Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls jumped on a train to Southend to see an innovative example of traditional boundaries in education being broken down by new forms of partnership.
The day after it was announced that youth unemployment had nearly touched a million, the opposition’s leadership toured Futures Community College, a school for 11 to 19 year olds which offers a uniquely blended curriculum of academic and vocational learning.
Students can study academic or vocational subjects or a mixture of both, while apprenticeships in electrical engineering and construction are provided in a training centre incorporated into a new £20 million state-of-the-art upper college building.
Five years ago, the once failing secondary school was taken over by Prospects Learning Foundation, a south Essex charitable training provider.
The Foundation entered into a partnership with the US school improvement consultancy, EdisonLearning, and since then the new college has been transformed.
Following their tour, the Labour politicians held a question and answer session with the students, apprentices and the apprentices’ local employers.
Mr Miliband was careful not to give any promises about EMAs and disability benefits. Other questions covered help for young carers, expanding apprenticeships and rebalancing the economy more in favour of manufacturing.
Mr Miliband and Mr Balls were briefed on the Futures model by the college’s principal, Simon Carpenter, and Prospects chief executive, Neil Bates, a former vice chair of LSIS.
The college’s leadership emphasised four key messages for avoiding a ‘lost generation’ of young people:
- blended academic and vocational curriculum offerings in schools should be encouraged. It shouldn’t be an either/or offer depending on which type of school the student attends.
- the positive role of local authorities in influencing the education and skills provision that actually meets the needs of local employers and communities should not be underestimated and their role in responding to the worsening NEET problem among young people requires strengthening.
- increasing pre-apprenticeship provision is vital for young people who have left school with few or no qualifications.
- further government investment, while encouraging so far, is needed to expand the number of high quality Group Training Associations (GTAs) that enable smaller businesses to offer technical apprenticeships and employment to young people.
Mr Bates told FE Week: “It is very encouraging that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have come to see how the blended learning approach is transforming the lives of many young people in Southend.
“Our message is that we support diversity and choice, but free schools, UTCs and studio schools do not represent a panacea to solving the weaknesses in our educational system.
“Government should invest an equal amount of effort in improving existing schools and should encourage the type of partnership seen here.”
Mr Miliband voiced his agreement, adding: “The sad thing is that we do not have enough of these types of colleges. This is what we need to focus on.”
On this, there appears to be cross-party agreement. Last year, an education minister in the coalition government called Futures a pioneer and the beginning of something new.