Flexible options at 14 are reinforcing class, race and gender stereotypes, writes Kathryn Ecclestone
One optimistic spin Sir Michael Tomlinson put on the Government's decision to ignore many of his proposals for 14-19 reform was that changes would come anyway. Schools and colleges, he said, were already making the timetable more flexible for teenagers.
The first national initiative to establish formal links between schools and FE colleges was the Department for Education and Skills' increased flexibility programme, which began in 2004. Costing pound;120 million in their first year, the 269 IFP partnerships offered pupils day-release vocational options and basic skills classes. Some colleges now have more than 1,000 school pupils attending courses every week. The aim is for 240,000 young people to be in the scheme by 2013.
These partnerships mirror attempts in the 1980s to integrate vocational and general subjects and broaden options - but current arrangements show worrying differences from earlier initiatives.
Recent research from the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Learning and Skills Development Agency shows that most schools and students in the scheme have lower than average attainment. Some IFPs are combining their goals and activities with schemes for pupils excluded from school.
One effect is a tide of well-meant but patronising labels about pupils deemed to benefit from dropping large chunks of school education - labels such as "at risk", "fragile learning identities", "low-ability students", "low self-esteemers", and young people without a "positive attitude to school". For all these, read "working class" and "dunce" as a sub-text.
Many school and college teachers and managers in IFPs also paint a picture of disaffected and disruptive 14-year-olds.
Associating vocational education with such negative images of an underclass demolishes any hope that it might ever gain equal status with general education.
"Flexible" options at 14 appear to be reinforcing gender, race and class stereotypes, directing less advantaged social groups into "suitable"
vocational routes such as health and social care, hairdressing or motor vehicle maintenance. In fact, progression routes for such groups are narrower and more predictable than at any time in the past 30 years.
And the rush to keep 14-year-olds in the system at any cost is leading to the conflation of "vocational" with practical, sometimes trivial activities. Sometimes vocational just means there is no "boring" writing, or that students can come and go as they please, or work with their friends.
Many options in IFPs contain no meaningful learning or useful assessment.
In one college, health and social care students spent a day designing a health and fitness programme for themselves, using a quiz from a women's magazine, supervised by a tutor with no training in diet, nutrition or teaching. Diverting? Probably. Educationally challenging and inspiring? Not really.
It is no surprise that young people who do not like school, or have been labelled as "fragile", or worse, like these options. Research by NFER and the Teaching and Learning research programme, as part of work on learning cultures in FE colleges, shows that 14-year-olds value being able to dress how they want, being treated like adults and doing activities that get them away from "boring" writing which are like "real-life". Supporters of the IFP highlight improvements in behaviour, confidence and self-esteem.
Praise from young people resonates well with New Labour's soundbites such as "choice and voice" and "listening to learners". But these make it almost impossible to question whether 14-year-olds are the best judges of education they should have, and whether the options that get them out of school are at all useful. It seems that "engagement" of pupils is now seen as more important than what is learned.
We need to question these attempts to keep young people in the system at any cost. Not least, we must try, yet again, to stop vocational education being equated with any activity that "engages" low-achieving students. A first step is to resist the growing list of labels about young people who don't like school or who are difficult to teach.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that there is no consensus about what counts as broad, interesting and useful education for 14 to 19-year-olds, let alone what counts as a worthwhile vocational route. One of the biggest lost opportunities of Tomlinson was its failure to consider what should be in the curriculum for this age group. Dumbed-down meanings of what counts as "vocational" is one result of this oversight.
If IFPs mark the start of less demanding education for some 14-year-olds, outcomes are likely to become more segregated than at any time since comprehensives were introduced. Without a serious debate about what 14-19 education should consist of, the result will be a diminished curriculum of functional skills and personal development for those deemed incapable of anything else.
Kathryn Ecclestone is a reader in assessment for lifelong learning at the University of Nottingham