Flexibility must be a priority in the future of post-16 education, says Chris Hughes.
It is that time of year again. Not birds flying south or the media frenzy over party conferences; I refer to something much closer to home.
A few weeks ago, thousands of teenagers visited a college for the first time. For many, choosing to go to college is the most important decision they have ever made, and they must now manage their own workloads and show restraint in face of other attractions.
At present, 16-years-olds have limited choices on what to do until they reach the age of 19. They may join a training scheme, go to a college, stay at school or get a job. But are these the right options? Or is it time to rethink them?
Education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds is a priority for the Government, which wants greater participation and higher standards. But there are separate plans for 16 to 19-year-olds and adults under the Learning and Skills Council. This would have amounted to heresy in the days of "comprehensive" tertiary colleges. Not any more.
First, there is the economy. Teenagers can no longer expect to walk into a job for life. They will end up working in a hi-tech world in jobs that don't even exist now. They will need transferable skills and a desire to upgrade them.
Second, Government policy for the 16-19 curriculum encourages breadth and rigor, and the rise in the number of teenagers working part-time to pay for post-16 education will require them to learn more flexibly.
Third, what about the curriculum? Just as we roll out Curriculum 2000, up pops a seventh key skill: citizenship. We at Feda are keen to support this policy - preferably without using my old Banda worksheets from 1972. We will need to assess the impact of vocational A-levls and reformed modern apprenticeships. All being well, attention will also be given to the often neglected levels 1 amp; 2 and issues of progression.
The challenge for the 16-19 phase is to offer excellence, regardless of level or route. With the Secretary of State's announcement that 1,000 specialist schools will be created in the next few years, added to the local authority's powers to create new 16-19 learning centres, we may see interesting developments in this sub-sector.
But will we see collaboration between providers and networked institutions that allow learners the flexibility to move freely between them? This would be one way to ensure the best mixture of vocational and academic study. Institutions may remain static and the teenagers would be mobile, maybe enrolling with several providers.
Niche institutions that cater for a particular type of teenager could emerge. Colleges could focus on their strengths - still offering a range of courses but with a specialism. By working in partnership with businesses, provision could reflect the needs of the local economy. Specialist colleges could work with providers to offer a more comprehensive range of courses, while it would be up to the local skills council to ensure that a full range of opportunities is made available in a given area. The Act provides for "proper facilities" for 16-19 education. But what form will these facilities take in future?
Sixth-form colleges are seen as a success and are much favoured in Downing Street and elsewhere. Their status reflects their high performance and level of focus. I believe they represent the start of a process in which all colleges need a clear and distinctive purpose.
Chris Hughes is chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency