If we were asked what we want for young people, it is likely that we would all say something very similar. We would talk about providing them with a range of opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge according to their aptitudes and interests. So that when they step out into the wider world they do so with confidence, as well as the right qualifications for their chosen route in life.
It is sad then that when it comes to the all-important decision over what path to take at the age of 16, there is too often a disconnect between schools and colleges, although we are part of the same sector. Colleges perceive a reluctance, among some schools at least, to expose their students to the proud prospectus offered in further education. Some schools harbour a suspicion that some courses in further education don’t live up to their billing.
And this disconnect is further fuelled by the competitive nature of our education system, the bums-on-seats fact that each student equals a unit of funding. The perverse nature of this incentive is obvious.
If all this is making you feel uncomfortable, my apologies. We all know that these are the factors that sour the relationship between schools and colleges, rights and wrongs aside. By exposing them to the light, we may perhaps take a step towards addressing them.
Getting schools and colleges to work together
The Baker Clause in England was such an attempt, of course, but it does not appear to have reset this relationship in the way that was intended. It reminds us that legislation is a blunt instrument – and that encouraging a wider behavioural change and culture of trust is absolutely central to improving collaboration.
So, we have to look at a different way of doing things. And perhaps in the wake of the coronavirus emergency, as we think about how we can address the social divide that the crisis has so starkly exposed, we have an ideal moment in time.
From our work in ASCL, we have seen a growing interest from school and college leaders in their respective organisations and a willingness to work more closely together. That sense of collaboration can and must come from the sector. But it would work better still if it were recognised by the accountability system, and if the manifest shortcomings in funding were addressed.
The Independent Commission on the College of the Future is looking at the concept of the civic role of colleges, building on their tradition of service to their communities in the widest sense. To me, this seems like something that should be a shared responsibility across all providers. A joint mission to translate into practice an ideal that must surely be right – that we collectively do the very best for young people.
This is close to the heart of ASCL following our work on identifying solutions to support what we have termed "the forgotten third". That is the third of young people who, each year, leave school at the age of 16 without at least a grade 4 GCSE in English and maths. Improving the prospects of these young people seems to us to be key to improving social justice. And a more collaborative system within each of the four nations of the UK, in which schools and colleges always work together, feels like an important step along that road.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. This blog was written for the report on the Independent Commission on the College of the Future