Increasing the minimum age at which young people in England can leave education or training is an unsettling prospect.
No-one can predict with absolute certainty how the further education (FE) sector will adapt to the implementation of mandatory participation up to the age of 17 next year.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) held an event in Paddington last week to give advice on how FE colleges could attract more students during the recruitment period and prepare for increased competition from schools.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive (research and development) at the AoC, said colleges should be preparing an offer which will differentiate themselves from rival learning providers.
“You need to devise an appropriate response, taking into account not only capacity, but also local need, who else is around and doing things and also what the available funds are – what is actually possible,” Mr Gravatt said.
Raising the participation age will mean that teenagers aged between 16 and 18 are required, by law, to undertake either 534 hours of full-time education, an apprenticeship, full-time work or volunteering supplemented with 280 hours of part-time education.
Under the reforms, colleges and schools will have a duty to monitor attendance and employers will need to ensure training is being delivered appropriately to the learner.
Mr Gravatt warned that the implementation of the policy could have a negative impact on the funding allocated for each student.
“After having several years of the 16-18 education budget going up and us as a sector using that very well, the way in which we will get increased numbers in the next few years is partly at the expense of making some quite significant cuts in terms of funding for students,” he said.
“It’s a policy with desirable ends but is coming in a financial environment which is difficult.”
Mr Gravatt said the reform was being used by government as a solution to youth unemployment and the number of people not in education, employment and training (NEET).
“Whatever the law says, or whatever policy used to say, whatever you do think or used to think, the number one issue is tackling youth unemployment,” he said.
“A college can either engage with that and do it well, or it may feel actually others will do it better. It’s a choice, but given the priority it’s an issue and you should see the full participation for 16-17 year-olds within that context at the moment.”
David Russell, director for participation and vocational education at the Department for Education (DfE), appeared to agree with Mr Gravatt and emphasised the government’s interest not only in tackling NEETs, but also those currently in jobs without training.
“We also know that a very small number of 16 and 17 year-olds in jobs without training, although there are a very small number of them, they only have marginally better outcomes in the long run than those who are NEET,” Mr Russell said.
“So we are almost as concerned about those in jobs without training.”
David Wood, principal and chief executive of Lancaster & Morecambe College, said raising the participation age was creating a great deal of fuss over a very small proportion of learners.
“Some of this seems to be much ado about nothing,” Mr Wood said.
“It’s a very small group of people which we are chasing and at one level EMA is being removed, the fees for higher education have gone up incredibly high, local authorities are losing their authority, academies are increasing competition. All those things seem to be challenging the ability to tackle this group head on.”
Mr Wood agreed however that competition from schools would continue to be a huge issue for FE colleges.
“I’ve got eight schools around me, for 11-18’s, who won’t let me in. The root of the NEET problem is in poor information and guidance I think,” he said.
“So even though we’ve got lots of people participating, a lot of them are in the wrong courses and we’ll pay for that through their lives.”
He added: “What I don’t want to be doing, is fighting other providers for those young people.
“What I see at the moment is a fair degree of anarchy and chaos about to emerge for a very small group of people.”
Jon Thorn, head of business development at the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), added that apprenticeships shouldn’t be seen as a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problem.
He said: “There’s always a risk around a programme which is doing well that it does become a solution for every problem or challenge that there might be.”
It’s a policy with desirable ends but is coming in a financial environment which is difficult.”
Corrienne Peasgood, deputy principal of City College Norwich, said simply creating more places for students won’t be enough to raise the level of participation either.
She said: “Between us, I really do believe that we can find enough opportunities for full participation at 16 and then later at 17, but is that enough? I don’t think we’re in the field of dreams territory, that we can be sure that if we build it, they can come.”
Raising the participation age is likely to cause some problems for the FE sector, but Fiona McMillan OBE, president of the AoC and principal of Bridgwater College, said it would help young people in the long run.
“We all know that not being in education or training beyond 16 means you are considerably more likely to experience being out of work, more likely to have a criminal record, more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and from bouts of depression,” she said.
“There are really strong social, personal and economic reasons for looking at extending the time that young people are in employment, and in training, and are gaining qualifications and valuable experience.”