In the complex yet capricious world of education policy, changes that initially appear to be the most significant sometimes end up having the least impact. Take raising the participation age, for example. Compelling all young people to remain in some form of education until the age of 18 was originally intended by the Labour government at the time to be a significant move: enshrining this right in law, the argument went, would give them the best possible chance of success in their future careers.
Despite a subsequent change in government, the change still came to pass – but, with monitoring of its implementation all but non-existent and no penalties in place where the law isn’t complied with, the impact has been barely noticed.
Tuesday 2 January 2018 is a date which should mark the start of a new chapter in relations between schools and FE providers. On this date, a new legal duty comes into force, requiring schools to open their door to colleges, training providers and university technical colleges (UTCs). Providers must be granted access to students to make them aware of the options available to them at 14-16, post-16 and post-18 level.
This is thanks to the so-called “Baker clause”, inserted by former education secretary Lord Baker into the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 via the House of Lords. But while Lord Baker has a history of pursuing his own ideological passions separate from the Department for Education’s official policies, this was no insurgent act. Make no mistake: the clause had backing at the top of the DfE. The fact it was added to the legislation at this stage had more to do with parliamentary process than political pontification.
The case for the Baker clause
With T levels on the way and a target of creating 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 to meet, offering young people full information about apprenticeships and technical education is a key issue for the government.
Speaking in the Lords at the time of the clause being introduced, Lord Baker predicted that the change would be “met with great hostility in every school in the country”, as it goes to the heart of one of the most long-running and acrimonious hidden disputes in the education system. That between schools, often keen to retain students (and funding) for their own sixth forms, and FE providers that are all too often denied access to the young people who – if given information about the full range of options open to them – could well end up using an apprenticeship or college course as their springboard to career success. Until now, in too many cases students have ended up making career decisions based on incomplete information, often ignorant of the work-based options available.
The Association of Colleges has estimated that £1 billion a year is spent each year educating students who subsequently drop out of school sixth forms without completing their programme of study.
To clarify, what I hear anecdotally (there is no comprehensive national data on this issue – which could well be part of the problem) is that the majority of schools now take an adult approach to this issue and are happy to welcome providers in to meet their students, to ensure all young people make the right decision for themselves and their future careers. But the number of schools where this still is not happening is significant.
The moral case for schools allowing free access to students, as allowed by the Baker clause, is strong. But, in practice, what impact will the new rules have?
Range of providers
The act states that a school’s proprietor must “ensure that there is an opportunity for a range of education and training providers to access registered pupils during the relevant phase of their education for the purpose of informing them about approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships”. Accordingly, the school must prepare a policy statement “setting out the circumstances in which education and training providers will be given access” to pupils, and advising providers how to go about seeking access to students.
So far, so reasonable. It would be hard for a school to justify why it would not carry out any of these actions. What is not clear, however, is what will happen to schools which do not comply. What action can, or would, be taken?
The act does stipulate that the education secretary can “make provision about who is to be given access to pupils, to which pupils they are to be given access and how and when”. But, realistically, how often is Justine Greening personally going to formally intervene about careers advice at an individual school?
Change in behaviour
It’s hard not to conclude that the success of the act will be largely determined by the extent to which those schools hitherto reluctant to engage with FE providers decide to change their behaviour.
Here’s hoping that the government’s admirable focus on raising the esteem in which technical education is held goes some way to persuading schools that willingly opening their doors to FE providers is the best policy.
While weather conditions may have meant that most of us missed out on building snowmen this Christmas, it is perhaps appropriate that the Baker clause’s success will be reliant on the carrot rather than the stick.