Schools could soon be financially sanctioned if they sign students up to inappropriate A-level courses that they later abandon, Skills Minister Nick Boles has warned.
He made the comments at a parliamentary sub-committee meeting on education, skills and the economy on Wednesday (April 27), when he admitted concern that there is no current downside to A-level dropouts who might be better suited to more vocational routes.
Mr Boles said: “Currently there is no downside to people dropping out after a year. That is not ideal because in truth the value of the programme is to complete the two years.”
Given that funding was one factor that influenced schools’ decision-making, he said he would like to try to “build in something” to address the problem.
“I’ve spoken with colleges about this; they certainly feel that could make a difference alongside the transparency of destinations.”
From the summer, performance tables will include retention rates for school sixth forms.
Schools and colleges already receive 17.5 per cent less funding for pupils who repeat an A-level year, but there is currently no financial penalty if students drop out and transfer elsewhere.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, attacked the idea, and said the funding situation in education was already sufficiently “tight and complex” without putting “completely inappropriate fines” in place.
He said: “When students do decide to change programme it already causes trouble for schools and colleges.”
Mr Trobe added that good advice for young people should be the top priority for schools and government, but as students got older, it should be expected that they might change their educational direction.
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said Mr Boles’ comments were not a surprise, after a 2013 report by Ofsted found three quarters of schools failed to equally promote vocational options.
In January, the Department for Education (DfE) announced that schools must give “equal airtime” to post-16 non-academic routes.
Mr Watkin said: “It is difficult to give exactly the right advice to 16-year-olds. Most schools try to get it right, but if they get it wrong it is the other providers who have to step in and pick up the pieces, and often in more challenging circumstances.”
He recommended new structures to ensure that young people were not given inappropriate advice, but added: “My experience is that the carrot tends to work better than the stick. Talk of punishing is not helpful.”
Martin Doel, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: “To make informed choices for the future, young people need high-quality, impartial careers information about all post-16 education and training options, including apprenticeships and technical and professional education.
“Alongside this, the Minister is right to look at how the system can best ensure schools encourage their pupils to take the best decision for them rather than automatically enter the sixth form. This could be a combination of incentives and potential penalties.”
Following Mr Boles’ comments, a DfE spokesperson said the department was “looking to examine” the incentives to schools for students to complete a full programme.