FEfocus Editorial - The right to choose will set FE free
Times change. When the Government first tried to encourage 14-year- olds to attend college, some resisted. Lecturers feared their work environment would become "like Grange Hill", a scenario which conjures up anything from the sausage theft in its Eighties opening titles to heroin addiction. One college even gave its young students special uniforms so they could be picked out in a crowd in case of trouble, perhaps like inmates of Guantanamo Bay.
Now the complaint is that the numbers of under-16s in FE is falling (page 3). Labour's hope of 250,000 college attendees below the age of 16 by 2013 looks a long way off, with just 73,000 in the latest figures. Government is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't, it may seem.
But there need not be any real contradiction. The concern was that schools would offload their unteachables on colleges. By offering college as an option for all, it restores FE to its natural role as a study environment of choice.
Even for the students who were perhaps being dumped on colleges because they were obstructive or difficult at school, there was evidence that study in college helped. Ofsted noted pupils' positive response to the broader curriculum and said their personal development benefited from studying at a larger, more diverse institution.
An evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 82 per cent planned to stay in education or training, no small feat given that colleges had been landed with some of the most disillusioned students.
It should not be that much of a surprise that students benefit even if they are dumped on a college. There is evidence that many 16-year-olds do not have much of an idea why they are attending in the first place, beyond a feeling that they did not like school, and they have to do something. It is always going to be hard for a teenager to envisage what their alternatives might be like, but many of them thrive once they have made the switch.
At the same time, schools are increasingly recognising that a menu of academic GCSEs will not suit everyone, and are either deviously pushing substandard qualifications to improve their league table standings, or offering students more appropriate courses which they are more likely to succeed in (or possibly a bit of both).
But no one argues seriously that vocational qualifications in college are worthless. And so if we are going to offer younger students vocational qualifications, it is right that they are also offered the vocational expertise of FE teachers, and the facilities of colleges. For some, a full-time place at college is likely to be the best option.
By commissioning the Wolf review, the Government is perhaps signalling that it is open to this. But its energies are currently elsewhere. The proliferation of free schools and university technical colleges in a market competing for students is likely to make schools jealously guard their pupils and the funding they bring with them.
At the moment, real choice for students is being substituted with something a bit like choosing between brands of supermarket cereal: different packaging, but more or less the same inside. School or college is a choice any 14-year-old will be able to understand, and it is one they should be given.