Look at what is happening on the ground if you want to understand the way that things are moving, says Sarah Robinson. Developing more coherent arrangements for the transition from school to work is a case in point in light of the 157 Group’s new report, Effective Transitions from School to Work: The Key Role of FE Colleges.

The conventional wisdom is that practice follows policy. Strategic decisions are taken at the centre and practitioners duly implement change. It follows, therefore, that if you want to understand the future, you need to read white papers and ministers’ speeches — and keep an eye on Whitehall.

In reality, however, things often happen the other way around. It is leading-edge practice that shapes the future, with policymakers struggling to catch up.

To understand the way that things are moving, you really need to look at what is happening on the ground. Developing more coherent arrangements for helping young people to make the transition from school to work is a case in point.

In think-tanks and policy circles there is talk of a ‘middle tier’ — a level of decision-making between government and schools.

Most agree that Whitehall cannot run everything, but there is no consensus on what intermediary arrangements should be put in place. Some in local authorities, for example, see the chance to win back a central role they once held; for others, that would be a backwards step that would undermine moves to free education from bureaucracy.

While the policy wonks debate the issue, a new ‘middle tier’ is already emerging on the ground.

In Stoke on Trent, as in other areas of the country, the local FE college has taken a lead. It is working with the local authority and other partners to sponsor new studio schools and academies, and to provide progression pathways for their pupils.

It is using the ability to form a multi-academy trust to set up a structure within which separate institutions will do what they do best, but all will collaborate to ensure clarity and quality for learners.

The collaboration builds on, and is strengthened by, the college’s existing links with local industry and higher education.

In policy circles there is also increased debate about whether it is right to split responsibilities at 19 between the DfE and BIS. Should the two combine or would it be better for the DfE to have responsibility for all those up to the age of 25, as it already does for those with learning disabilities?

The 157 Group is clear that the present split is unhelpful. Many of those aged 19 to 24 need the same sort of programmes as those under 19; it is simply that, for one reason or another, their progress has been slower.

Similarly, it makes little sense to split responsibility for apprenticeships from responsibility for pre-apprenticeship programmes.

While the policy is sorted out, however, colleges are bridging the gap. The latest 157 Group publication, Effective Transitions from School to Work, highlights many excellent examples of what is being done.

Leeds City College, for example, has set up an Apprenticeship Academy offering a work-focused route for young people aged 14-24. In addition to working closely with schools to promote and prepare young people for work-based learning, there are four clear pathways for 16 to 24-year-olds — preparation for apprenticeships or foundation programmes, employed status apprenticeships, apprenticeship training agency (ATA) apprenticeships and higher level apprenticeships. Other 157 group colleges are actively involved — for example, through the development of ATAs and other initiatives.

Finally, although government may have set a clear strategic direction following the Wolf Review, the all-important detail on the nature of study programmes for those aged 16 and over is seriously incomplete.

It is likely that once again the true shape of the policy will be fleshed out by those on the ground. Colleges such as my own are already hard at work on the task.

Sarah Robinson, 157 Group director and principal of Stoke on Trent College, which features as a case study in the 157 Group’s new report.