Why we're sticking with 16-plus
The college runs full-time and part-time courses in 12 curriculum areas in and around Crewe. It has 3,000 full-time students (including 600 studying AS or A-levels) and 10,000 part-timers on vocational, adult and community courses.
It also offers higher education to 200 FE students - the youngest are 16, the eldest in their 80s. And it has taken the strategic decision not to become involved in vocational courses for 14 to 16-year-olds on its main site.
Even so, it has excellent relationships with local schools. It offers, for example, an annual week-long primary college for 10-year-olds (about 1,200 pupils a year) that allows each child to choose nine vocational options from more than 70. These include brickwork, engineering, IT and hairdressing, and cover the range of what the college has on offer post-16.
It also provides a three-day secondary college that allows pupils in their penultimate year at secondary to try six curriculum areas.
Both activities take place in July after the college's main programmes have ended. On request, it also supports vocational developments in schools, offers some "master classes" and provides free accommodation and support for the school-based "excellence in Crewe" project, which is aimed at widening participation.
But it does not link with schools to provide term-time education for under-16s, and there are important reasons for that.
First, the college has a mission to offer excellence post-16. It runs along "adult" lines, and younger students in particular appreciate the freedoms and responsibilities that come with such an approach.
There is a mature atmosphere of staff and students working together.
Discipline problems are almost unheard of. Ten out of 13 curriculum areas were judged to be outstanding in the last inspection, as were leadership and management, social inclusion and support for students. The lowest grade was "good".
Changing this atmosphere by involving significant numbers of school pupils would be a high-risk strategy which the college does not feel is worth pursuing.
In line with government guidelines, it has decided to focus on post-16 education and training. This is a genuinely comprehensive institution for over-16s. But it has little experience or expertise in the pre-16 phase.
Our role is to support the development of vocational 14-16 work in schools, preferably in a purpose-built centre. We would be prepared to contribute resources to these options but the Learning and Skills Council seems unwilling to provide enough funding.
The strength of the FE sector is often said to lie in its ability to offer a fresh start after unsuccessful school experiences. In that case, increasing numbers and improving results speak for themselves. In this country, 16 marks a transition into adulthood, with new rights and responsibilities for the individual. It is arguably the ideal time for a break from school.
But 14 represents no such milestone. And for the cynical, the move to a 14-19 phase could be seen as a bid to solve discipline and curriculum problems in schools. It is certainly not being funded by the Government as the key curriculum change that it is sometimes argued to be. And why not 13 (more suitable for those in a middle-school system)? Or 15, as an opportunity to go to college early (full time)?
Colleges are being encouraged to move into 14-16 work, but it is our view that child protection issues and the role of staff have not been fully thought through. The 14-year-old is still a child who will be brought into contact with numerous adult students who have not had police checks. What supervision is appropriate? And what if something goes wrong?
Most colleges would agree that the 14-16 programme is not appropriately funded or resourced. In effect, they are subsidising the schools they serve from their mainstream budgets. That is a little ironic when many are pointing out the inequities of sixth-form funding and how colleges lose out.
If colleges respond with alacrity to this agenda, the FE college might be seen merely as a "technical" institution without the breadth of provision that makes the tertiary model so successful. This could be a backward step, with academic courses (A-levels) seen as the preserve of sixth-forms and sixth-form colleges, and the vocational route (with parity of esteem, of course) the preserve of the local tech.
There is no evidence that working with 14 to 16-year-olds provides any post-16 benefits or increase in recruitment, retention or achievement. It is a policy based on a whim and a prayer.
At South Cheshire, we have had more than 12 years of continuous growth and increasing success in a wide range of post-16 work. And we will need some convincing that we have got it wrong.
David Collins is principal of South Cheshire college . This article is based on a paper delivered to the Association of Colleges conference this week