Schools may see 14-16 recruitment as a threat, but there is a way to make it work, says Alison Maynard.
Since legislation was changed in 2014 to allow FE colleges to recruit mainstream 14-16 students, there has been mixed enthusiasm from the education world. And indeed, we are seeing mixed success in the implementation of this new option.
In our current economic climate, it certainly makes financial sense for colleges to expand their potential funding streams and introduce 14- to 16-year-olds. The hope is that these students will then move up onto higher level courses, thus creating a pipeline of loyal and dedicated students to boost current and future college recruitment.
For young people themselves, extra options at the age of 14 are also a great thing. As principal of a vocational college, I see first-hand the many students who thrive in a more practical and hands-on environment. With the national curriculum getting narrower, many 14-16 colleges provide an alternative route, offering subjects that increasingly are being scrapped by schools.
FE colleges will generally have much closer links with employers than schools do – and this real-world input is more important than ever if we are to make young people employable and to help plug the ever-growing skills gap.
It would therefore appear that 14-16 provision at FE colleges is a win-win for both the sector and the students. But why are so many colleges not keen on going down this road?
Teachers owe it to their pupils to share all possible study options
And for those who have taken the plunge, why are so many of them finding recruitment such a challenge?
We launched our 14-16 provision in 2015 when we set up Career College North East – specialising in advanced manufacturing, engineering and computer science.
The biggest challenge for us, and I believe this is the case for many other FE colleges offering 14-16 provision, has been overcoming the reticence of some school leaders to embrace this pioneering education route. Considering the financial pressure being felt across the education sector, it is perhaps understandable that support from local schools has not always been forthcoming in the way we may have expected or hoped.
Recruiting and retaining students is obviously key to a school or college’s success. Adequate funding is subject to enrolling the necessary numbers of students and then ensuring they complete their studies. In essence, schools, sixth forms and colleges are all competing for the same students, and they must choose to go somewhere.
When an FE college sets up 14-16 provision, they are effectively giving young people an extra learning option and the opportunity to follow an alternative learning pathway.
For a local school, this is often viewed as competition and a potential threat to their student numbers and therefore their funding. But in reality, FE colleges will be offering something very different, which will suit some children more than others.
I feel strongly that heads and teachers owe it to their pupils to share with them all possible study options for their futures, even if these may lie at a different institution. They should not, even inadvertently and for what they may see as the overall good of their school, limit these options.
Many school heads already provide all relevant information and may baulk at the suggestion they do not put every learning option on the table. Perhaps they also truly believe that it is entirely in the best interests of their students to stay in mainstream education. But what is important is that they give their students high-quality and relevant information on each and every option and opportunity, including at age 14.
My college confronted this potential issue head on and chose to work together with a local secondary school. Instead of seeing us as a direct competitor, the school embraced our 14-16 Career College provision as a unique opportunity to further the education of some of its most progressively-minded pupils – by meeting their needs in a way the school by itself did not.
There is no silver bullet for recruiting students at the non-standard transfer age of 14. However, with greater collaborative working and a real desire to offer young people new and exciting learning options, I believe we can overcome the challenges and reap the benefits.
Alison Maynard is principal of South Tyneside College’s professional and vocational college