The government’s wrong-headed performance measures do not work for 14-to-16 provision, and cannot give vocational learning the credit it deserves, writes Sam Parrett

Over two years ago, I wrote to what was then the EFA to express my concerns around the new Progress 8 performance measures and how they would be applied to our cohort of learners at 14 to 16.

Sadly these worries were not unfounded, as we have seen with the publication of the government’s latest school league tables. FE colleges offering 14-to-16 provision are languishing at the bottom, ranked as underperforming. This is disappointing and an unfair reflection of the very hard work done by students and staff across the FE sector.

Even more disappointing is the fact that we and others were assured that this would not happen. It is yet another reputational blow for an embattled sector which constantly has to fight for survival.

Is this really what “underperforming” looks like?

Progress 8 is based on a five-year secondary school model, in which pupils start at the end of key stage 2 and their progress is measured during KS3 and KS4. This isn’t how schooling works for those attending 14-to-16 provision at FE Colleges, as they typically join at the beginning of KS4.

The government’s own press release detailing GCSE results for 2016/17 clearly states that this fundamental difference between schools and colleges should be “taken into account when comparing [FE colleges’] results with those schools that start educating their pupils from the beginning of key stage 3”.

The DfE should surely admit that putting schools and colleges together in the same league tables is nonsensical and unfair. Apples are being compared to oranges and the real story behind the numbers is not being told.

With only 18 FE colleges in the country offering this unique alternative to mainstream school, the profile of their students will of course be different. Any student moving to college for the start of year 10 will usually be doing so due to interrupted schooling, permanent exclusion or disengagement from school.

Yet despite these difficult situations, many thrive in a college environment, achieving well and progressing onto level two and three courses or into apprenticeships. Most importantly they are not becoming NEET (of which they are at high risk) and have re-engaged with education.

In fact, every single student in our own year 11 cohort (61 in total) progressed successfully into employment, further education or training. Ninety-nine per cent achieved an English qualification and 97 per cent a maths qualification alongside their vocational programme. Is this really what “underperforming” looks like?

Being treated as an adult and focusing on a particular interest or talent made a huge difference to these children

However, rather than being able to celebrate this success, our board had to take the decision last year to close our 14-to-16 provision. Even though these young people make up less than one per cent of our total student community, the effect of these league tables on the reputation of our wider college is a risk we can’t afford to take.

This is a travesty for young people in Bromley who wanted and indeed needed a technical alternative to mainstream school. Being treated as an adult and focusing on a particular interest or talent made a huge difference to these children – and now they have little choice but to struggle on in an environment that doesn’t suit them or to drop out and become NEET.

We are not alone in our disappointment and I am sure others will sadly have to follow suit.

It is encouraging to see that the FE community, headed up by the AoC, has come out fighting, making a case for alternative accountability measures. They highlight the unique student profile that makes up 14-to-16 provision, the challenges faced and the very different measures of success that need to be considered.

I find it hard to understand why politicians and policymakers are failing to understand this issue. I would like to see DfE officials visiting 14-to-16 FE colleges, to observe the good work and devise less brutal ways of judging this innovative provision.

Ultimately the government must ensure that vocational learning – and the success it brings – is represented fairly and given the credit it absolutely deserves.

Sam Parrett is principal and CEO of London South East Colleges

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