The Government's scheme to give pupils a taste of further education is a success but there is room for improvement, according to a report commissioned by ministers.
It says the increased flexibility programme (IFP) - where colleges admit 14 to 16-year-olds part-time - has improved exam results, rekindled their enthusiasm for education and contributed to one of the Government's key objectives for education, making sure as many people as possible stay in education or training after they leave school at 16.
The report, from the National Foundation for Educational Research, shows that using the programme more selectively and creating better communication between colleges and the schools they work with could improve the performance of IFP still further.
It makes several recommendations, to be considered by ministers.
Most colleges are involved in IFP, with 300 having introduced the scheme in association with secondary schools. Since the scheme was launched in 2002, 40,000 teenagers a year have signed up to the programme. According to the survey, most of those teenagers who took part said their experience of being taught by college lecturers had been positive, and contributed to them rethinking their after-school options.
But according to the NFER, one of the best-known research organisations in its field, the findings throw up some serious implications for the Government's policy towards IFP in future years.
While the programme is potentially available to all pupils who are vocationally inclined, the research suggests it is particularly effective with those in the lower ability range, suggesting colleges and schools could be more selective about who takes part.
The report says: "The evidence suggests there were particular outcome benefits for students with lower attainment at key stage 3. "This suggests that if such a programme is to be targeted at a sub-group of students within school, it may be worth considering targeting at the lower-attaining students who would potentially benefit more from the experience."
Researchers also found evidence that the programme was more effective in colleges that had fewer schools to liaise with. The more schools in the partnership, the less well the needs of the individual pupil were met.
This represents a dilemma for colleges, with geography largely dictating the number of schools taking part in IFP in their area.
"This may be related to the time required to liaise with, and co-ordinate provision with, a large number of schools," says the report.
"While this suggests that encouraging partnerships to work more effectively with a smaller number of schools may be worthwhile, this would need to be balanced by the need to continue to enable as many schools to participate as wish to do so."
Half of secondary schools and three-quarters of further education colleges in England are now involved in 14-16 partnerships.
The role of colleges in 14-16 education formed a central part of former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson's inquiry - which also called for an all-encompassing diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels.
Many colleges had already been admitting school pupils part-time before the increased flexibility was introduced, and some provide separate accommodation with purpose-built facilities.
Many principals, including Helen Gilchrist, of Bury College, have been anxious to promote IFP as a scheme which benefits all vocationally-inclined teenagers as well as those who are disaffected.
Colleges have expressed concerns about their ability to fund the programme as long as the funding gap with schools remains in place.
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