The White Paper calls for more school-college collaborations. Nothing new in that, except that perhaps this time they are more likely to succeed. Ian Nash reports
Every week, up to 1,400 schoolchildren as young as 14 sling rucksacks over their shoulders and trudge off for further education at Sheffield College.
Some go to improve their basic skills, others to pursue programmes of excellence such as arts and music. A minority are deeply disaffected with school. All benefit from costly resources beyond the reach of most individual schools.
Education Secretary Estelle Morris plans to turn such collaborative schemes into a nationwide surge of activities based on co-operation between schools and colleges. It's a simple tenet: if pupils are better motivated and catered for beyond the school gates, let them go.
Under proposals in the White Paper, Schools Achieving Success, pound;38 million will be earmarked next year to give 40,000 14 to 16-year-olds work placements. In most cases, they will study at a college or with a training provider for one or two days a week.
Time is freed up by cutting the key stage 4 national curriculum to the core - English, maths, IT and science - and there are new opportunities to gain worthwhile qualifications. The White Paper even cites evidence of advantages: "Early pilots have shown real benefits, including improved attainment and motivation."
So, what's new? It all has a familiar ring. But for a series of ill-conceived policies in the mid-90s, this vast section of the White Paper would be redundant.
Government figures show that in 1995-96, at least 53,000 pupils in England were in college - many of them full-time (see table). So rapid was the growth, that colleges and education authorities believed the surge was unstoppable.
But they were wrong. Suspicions had been roused and the Further Education Funding Council - responsible only for post-16 non-school funding - put the brakes on. Such spending, it claimed, was an illegal subsidy to education authorities. Franchise deals, with colleges from Carshalton in south London to North Derbyshire supporting sixth-forms, were scuppered.
Coincidentally, LEAs - concerned about drop-outs and truancy - put pressure on schools to tighten up on monitoring attendance. Schools in turn resisted pressures to publicise FE college opportunities to GCSE students. Collaborative schemes tumbled.
A Maginot Line had been created between schools and colleges in 1992 when FE was removed from LEA control. By 1996, even the then education secretary Gillian Shephard was powerless to breach it.
In May that year, she faced a hostile annual conference of the Secondary Heads Association. Mixed with her revivalist call for selection was a proposal to free 14-year-olds from school for part-time work-related study and college - echoing Sir Ron Dearing's review.
Both policies withered on a rotting Tory policy vine, whose only fruit would be a rout in the 1997 general election. By 2000, there were fewer than 27,000 under-16s in college - a fall of 50 per cent in five years.
For many frustrated teachers in schools and colleges, Labour has wasted five years and woken belatedly to the real potential of post-14 collaboration. For them, the 40,000 school-to-college target is very moderate.
But this time around there are big differences in mood and attitude. In the 1990s there were fears that colleges would become "dumping grounds" for disaffected pupils, who would judge themselves second-rate. School heads privately admitted blackmailing parents: "Get that 15-year-old into college or we exclude him."
Parents and lecturer unions said college staff were not in loco parentis and did not share the duties of teachers; besides many lecturers had no teacher training. School inspectors also said that too few pupils were completing college qualifications.
Whether or not the fears were founded, they missed the point. In colleges such as Sheffield and Wirral Metropolitan - with 600 under-16s - kids who played up at school were often no trouble in an environment that suited them. Despite global decline in collaboration, many schools and colleges went quietly about their shared initiatives.
Following the successful pilot of the Government's Excellence in Cities initiative, thousands of "gifted and talented" 14 to 19-year-olds, from Exeter to Sheffield go to college this year for special tuition in courses from IT to the performing arts.
A new survey on school-college collaboration by the Association of Colleges shows considerable success over the past four years. Pressures of Curriculum 2000 and the failure of small sixth forms to provide breadth are making people think.
Initiatives among the 100 rural and inner-city colleges include shared timetabling, common approaches to staff development and production of learning materials. In one county town, six out of 10 16-year-olds attend both school and college.
Labour can take some credit - its local lifelong learning partnerships and education action zones have fostered new links. Taster courses and new modular studies give 14 and 15-year-olds partial credits towards post-16 qualifications - a powerful incentive to stay on.
In short, the AOC survey underlines the fact that the Government is pushing at a wide-open door. Where the curriculum meets individual student needs and staff share the same commitments towards common goals, success is most likely.
However, there are pitfalls. Competition in areas with unviable sixth-forms, inadequate funds and culture clash between schools and colleges can wreck the best efforts.
Julian Gravatt, director of finance at the City Lit, has been a close observer of the rise and fall of collaborative schemes. He has a warning for Ms Morrisagainst any tendency to centralise.
"Sixteen to 19 reorganisation is something LEAs used to do in the 1980s, until the weight of opposition in defence of school sixth forms caused the then Tory-led Department of Education and Science to veto proposals."
The first round of consultations on the paper suggest Ms Morris will strengthen her right of veto. She should use it cautiously.
The Tories allowed schools to set up sixth forms despite repeated opposition from the FEFC. "This is one reason why 16-19 provision is such a shambles," says Mr Gravatt.
Meanwhile, Sheffield has sustained a remarkable joint programme on just pound;250,000 in well-targeted cash. Henry Hui, project manager, said one simple principle must prevail: "It must be an entitlement for all, not just the lower abilities."
If we fail, an education secretary will end up reinventing the wheel in another five years.