A new government must recognise the many benefits of college-based 14-16 provision

The educational and economic case for tapping into colleges as a resource for 14-16 provision is strong and growing

The educational and economic case for tapping into colleges as a resource for 14-16 provision is strong and growing

7 Jul 2024, 5:00

Properly resourced, colleges can dramatically improve the outlook for young people who are not enjoying and often not attending more traditional forms of 14-16 education. A new government must consider them as part of the solution to some of the challenges facing schools and the economy.

Leeds City College’s 14+ Academies offer a different environment and level of support for young people to complete valuable GCSE qualifications while also gaining a vocational element to their studies. The different environment, culture and level of support on offer has proven particularly effective in engaging young people disenfranchised by a more traditional approach to 14-16 education.

And demand for this provision far outstrips supply. Each year, almost 2,000 enquiries compete for the 110 places we can offer. What might the number be nationally?

These high levels of demand are indicative of how traditional 14-16 education is failing to effectively meet the needs of all learners. Our 14+ learners often come from challenging backgrounds, with many having experienced mental health issues, bullying or special educational needs. Parents and carers regularly tell us our 14+ Academies provide an invaluable ‘lifeline’ to children.

Although currently underutilised, further education colleges sit in a unique position to provide more tailored and engaging support to learners whose needs are not being met. They can also support traditional 14-16 education settings by taking on provision that they would otherwise struggle to offer.

Often, the failure of traditional schooling to cater for diverse learner circumstances and needs further disenfranchises those young people. This leads to falling levels of attendance as they progress to increasingly important years of their education. This process can be seriously detrimental.

As well as options to take core GCSE subjects, Leeds City College’s 14+ Academies students also have access to specialist English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) or P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) courses.

2,000 enquiries compete for the 110 places we can offer

Colleges can also offer practical, technical forms of education that are out of reach for traditional 14-16 settings. Through our 14+ Academies, we know that teaching technical skills that young people can see will benefit them in the world of work motivates and empowers students to succeed in subjects that would otherwise not have interested them, like English and maths.

Sometimes, it is the positive experience they encounter when pursuing a technical subject that encourages them into more academic forms of education. Other times, it can be the realisation that maths and English can be a requirement to pursue the technical option they have enjoyed at a higher level.

This impact is so great, in fact, that we frequently witness 14+ Academies students go on to pursue A levels that they would have thought completely out of reach beforehand.

There is general consensus that our education system should better encourage uptake of technical subjects. Likewise, the economic case for more young people to pursue technical subjects to tackle shortages in critical roles across the economy is well understood.

Expanding college-based 14-16 provision could play a significant role in widening the bridge young people cross when travelling from academic to technical education. This could increase the overall number of post-16 students taking up vocational forms of study – and succeeding first time in their English and maths GCSEs.

There is another facet of the economic argument for college-based provision of 14-16 education too. If our 14+ students were not attending the Academies, most would be in Alternative Provision or Pupil Referral Units. Such settings cost taxpayers around twice as much per student as our 14+ Academies and secure far poorer outcomes in the process.

The Association of Colleges is currently working with IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, on a Nuffield-funded research project exploring the offer to and experience of 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges, and what enables them to achieve their full potential and flourish.

Whatever the colour of the incoming government, a review of the funding behind colleges’ capacity to deliver this type of provision could prove incredibly valuable. So too would establishing local pilots to gather detailed data on their impact.

If we are serious about finding ways to improve outcomes for young people whose needs are not met by mainstream school environments, then this is a great place to start.

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