College links need a boost
A report published last week by the Executive's lifelong learning department delivered this blunt verdict, while independent research commissioned by the same department found that pupils who had gone to college had "typically enjoyed the experience".
Both reports identified funding as an issue that needs to be resolved if the initiative is to take off. Ministers are conducting a review of school-college links with the aim of issuing their strategy next April for implementation from the 2005-06 academic year.
Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister, welcomed the confirmation about pupils' positive views of college, adding: "Colleges have a key role in developing the skills of school pupils and adult learners alike."
But the report on the management of school-college partnerships, carried out by Linzie Wood of the lifelong learning department, warned: "A common concern is that expanding the numbers of school pupils within college will deter adult learners and ultimately decrease the benefits for pupils who attend.
"There is a need to ensure that suitable pupils are selected and that a balance of age ranges is maintained."
Ms Wood notes that the selection of S3 and S4 pupils to go on college courses can often be random. Some schools, however, are now changing their approach and allowing pupils to "opt in" based on timetable options.
While this self-selection process means that pupils are able to choose vocational options in a positive way as part of the mainstream curriculum, rather than just being encouraged to attend by their teachers, Ms Wood strikes a note of caution. "There are concerns that increasing awareness of college options among pupils will increase demand to the extent that colleges are no longer able to meet it.
"It was often argued that recruitment of many more pupils could not be done without a substantial increase in cash."
One college has reported operating at a deficit due to the increasing costs of taking in pupils and has asked schools to absorb some of these additional costs.
Mr Wallace believes that the outcome of the spending review, which will see the allocation for FE rise from pound;474 million this year to pound;619 million by 2007-08, will satisfy demands.
Both reports, however, underline the varied nature of practice across the country - with or without additional funding.
The report on pupils' experiences, evaluated by Carole Millar Research, found that opportunities to attend college while still at school were not consistent: some schools encouraged entry as early as S2, but others confined it to S5-S6.
Ms Wood's report suggested that pupil background might be a factor, with schools in more affluent areas less likely to develop vocational links in S3 and S4 "for fear of unnecessary disruption to the Standard grade curriculum".
There remains a need to expound the benefits of vocational options so they are not seen as suitable only for less academic pupils, she says.
Ms Wood's research also pointed to the need for greater coherence, particularly "the lack of consistency in terms of the management of collaboration".
She backs a more systematic approach to funding, timetabling and staffing.
Support for pupils in college can also vary, although this depended on how much information schools provided on individual pupils.
leader 22; Jotter 32 FE Focus 4