Shadow education minister Karen Buck took some flak at the AoC annual conference for suggesting colleges may not be ready for direct enrolment at age 14. Here she explains why there is a risk of a two-tier system

That FE colleges can play a positive, indeed transformational role in the education of 14 to 16-year -olds is not in doubt. FE has a critical part to play if we are to introduce genuine flexibility into education at 14-plus; a flexibility that enables students to achieve through paths other  than the traditional school environment and/or academic curriculum (and, indeed, back again).

Until now, the most common form of full-time college provision for this age group has been for pupils unlikely to complete a key stage 4 programme at school. They may be truanting, at risk of exclusion or simply failing to manage on academic courses.

Others may be on ESOL programmes as new arrivals to the UK.  Many have gained a great deal from taking a predominantly work-related programme and from the more adult atmosphere of a college.  But they have been in a small minority and, inevitably, their impact on the college ethos has been modest.

It may be that direct enrolment will mean a change in funding and management arrangements and little change in numbers. It seems more likely, however, that an increase in numbers will follow and details are eagerly anticipated.  However, we know enough to allow us to make some assessment of the opportunities and risks for colleges.

First it is likely, as predicted by the Wolf report, that students making the transfer to FE will be lower achievers. They are likely to come with more than their fair share of learning and behavioural issues, ones that are by no means always well-addressed within the school system.

This government has consistently downgraded work-related and practical learning”

It is essential that the funding that colleges receive is adequate to meet the needs of these challenging pupils. They will also need to be confident that managing a greater number of such students will not undermine the more adult ethos that has characterised colleges.

Colleges will also need to be sure that they offer an appropriate curriculum. Wolf recommended – and the government accepted – that vocational courses should only take up 20 per cent of curriculum time for students under 16. Colleges will, of course, be gearing up to deliver the English Baccalaureate subjects, amongst others, and in so doing will assess how attractive and successful  their provision is when the vocational aspect of the curriculum is so much more limited.

Everyone involved will carefully evaluate the impact of a free market in provision at 14. Might there be reduced collaboration between schools and colleges if a competitive market for 14 to 16-year-olds emerges?

Schools are likely to resist the loss of their abler students but will perhaps encourage those less likely to contribute to performance targets to make the transfer.

There could be a real risk of a two-tier system, with schools focusing on abler pupils and colleges being expected to pick up lower attainers.

Yet direct enrolment is unlikely to work unless there is real partnership between schools, colleges and local authorities. Colleges will also have to engage fully with local systems for admissions, exclusions and special educational needs, and be supported in return.

These challenges can be met over time, but a period of transition has to be negotiated first. And this is against a backdrop of an education finance squeeze and where, for example, even the physical infrastructure of some colleges may not lend itself to a rapid change in the age profile of students.

This government has consistently downgraded work-related and practical learning, promoting EBacc as the only path to success.

Labour wants a much stronger vocational pathway with an appropriately enhanced role for colleges in delivering it. But we believe this should be achieved by strengthening local planning and partnerships, not by a simplistic free market approach.