The big policy that no one is talking about

4th January 2013 at 00:00
It is far from clear whether anyone is ready for 14-year-olds to arrive in FE colleges, says former Blair adviser Matthew Taylor

There is only a weak correlation between the publicity sought and gained for a policy announcement and the impact made by that policy. Thus far, there has been relatively little coverage of an announcement that could have major implications for the pattern of secondary schooling. In a letter to two college principals at the end of last year, skills minister Matthew Hancock said that, from next year, FE colleges that met certain, relatively permissive, criteria would be free to admit 14- to 16-year-olds.

Overall, this is surely a good thing. It offers pupils - particularly those least engaged in a traditional academic curriculum - the opportunity to attend institutions that may better suit their needs and that tend to have stronger connections to the world of work. It could also be an important step towards a shift in the way we think about the stages of education, so that the 11-14 stage focuses on universal core academic and other competencies, while the 14-19 stage is much more orientated towards the educational and vocational routes chosen by young people. In turn this might lead to a gradual, and surely welcome, reduction in the obsessive focus on GCSE scores at 16.

While one might hope that the way this new opportunity develops would reflect the choices and best interests of young people, in reality local factors and organisational incentives will probably be the determining factors.

In relation to the former, the key issue will be whether there is an FE college that meets the Hancock criteria in the vicinity. But as nearly 300 colleges (almost all of them) currently make the grade, it will be organisational interest that most mediates the opening of new options for young people.

There are two key incentives to consider. Intriguingly, they point in opposite directions.

On one hand, the kinds of pupils who might be most attracted to FE may also be the ones least likely to meet the five A*-C or English Baccalaureate benchmark, so schools may see offloading these pupils as a way of improving their scores and league table positions. This perverse incentive would not be so strong if the focus of school evaluation and accountability was on three levels of progression, but regrettably the government seems to be de-emphasising this measure.

On the other hand, schools and school leaders generally see their size as a symbol of status and success and might not want to see those pupils who have a choice voting with their feet at the end of Year 9. Furthermore, the pupils most likely to take the FE option are more likely to attract the pupil premium, which makes them sought after by both schools and colleges.

As shadow education minister Karen Buck has warned, this potentially radical shift needs to be carefully planned and overseen. Two factors may confirm Buck's fears. First is the ambiguity and confusion over the educational role of the only bodies that have the span and legitimacy to take on the task of coordination: local authorities. Second is the evidence that the devolving of careers advice to schools has - predictably - led to a decline in spending. It must also be assumed that the advice is less independent and more driven by the school's self-interest.

Extended participation

Of course, this change will coincide with the raising of the participation age (RPA), another quietly introduced policy that focuses attention on the 14-19 phase and, in particular, on the minority of young people who currently disengage at 16. By all accounts, schools and local authorities are at varying degrees of preparedness for this, which is of concern because RPA will have a significant impact on their operation and practice. For example, schools will not only have to develop or procure independent and comprehensive careers guidance for their 14- to 16-year-olds; they will also be subject to new measures that assess the quality of this provision, the extent to which they are raising awareness of RPA among their most vulnerable pupils, and how these young people perform post-16 after RPA.

For FE colleges and sixth forms, the current guidance only obliges them to inform local authority support services if a 16- or 17-year-old has dropped out of learning, although one imagines that will have to change if they are responsible for the 14- to 16-year-old recruits proposed by Hancock.

At the RSA, we are preparing to launch an inquiry into RPA, exploring its possible consequences, intended and unintended, and developing recommendations about how this significant change can achieve the optimum outcomes for young people. For example, how can the most vulnerable young people's engagement be sustained? What skills and attributes should all young people have the opportunity to develop? What experiences and opportunities do they need to do so?

A lot has changed in 14-19 policy since the introduction of RPA in Labour's Education and Skills Act 2008, not least the abandonment of diplomas, but very little appears to be joined up, contingent or relational. It is more vital now than ever that central and local government, schools, colleges and independent careers advisers make this change work for young people and don't allow it to be scuppered by poor planning or systemic failings. No education debate can ever be truly depoliticised, but this is one issue where a genuine cross-party, long-term consensus is badly needed.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), and a former adviser to Tony Blair.

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