to satisfy an ill-advised public pledge (the 3 million apprenticeships target) can prompt politicians to act.

And the promise to get tough on schools that fail to place apprenticeships and technical education on as gilded a pedestal as that traditionally reserved for university marks just as significant a transition. Of course, giving equal access to all kinds of post-16 education and training does not amount to the end of competition; it simply makes the fight a fairer one.

But, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Exactly what will schools be obliged to do to meet this new legal requirement? And what sanctions will they face should they not comply with it? Without the threat of strong action, this much-needed policy will be doomed to failure.

At long last, the government is saying the right things about FE. Let’s hope that as well as talking the talk, ministers make the tough decisions and walk the walk.

This is an article from the 29 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen is TES' Further Education Editor. He has worked at TES since 2010, and was previously the education correspondent at the Cambridge News. He was the winner of the award for Outstanding National Education Journalism at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards in 2015 and 2013.