The government go-ahead for FE colleges to recruit 14-year-olds from school is to be applauded, says Mike Hopkins

The government’s decision to let FE colleges recruit 14-year-olds from schools is great news for students and FE.

A good number of students will benefit from high-quality vocational learning while continuing a broad education within the national curriculum. They will be able to pursue vocational options in colleges that have capital expenditure available, equipment and staff with great industry skills. This decision has really opened  up the system for those that realise that this is the best option for them.

I got involved with the proposal  after reading Alison Wolf’s review that recommended colleges recruit directly at 14 to improve the quality and status of vocational education in England.

The Department for Education asked the Association of Colleges to look at any barriers to such a change to see if they could be removed without primary legislation being altered – and I  ended up as co-chair of its college implementation group.

I think Alison Wolf is courageous and I respect her work. In my experience she’s prepared to say what she thinks, based on the evidence in front of her.

I feel really moved to have been involved with this and think it’s the single most important announcement and structural change FE has experienced. I can’t think of anything bigger.

This government sees competition as a driver for improvement”

After the Second World War the odd FE college started to recruit students for A levels. There were  few youngsters coming through to take an academic route;  now 43 per cent of full-time students aged 16 to 18 are college-based  with just 26 per cent schools-based.

I suspect that over the next decade or two there’ll be a similar shift, particularly if colleges deliver this change well, with quality and integrity.

This is a courageous decision and a real game changer.  I suspect ministerial frustration at how much money goes into the sector and the variability in performance that comes out helped it to be made.  This government sees competition as a driver for improvement. And while you can criticise competition, when FE was taken away from local authority control and pushed out into the big bad world to create partnerships and to compete where appropriate, the quality of services available to students and employers was driven up significantly.

Ministers have a right to put safeguards in place so I support the conditions imposed on colleges to be able to recruit. Only those  rated  by Ofsted as outstanding, good or satisfactory with improving results can do so. There also must be separate 14 to 16 leadership.

Ultimately it’s good for the sector to have individuals from school backgrounds with the temperament and approach to meld and blend with the FE environment.  These assets will add to the breadth of a college.

However, Shadow Education Minister Karen Buck’s comments that colleges are adult environments and children might not get enough pastoral care were disappointing.

In the past you could probably accuse colleges of this, but that disappeared 20 years ago and we now have a massive experience of pastoral care.

I’ll do everything I can to encourage the Labour party to come to this position.  This is a great opportunity for students but it’s absolutely vital the sector delivers it well.

Mike Hopkins is
principal of Middlesbrough College 



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  1. I’d feel happier about Mike’s views if he was less enamored with those of Alison Wolf. I challenged her during my submission on the issue of schools provision of IAG within the context of opening up FE Colleges to 140-16 year olds, and her response was “don’t take me there”.

    I still see no response to the IAG deficit in schools in relation to this new option for 14 year olds and the other points I have made:

    1. Safeguarding for this cohort: this reform adds a new challenge to FE Colleges
    2. It provides schools with an excellent way of “dumping” their least able pupils on their local FE Colleges
    3. Those schools with sixth forms who already actively put up barriers to their pupils accessing information about FE options (see AoC survey) won’t change their ways
    5. We need to consider whether the whole question of developing alternative pathways that commence at age 14 for all pupils, as Lord Baker has suggested, is being addressed, or sidestepped by this proposal