Middlesbrough College was one of the first seven general FE colleges to directly recruit learners from the age of 14 two years ago. Zoe Lewis outlines the lessons learned since then.

In early 2012, Middlesbrough College was considering developing a direct offer for 14-year-olds from September of that year.

The rationale was clear, GCSE results in the town were not good enough, disengagement levels and exclusions were high in secondary schools and the college believed it could do better for many young people.

However, we had no track record, no real experience of offering full time 14 to 16 provision and also had to seriously consider the impact that this could have on our relationship with local schools.

After long deliberations and careful analysis of the risks, costs and opportunities for schools and the college, the governing body determined we would start a modest full time offer, in partnership with one local school and the pupil referral unit.

There were two primary drivers for this decision. Firstly, we could start small and build up our expertise at minimal risk to us and the students involved, and secondly, we would not risk damaging the relationship with local schools and thereby ensure we maintain good access to help inform future students about their post-16 options.

However there were drawbacks to this approach too. We knew that ‘partnership’ meant schools selecting students they felt would fair best in a college environment.

We were realistic that this would also mean students who would be unlikely to get five GCSEs including English and maths. Nevertheless, we were resolute in our belief that we could provide a positive alternative route for these young people.

The DfE has fallen short of making any league table concessions for colleges offering 14 to 16 ‘alternative’ provision

We therefore went into this partnership with our eyes wide open and commenced open discussions with the Department for Education (DfE) on the league table impact to determine the level of risk we would be taking on under this scenario.

The DfE has maintained its willingness to engage in this debate, to understand the issues we are facing and to sympathise with our dilemma, but to date has fallen short of making any league table concessions for colleges offering 14 to 16 ‘alternative’ provision.

This does continue to represent a significant reputational risk for colleges through, for example, poor comparative league table positions and potential floor target triggers, without the context and narrative attached.

In addition to this reputational risk, the college was aware that college funding was simply not sufficient to pay for the additional support needs of these students and so last year, our first year, we ran the provision at a considerable loss.

However, notwithstanding all of the above, for the young people involved, the results have been quite remarkable.

We have therefore expanded our provision this year, recruiting a further 15 Year 10 students from six partner schools, all of whom are of a similar profile to last year’s intake.

So what have we learned? Well, an awful lot.

The welfare and behavioural needs, the information provided by schools (or lack of it), the ‘set-up’ time and the funding issues all provided significant challenges for us last year and we are happy to share our lessons learned.

This year, our second year, has proven far more straightforward. The transition from school has worked well.

Our initial testing has been developed further, our curriculum offer has continued to develop, our welfare arrangements improved and our commercial arrangement with schools been refined so they now pay a top-up sum to us to help cover our real delivery costs.

Was this the high quality ‘parity of esteem’, vocational offer that Professor Alison Wolf had in mind for our talented 14-year-olds? I am not sure.

Is it transforming lives and making our communities better places? Without a doubt.

So, where are we going next with this. Well to a large extent, that depends upon how the DfE responds to the first wave of college league table results which will be published next year.

While Progress 8 [a performance measure set to be introduced in 2016/17 that will recognise providers that “offer a broad and balanced curriculum”] may help our league table position over the longer term, the reality is that there are still many practical barriers preventing a whole scale take-up of this across the college sector.