Tories set tone with remix of FE and schools

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thompson

With the possible exception of the odd Boris Johnson speech and Michael Fabricant's hair the Conservative party does not normally do surreal. It especially does not do surreal in the education sector, prefering traditional Tory comfort food like grammar schools and lambasting "Mickey Mouse" degrees.

So, this week's proposals on technical schools, academies and apprenticeships (page 1) were a bit like finding bacon and egg ice-cream and snail porridge on the menu in the college canteen.

Colleges, they said, would be allowed to recruit full-time students from age 14 and start their own technical schools, while schools could offer apprenticeships in partnership with employers. For a moment it seemed like they might go on to say girls will be boys and boys will be girls. For education under a future Conservative government certainly promises to be a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.

But do the proposals make sense? Many in further education seem to think so. Colleges have long been covetous of the 14-16 agenda and for good reason.

Vocational education is often seen as second best to its academic sibling because it's mainly what people do when they fail to get good enough GCSEs aged 16 to put them on the academic track. But allowing colleges to offer integrated vocational education from 14 years onwards promises to repackage it as a viable option for all young people, rather than the only path available to some.

Such a change could be a shot in the arm for 14-19 Diplomas by allowing colleges, which have long argued that they are better placed than most schools to deliver these vocational qualifications, to compete in a market that is currently partially off limits.

The Conservative proposals also promise to lend greater weight to the Institute for Learning's campaign (pages 4-5) to make it easier for further education lecturers to teach in schools. It makes sense to irrigate the new landscape using the vocational expertise pooled in FE.

As Dame Ruth Silver says, it is time to look afresh at the way we break up post-primary education. The raising of the school leaving age to 18 makes a nonsense of the current break at 16. By then it is really too late in the day to expect people to jump from an academic to a vocational curriculum.

More fundamentally, creating an educational break at 14 allows for better integration of the academic and vocational streams. That is an interesting prospect.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus

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