Ungainly teenager fails to engage

18th March 2005 at 00:00
The white paper on 14-19 looks like an awkward adolescent, but FE will nurture its potential, writes Ruth Silver

The 14-19 white paper is an uncomfortable read. First, there are the awkward acclamations of the Tomlinson report in a paper that lays waste to that vision. Second, there is the hovering spectre of the secondary modern.

Third, the document itself feels clumsy and unco-ordinated. Some parts are overgrown, some are underdeveloped, and they do not always fit well together. Tomlinson reflected the best of the young people. It was bold, inclusive and radical. These proposals, however, have more of the awkward, ungainly side of adolescence. The paper feels rather embarrassed to find itself here.

Take the issue of disengagement. The introduction clearly states that low participation is now the burning problem. Yet turning to the chapter on "vision", we find just one paragraph about disengagement. It is a rather thin paragraph that concludes: "... and we will seek to make sure that we develop options for the most disengaged young people which gradually draw them back into learning, with support." This sentence barely hangs together, either conceptually or in any other way.

Or look at the examples offered to illustrate the specialised diplomas.

Given the starting point - defence of A-levels and GCSEs - these were always going to be a bit of a hotchpotch. But here we have an attempt to use Tomlinson-type descriptors that absolutely fails to convince. In just two illustrative diplomas, both science and art and design are described first as main learning and again as core. How can this possibly illustrate a coherent proposal? It feels like the kind of ploy you use to pad out your coursework, trusting no one will do more than count the pages. There will, of course, be fewer opportunities for that under the improved, no-nonsense, tabloid-friendly assessment regime.

The paper can certainly talk big. It targets a 15 per cent increase in participation at 17 over the next decade. This means more than nine in every 10 of our young people will still be in education. In some ways, that is not so ambitious. We already rank 27th out of 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on this measure. How hard, the newer policy wonks must have thought, can it be? Half of our young people face this hurdle at 16 and walk away feeling like failures. The white paper leaves this system substantially intact. There will be those who achieve the general diploma and then there will be vocational learners.

In preserving "what is good", the Government has abandoned Tomlinson's attempt to fit the learning to the individual learner. The problem is not what is on offer but those who fail to find anything in the post-16 offer that hooks them in.

The white paper highlights three groups of people who drop out. These are young people in care, young offenders and teenage mothers. There is a scandalously high overlap among these groups. Teenagers in care are less than 1 per cent of their age group but they are a high proportion of those in custodial institutions and of under-18s with children. They deserve imaginative new routes into successful education. The white paper has almost nothing new to say on this. Of course, few of the one in four 17-year-olds who have dropped out of education are dealing with these very high-end problems. Other issues the paper refers to - drug use, for example - are simply too prevalent to be a useful descriptor.

This is well-trodden ground, much better charted by the Policy Action Team, the Social Exclusion Unit and Every Child Matters.

The paper lists the standard teenage troubles and an equally well-known set of government interventions. I do not question the value of education maintenance allowances and Connexions-type support. I know they can make a difference. But I also know that, without changing learning and qualifications, they cannot make enough difference.

There is one new proposal - although it is also something of a rehash - for a junior Entry to Employment. This January, the Adult Learning Inspectorate published its first survey of E2E. This recognised a "brave start" but also recommended change. Few providers had successfully pulled together vocational learning, basic skills and personal development. Vocational planning was often "haphazard". The development of literacy, numeracy and language was "the weakest element". There were issues about the effective integration of personal support. E2E is about progression but only 6 per cent were making it on to apprenticeship schemes. If re-engagement is the burning problem facing 14-19 reform, it is unfortunate that the white paper has nothing to say about these concerns in repackaging the programme for younger vulnerable learners. The other issue about E2E, of course, is that it is oversubscribed. The numbers proposed for junior E2E are tiny.

In the end we will make it all work. We will turn the tabloid-speak "basics" into lively language and number skills. We will develop new and integrated practical learning and work placement opportunities. We will work with schools, employers and support agencies to design programmes that work. But, for the moment, there is overwhelming disappointment about the missed opportunities to re-engage those who think learning is not for them.

Ruth Silver is principal of Lewisham college

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