If FE colleges are so dangerous, why send the most vulnerable?

A version of the following blog, by Activate Learning Group Chief Executive Sally Dicketts, appeared in TES on 12 June.

Folllow Sally on twitter @salldicketts

Further education has an image problem. That statement will come as no surprise to anyone working in the sector.

While many have no understanding of it at all, others perceive it to be a risky option.

We are used to responding to parents’ concerns about how their child will fare – leaving the relative safety of school for a semi-urban college campus where their son or daughter will face greater freedoms, follow a more flexible timetable and potentially mix with a more diverse student body.

Some teachers in secondary schools don’t help our cause. I have heard numerous accounts of the picture painted of college life from inside the school gates – drug taking, poor behaviour and low aspirations.

If there is any truth to those claims, why are schools failing their most vulnerable, low achievers by letting them leave school and go to college? If that is the environment they face, they are unlikely to do well and are tantamount to being written off by the educational system. Meanwhile the more academic, independent thinking, middle class students – those most likely to cope with the challenges and thrive – are told to remain in the safe, nurturing environment they know.

Of course, I don’t agree that colleges are dangerous or risky.

Colleges are different to schools and that’s why they are so important to our educational system.

Our students tell us that they value the college environment; one where they are treated like adults and expected to make decisions accordingly. Of course they need support and guidance, but they are responsible for attending classes, completing work on time and ensuring they don’t let their peers down when it comes to group projects. These are all important life skills. So too are making decisions about how you socialise and achieve a work-life balance.

There may be a level of risk, but this is exactly why further education colleges make such a good stepping stone between school and university, or school and employment. If your son or daughter isn’t able to manage their time and workload and make good choices by the time they reach 18, they will be in for a shock when they leave home and enter either environment.

Of course it is easy to lay blame for the sector’s image problem at the doors of others and ongoing reductions in funding for careers advice in schools won’t be helping the situation. Since the abolition of Connexions in 2012, schools have been responsible for providing their own careers advice, without any extra funding. It is hardly surprising that a subsequent report by Ofsted criticised the quality and availability of advice being offered in schools. The report, published in 2013, raised concerns that pupils were not getting access to the full range of career pathways available to help them make informed choices about their next steps. In some cases school careers advice is now the responsibility of a teacher, who may only be able to draw on their own experiences and career decisions. The government is now looking to the new Careers and Enterprise Company to help plug the gaps.

While I would call for greater investment in careers advice for young people and adults, I would also call for greater investment in further education – the only education budget unprotected from future cuts. At a time when the adult skills budget is also being cut by 24 per cent, it is difficult to feel backed by government. And yet, whenever we work in international markets our vocational education is one of the things they admire the most. For Activate Learning it has recently led to teacher training programmes in China, Malaysia and Myanmar where college and university staff want to learn from our hands-on approach to engaging young people.

We are also seeing a return to further education by university graduates – seeking advanced apprenticeships and higher level skills that will enable them to enter the jobs market. A degree does not guarantee you a career and students are becoming increasingly aware of the need for value for money when exploring the higher education route.

I do not want to rubbish other forms of education to advance our own cause. As the Ofsted report into careers advice quite rightly found, young people need to understand the range of educational options and career pathways available to them. It is this rich diversity which we must work so hard to maintain, to ensure that young people have options to develop the academic, technical and soft skills they need in an environment that is right for them.

We should do all we can as a sector to build the further education brand – to help challenge previously held perceptions and encourage young people, their parents and teachers, to see it as an aspirational choice, while demonstrating its impact as we campaign for greater investment.

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