Swords are drawn as sectors do battle over post-16s

Schools are accused of desperate measures to keep pupils out of FE

Secondary school pupils are sleepwalking into A-level courses, seemingly unaware of the other post-16 options open to them and hampered by a lack of information.

This is the finding of a new study, commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC) and published this week, which attributes these problems to a benign neglect caused by poor careers advice and widespread ignorance among students about the qualifications available to them in the FE sector.

However, a commission set up to investigate educational discrepancies in one inner-London borough also published its findings this week. These suggest that something altogether more sinister may be afoot: colleges and learning providers are being deliberately shunned by schools keen to keep their learners for themselves.

The lengths schools are going to in order to keep hold of their students verge on the ridiculous. The Camden Education Commission's interim report relates tales of colleges and FE providers being "excluded from careers fairs", "refused the opportunity to give a careers talk" and even "being asked not to send course literature".

But if tales of a brochure ban by paranoid headteachers sound faintly ludicrous, the consequences are serious: the uptake of apprenticeships in Camden stands at just 50 per cent of the London average. While Camden Council believes that more young people would benefit from taking vocational or work-based options post-16, it appears that schools in the borough do not agree. As the interim report by the commission - which includes former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson - concludes, the issue needs to be resolved "as a matter of urgency".

"Other than a core group of schools who work with us on a regular basis, it's pretty difficult," admits Andy Wilson, principal of Camden-based Westminster Kingsway College. "Many of the schools are not particularly receptive to Westminster Kingsway. It's deeply competitive for sixth-formers in London. Because schools with sixth-forms want to keep their good A-level students, there is a danger other options are getting left behind. There is a good advice service for the most able students, and for the least able ones, such as those with special educational needs. But the group in the middle, who would struggle with A-levels, are being forgotten."

And it is the students who would benefit most that seem to be largely unaware of alternative options to the academic route. Just 7 per cent of Year 10 pupils managed to identify apprenticeships as a post-GCSE qualification, according to the AoC report, which was released on Monday to mark the start of Colleges Week. Just 3 per cent of students were able to name foundation learning courses, while 9 per cent identified diplomas, 19 per cent BTECs and 26 per cent GNVQs - findings which Mr Wilson described as "very disturbing". In contrast, the most frequently identified option was A-levels, given by 63 per cent of the 500 14-year-olds who were surveyed.

"Pupils are having to make serious decisions without enough information," said AoC director of education policy Joy Mercer. "These findings show that parents have a hugely important role in helping their children to fully understand all of their options, and suggest that guaranteed face-to-face guidance from an independent source would be preferable to asking schools and academies to be the primary source of advice."

Yet, despite not being aware of the full range of options available to them, more than two-thirds of pupils said they were confident they were making the right choices for their future. If their schools continue to keep them in the dark, perhaps that isn't so surprising.

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