The students sitting in front of me are telling me about the college they have decided to go to. I’m thrilled that they seem to have taken the choice seriously – and that they have made it at all, to be honest. I ask them about the courses they will study. And then that familiar sinking feeling hits. The two girls stare blankly at me and at each other, then ask: “Well, what courses do they do there?”
In areas of multiple deprivation, such as the school where I work, it is often problematic to get students to properly consider where they can progress for post-16 education, or even to consider it at all.
These two girls are typical of the challenges we encounter. The college they wish to go to is just five minutes up the road, but they have not actually visited it or looked at what courses are on offer. They don’t really care about the course. After the raising of the participation age to 18, they just want to comply with the compulsory next step in their education without having to travel too far.
We need to find a way to broaden horizons – to make such young people recognise the worth of post-16 education and the importance of finding the right provision, even if that takes them outside the areas they would prefer to remain in.
In our area, the statistics show that as few as 5.3 per cent of students access higher education. Many essentially exclude themselves from going on to HE by making poor choices about post-16 provision.
Sometimes when students come from a deprived area, the support in place can be overly localised. There is not much spare money for bus fares, even if they could summon up the confidence to travel somewhere new, and few parents have cars.
Whether it’s the supermarket, the doctor’s surgery or college, students rarely reach out beyond what’s in front of them. Over generations, this becomes a way of life and patterns start to emerge. Parents become reticent to visit colleges further afield, whether because of their working hours, caring responsibilities, a lack of transport or a chaotic home life. Sometimes it’s through a general apathy towards further education – after all, many didn’t go to college themselves.
This is where FE providers should step in. They should be trawling the area for students and providing assistance – personal and financial – to ensure that there is nothing preventing young people from accessing what they have to offer. They should not be sitting back, expecting these students to overcome all the barriers alone.
Whether it’s the supermarket, the doctor’s surgery or college, students rarely reach out beyond what’s in front of them
There is little, if any, support forthcoming, however. So, at the Bridge Learning Campus, we have taken it upon ourselves to find a solution. It began last year when I organised a trip to one of the best-performing sixth forms in Bristol. It proved an excellent experience. However, I had to take students out of lesson time to do it. And because we visited the college on a normal day of operations, many of our students felt intimidated rather than inspired by what they saw.
We also started taking Year 10 students to taster days at colleges and sixth forms, provided local authority advice sheets with details of all open events, and gave information about post-16 choices to young people and their parents. In addition, we laid on tutor sessions and assemblies in Year 11 and lower years, made post-16 choices part of our PSHE curriculum, sent emails and texts home to remind parents about important dates, and held numerous one-to-one meetings with our Year 11 students.
Even after all this, it was clear that we needed to do more. So, this year, I formally arranged school visits to the open events of nine different FE providers, all during weekends, evenings and half-term holidays.
Impressively, 12 per cent of Year 11 students signed up for the first trip and every one since has had takers. But the size of the challenge remains huge and is greater than we first thought. Despite all we are doing as a school, we need help. Not all students are aware of, and willing to consider, the options available to them. Colleges and government organisations need to reach out and help them.
Many young people simply want to put off making such a huge decision for as long as they can. They feel safe at school and want to continue feeling safe. These students tend to end up with the last bite of the cherry, as the most popular and most appropriate courses fill up before they even start thinking about what to apply for. Parents also leave it too late because they’re unfamiliar with the process and tend to defer to their children, who often choose the path of least resistance.
If we want to make a real difference to our communities, it’s high time this responsibility was shared. So consider this a plea: FE, we need you to do more.
Andy Mitchell is achievement for all coordinator at Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol