The merging of some school sixth forms and further education colleges in parts of the country will enable more pupils to mix academic with vocational skills. Joe Clancy reports on the strategic area review process
The veto by schools minister Jacqui Smith of proposals to merge school sixth forms with two colleges in a south coast town appeared to sound the death knell for ambitious plans to reorganise post-16 education throughout the country.
Her decision last summer was a savage blow to staff in 47 local offices of the Learning and Skills Council who had been working for three years to produce ways to persuade more school-leavers to remain in education.
In the Sussex seaside resort of Hastings, the situation was desperate.
There, staying on rates were way below the national average. Local employers were also reporting shortages of people with the skills they required to fill vacancies. Radical plans were put forward to address the problem, involving the merger of a sixth-form college and six school sixth forms with a general further education college in a spanking new state-of-the-art college costing pound;60 million.
The wholesale merger was intended to provide a wider choice of vocational subjects, to enable young people to mix the academic with the vocational, helping to increase participation and fill the skills gaps in a town where the rate of 16 and 17-year-olds not involved in work or study was 8 per cent. However, vigorous protests were mounted by staff, parents and students at the sixth-form college and at two of the schools. Dismay set in when the schools minister supported them. Revised proposals, in which the sixth-form college and two of the school sixth forms keep their independence were approved in November.
The question was: would the minister's support for school sixth forms encourage more parent-pupil protest at other similarly affected schools around the country, however small their sixth forms and however narrow their curriculum offer?
After all, similar protests in Carlisle, Cumbria, had also led to plans for sixth form closures to be dropped. Fortunately for the LSC, the answer has been no. Elsewhere, shake-up proposals outlined in strategic area reviews, or StARs, conducted in all 47 local offices have generally been welcomed.
In north London, pupils at four schools where sixth forms are being shut are so keen to move into a new sixth-form centre they are actively helping with the design of the pound;28m building.
In Cheshire, the merger of Stockport college of further and higher education and North Area sixth-form college was successfully completed in January. Students can look forward to moving into a pound;42m campus development on one town centre site by 2010. Peter Robert, principal of the new Stockport college, said: "When we looked at the curriculum provision there was enough duplication to say it might be an idea for the two colleges to merge.
"Both colleges were also considering their property strategies at the same time. What was unusual is the merger wasn't driven by any failing aspect of either college. We were both providing good quality education and were in category A financial situations. The strategic area review process accelerated the merger and it is arguable whether it would have gone ahead without it."
Rob Wye, the LSC's strategy and communications director, said local learning skills councils have brought together education authorities, councils, schools, colleges and employers in full and inclusive consultation in improving staying on rates. "The StAR process was never about closing down small school sixth forms. It was designed to look across the whole range of provision to discover what the demands and trends and structural requirements are," he said.
"They looked at the breadth of provision in terms of quality, quantity and mix, to meet the needs of young people and employers. All sorts of different processes were adopted in all parts of the country. It is all about horses for courses.
"It will make the landscape for 16 to 19-year-olds very different to what they have been used to, and the big expansion has been in the vocational offer."
The StAR process revealed that while there was plenty of choice for young people with five good GCSEs across the country, there was a need for more courses to be offered to those without these qualifications. Mr Wye added:
"The answer for those young people is rarely for them to do more GCSEs. We found a need for more level 1 and level 2 (GCSE equivalent) provision.
There has been a lot of investment in those areas in colleges, and on entry to employment courses. We now have more 16-year-olds in learning than ever before.
"Most parts of the country now have a 14 to 19 collaborative structure in place that did not exist before the StAR process began. One of the outcomes has been the high-level of networking and working with partners."
He said StARs led to collaborative ventures with schools and new vocational centres, such as the South Birmingham college construction centre and the vocational centre in Hertfordshire, where hair gel is fused with engine oil to fuel training in hairdressing and engineering.
The state-of-the-art training centre is the size of two football pitches.
Since it opened just over a year ago, it has been overwhelmed by demand for courses, enrolling 3,500 learners in the first six months, with a further 3,000 on waiting lists. The centre is proving so popular that an in-house teacher training course has been set up to increase teaching capacity.
Hertford regional college established the Bishop's Stortford vocational centre, which opened last September in collaboration with a number of local schools. Due for completion this August, it is intended that the range of courses will be expanded in the future to include construction and sport.
The facilities are designed to enable a broader curriculum to be offered for 14 to 19-year-olds, through a combination of mainstream FE and schools funding.
Largely due to the StAR process, a further education college in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, is to share the same site as local sixth-form college in a unique and innovative project. Bill Dowell, principal of Shrewsbury sixth-form college, said: "The colleges will retain their independence and separate identities, but a new, state-of-the-art campus will be an enormous benefit to the people of Shrewsbury."
As well as a central hub, the new site will include a technology centre that could be accessed by students of both institutions to link academic study with actual applications of technology and science.
Greg Molan, principal of Shrewsbury college of arts and technology, said:
"We were trying to take an area-wide view rather than an institutional view on what was needed by young people in relation to what schools are doing and what employers need. Both colleges had a pressing need to renew their estates. We were also looking for opportunities to work together. We used the StAR process to focus our efforts and get agreement that this was the way to go forward.
"We are looking at running joint courses, and the new building will be designed so it lends itself to detailed co-operation and opens up a more hybrid route for youngsters. We looked at the issue of a merger but we found that it was not the way forward. The two colleges have different histories and missions, and have a distinctive ethos to offer parents, employers and students. This co-location offers us the best of both worlds.
We will still be able to make savings in running costs and services.
"The sixth-form college has had beacon status for the last three years and offers a more academic curriculum. Our mission is very much the development of vocational learning and training."
He cited the example of a student with ambitions to become a civil engineer. "He will now be able to mix studying maths and physics at A-level with doing a construction module. We can enrich the choice for young people and offer them work experience with local employers. It brings onto one campus things that have been apart for some time."
Five years ago, the UK was close to bottom in a list of the 30-nation members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of 17-year-olds participating in education or training.
Only Greece, Turkey and Mexico had a lower proportion. Since then, the UK has moved a couple of places up the table, climbing above Portugal and New Zealand, though it still remains 8 percentage points below the OECD average.
Rob Wye said: "We identified serious problems of under-achievement and needed to do something. Our objective is to get as many 16 to 18-year-olds as possible staying on in some form of learning. We were massively behind our competitors and had to do something dramatic. The StAR process is part of doing something dramatic."