In the changing educational landscape, routes of study beyond the age of 14 have diversified significantly, and none more so than those in the college sector, which has been permitted to recruit 14-year-olds full-time since 2013.
I was part of the national steering implementation group. And today, the Hull College Group, where I am chief executive, is the largest provider in the country for 14- to 16-year-olds studying full-time at college.
Nationally, the take-up of full-time college places at 14 has not been as high as expected. There are many factors affecting this. First, we have seen the arrival of more university technical colleges, studio schools and free schools, which have crowded the marketplace.
Second, the challenging financial climate in the sector has forced colleges to focus on more immediate priorities, meaning that many have not been able to make the investment required to enter this new market.
Third, as was always expected to be the case, this was not a strategic option that all colleges felt was appropriate for them based on their local market (although, interestingly, the take-up has been greater among colleges based in the North).
Like many institutions, the Hull College Group has had a long tradition of delivering 14-16 education on a part-time basis, catering for more than 1,200 pupils each year.
Because of the early closure of a school in the east of the city in 2011, we, along with Wilberforce Sixth Form College, took on responsibility for delivering a full-time academic and vocational offer to more than 150 pupils in Years 10-11.
Over the course of two years, we built up our infrastructure and experience, and saw at first hand how vital this opportunity was for the young people in our city and region. It meant that they could take an alternative route at 14 – one that had a strong vocational focus but that also fulfilled their academic need.
Attendance was higher than at school, as was positive engagement in learning and, more importantly, progression. It was very timely that, as our provision was coming to a close, the implementation of Alison Wolf’s much-welcomed recommendation gave all students the right to go to a college and study full-time from the age of 14.
In September 2013, we recruited the highest number of full-time 14-year-old students in the country at our Hull and Goole campuses, and we currently have 180 students on our roll. One of the clear recommendations for the delivery of 14-16 provision was the need for a dedicated, secure and separate building, which we have managed to create. We have also invested in staff and managers with substantial school experience.
As we are a large provider of technical and professional education, our students have access to excellent facilities and staffing across a huge range of disciplines, all mapped to our local enterprise partnership’s priorities. Students enjoy the adult learning environment and studying subjects that they have a clear passion for, as well as the exceptional support services.
However, developing the provision has not been without its challenges. The opportunity for all young people to study at college full-time from 14 remains a well-hidden secret for many parents, employers and even schools.
Raising awareness of this at a local level requires an innovative marketing strategy. We have also learned not to underestimate the level of multi-agency support required, as well as the professional expertise that needs to be bought in.
However, when the class of 2015 completed their studies last summer, it was a great source of pride that almost all of them had made more than four levels of progress in their two years with us. We’ve seen attitudes to learning improve significantly. And, most importantly, the vast majority of our students have progressed to an apprenticeship route or further studies – with us or other local providers.
The levels of progress and the changes in attitudes towards learning were praised highly in our Ofsted inspection in November last year. Staff across the group value this work hugely and many, including me, actively mentor our 14-16 students.
How to make it work
Be prepared to invest in the infrastructure and be aware of the hidden costs involved.
Ensure you have full strategic buy-in from your governors, managers and staff.
Assess the demand in your local marketplace, investigate other models on offer and identify your unique selling points.
Don’t underestimate the challenges, and be patient – you will learn as you go along.
Value the prize of creating seamless progression routes for young people in your local area from the ages of 14 to 21, enhancing and developing skills, improving attitudes to learning and providing clearly defined pathways to careers.
Gary Warke is chief executive of Hull College Group