Sir Ron Dearing's plan to let pupils attend college from 14 could curb education and training drop-out rates . Lucy Ward reports
Principals have welcomed Sir Ron Dearing's proposals to allow 14-year-olds spend time at college which could stop teenagers slipping through the education and training net.
The latest draft of the report by Sir Ron, the Government's chief education advisor, on 16-19 education proposes liberalising the system of tertiary education. It suggests more sharing of pupils post 14 between schools and colleges, backed by planned work experience.
The suggestion was warmly welcomed by the principal of one college already leading the field in accepting pre-16s. Jenny Shackleton, of Wirral College, where more than 600 14 and 15-year-olds are set to enrol by the end of this academic year, said: "I look on this very positively, providing it is worked out on a partnership basis. I would not want to see colleges set against schools, and I can think of nothing worse than applying market-place competition to what is really quite a disturbing matter."
Wirral is in the vanguard of a growing number of colleges offering programmes for pre-16 pupils as a longer-term means of tackling high drop-out rates among older teenagers. It is one of the models Sir Ron is considering. Arrangements are usually made with local schools who release potential young drop-outs for a day or half-day a week, or with pupil referral units, who send permanently excluded pupils on full-time programmes.
"These kind of link arrangements depend on the support of the schools, and we would want to see that continue," said Ms Shackleton. The college would also aim to bring in the local education authority and training and enterprise councils as well as youngsters and parents themselves in any broadening of pre-16 provision.
Manchester College of Art and Technology is setting up sixth forms in three local schools to help boost slumped staying-on rates. Deputy principal Alan Tavernor said: "We are already strongly involved in the 14 to 19 curriculum through the support we give schools with general national vocational qualifications. Stronger links can only help improve retention at 14 and ensure progression later."
Dr Alan Chitty, principal of Bournemouth and Poole College - another institution with a substantial programme in place for disaffected under-16s - also called for strong partnerships with schools to underpin changes along the lines of the Dearing proposals.
"Dealing with that age group involves a different sort of expertise which all colleges don't necessarily have at the moment. I would want to see a formally planned system bringing in all institutions and agencies, and not some kind of ad hoc approach."
At City College, Manchester, which also takes some pre-16s, principal David Gibson favours maintaining some restrictions on pupils transferring at 14. "If you just said colleges are now open to anybody at 14 it would be chaotic. We need to look at certain young people who might benefit from the college environment, and at those who wanted to take particular vocational courses they had no chance of doing in school."
An influx of younger students would have an inevitable impact on the culture of colleges, particularly general further education institutions, whose student bodies are weighted far more towards adults than teenagers. But principals are divided over how the younger age group might be accommodated.
Ms Shackleton envisages some form of "junior college" with a tightly-controlled curriculum and specially-supported staff, operating within the main institution.
At Bournemouth, Dr Chitty suggests "annexing" younger students would run counter to the spirit of colleges. Under-16s would have different learning needs, probably involving attending more classes and making less use of open learning than older students, he admits.
Experience of dealing with under-16s has convinced colleges they could cope with the pastoral responsibilities towards younger teenagers. "Colleges have proved they are able to cope with students with special needs. I think our pastoral success is much underrated," said Dr Chitty.