A sector still sold short by snobs - and schools
FE institutions have long struggled to shed the "Cinderella" sector label. While schools and universities hog the limelight, colleges all too often toil away without even an invitation to the ball.
Countless campaigns have been launched over the years in an attempt to raise the profile and prestige of vocational learning, but according to new research their impact has been negligible: ignorance is still bedevilling the efforts of FE to gain a higher profile.
But according to a study released this week by the City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development (CSD), parents and, perhaps more shockingly, teachers do not know what is happening in colleges and so cannot advise potential students about what is on offer.
"Outdated, negative perceptions about vocational education could be driving young people away from what could be the best choice for them," said CSD head Nick Grist. "Not enough is being done to educate parents - and even some teachers - about the benefits of vocational education."
For the most part, parents feel happy about advising their children: 60 per cent said they had no qualms about offering general advice on careers and employment.
But just 37 per cent of parents said they were confident to give information or advice about vocational qualifications. Not surprisingly, this appears to have a knock-on effect, with barely half of young people rating vocational qualifications highly, compared to 80 per cent who rated more traditional courses highly.
Worryingly for the FE sector, that trend is mirrored in the classroom. "Parents and teachers did not challenge young people's perceptions of vocational qualifications," the report says. "As a result, relatively few young people taking general qualifications had actively considered vocational options."
This is being exacerbated by the fact that some colleges are finding it increasingly difficult to promote their qualifications in schools. School sixth-forms are especially reluctant to risk losing their students - not to mention the associated funding - after they have finished their GCSEs by allowing rival institutions to advertise their courses.
"It's like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas," said Nick Moore, chairman of the board at Somerset College of Arts and Technology. "Nearly all of the schools are willing to work with us during the earlier stages, but it's when the students get up to 16, and it's a school with aspirations for setting up its own sixth-form, then it gets difficult. It's frustrating and it's something we're finding generally - schools are being less and less willing to co-operate."
The survey also found that snobbery played a role, with parents who went to university tending to have a more negative opinion of FE qualifications.
Of parents who left school with O-levels or GCSEs, 29 per cent said vocational routes would suit their child; among parents with a degree, this dropped to 21 per cent.
The situation was made worse by a lack of decent careers advice. The report said that just 42 per cent of young people found it easy to access good careers advice; 29 per cent said they found it difficult.
And those problems look set to deteriorate still further. With Connexions being cut across the country and schools set to assume responsibility for providing impartial advice themselves, careers services are becoming increasingly stretched.
"There are no funds transferring to schools for carrying out this duty, and there's no stick - Ofsted inspections will not look at careers advice, and there are no implications for school funding," said Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges. "What will the quality of advice be like if there's no money?"
More careers advice is expected to be dispensed online or over the phone, at the expense of face-to-face sessions, but Mr Grist says this will not fill the void. "Computer-generated life choices should never be seen as a substitute for a face- to-face conversation with a qualified career professional," Mr Grist said.
"It's not enough to hope that a remote telephone operator or website will be able to give them the personalised support they need, or that hard- pressed headteachers will be able to find space in their budgets for top- quality, face-to-face guidance services."
Perhaps most shocking of all is the stark statistic that a quarter of young people said they have never received careers advice from anyone.
Ministers may be vocal in their assertions about the importance and value of the FE sector, but it seems that the message about the wealth of opportunities it affords is not trickling down to the young people it needs to attract.
How would Cinderella have ever made it to the ball if she had never heard it was happening?
While 72 per cent of the parents - and 35 per cent of the young people - surveyed think work experience helps ease the transition to the world of work, the study found that placements often leave plenty to be desired.
"Young people told us that their work experience is limited, and that they're not being given much responsibility. Sadly, it seems that mind- numbing, shelf-stacking placements are still with us," said City amp; Guilds Centre for Skills Development head Nick Grist.
29% of young people find it difficult to access effective careers and learning guidance
60% of parents are confident giving advice on education and employment in general
37% are confident giving advice about vocational qualifications
56% of young people think vocational qualifications are high quality.