As a college with a long history of 14-16 provision, we have always recognised the value of offering high-quality vocational choices to younger students. We know from experience that some people are much better suited to more practical styles of learning.
As Professor Alison Wolf highlighted in her review of vocational education in 2013, studying a vocational pathway can also improve academic achievement for some learners – which is something we see evidenced in our college.
Many young people achieve success at college after years of perceived failure. The wholly academic and exam-focused nature of schools does not suit every learner and defining “success”within these narrow parameters means that many will fall outside them.
Offering alternative routes at 14 can allow some young learners to view success differently from an earlier age, increasing their self-confidence, self-belief and aspiration.
We were one of the first to apply when FE colleges were given the opportunity in 2013 to directly recruit and enrol this age group.
We set up London’s first hospitality career college as well as a full-time 14-16 provision, which offered several vocational specialties alongside core academic GCSEs.
Our vision for 14-16 direct-entry provision was an aspirational vocational hub for young people who were motivated by practical learning and focused on a career pathway into a specific industry.
The reality, however, was that it became a provision for children who would otherwise have faced exclusion, or an alternative to home schooling before reaching the point of exclusion.
This meant a disproportionate number of young people were coming to us with learning and behavioural issues and we were having to operate more like one of our alternative provisions. Although we have experience in this area, we didn’t want it to be the primary purpose of our 14-16 centre.
But what was clear was the positive effect that this practical model of education was having on many of the students. Their motivation for learning increased and their confidence grew as they recognised their abilities in different areas and progressed on to higher levels.
So, while our ambition for a high-achieving provision that competed with mainstream schools in the league tables wasn’t realised, what was clear was the importance of such alternative routes for some 14- to 16-year-olds.
We therefore had to adapt and re-focus. The result has been to revert to a hybrid model, more like the old “increased flexibility programmes”, but working as a form of outreach in close partnership with local mainstream schools.
Fourteen- to 16-year-olds attend our alternative curriculum college two days a week to study vocational programmes, including hair and beauty, multi-skills and motor vehicle. Their other three days are spent at their schools studying for key GCSEs.
We are seeing success in real terms. Students know they must attend well to keep their place, and engagement is high. Last year 96 per cent of year 11 learners progressed on to full-time courses at college, 30 per cent of which were apprenticeships.
Overall outcomes are better with the school being able to focus on core GCSE, while we deliver the vocational aspects – rather than us having to do it all in two short years.
This model has also reduced mainstream exclusions and reflects the benefits that come from genuine partnership working between schools and colleges.
Reaching this point hasn’t been straightforward, but we’ve learned from experience. This provision is now absolutely meeting the needs of these specific learners.
I therefore welcome the Association of Colleges/University College London research project that will explore 14-16 provision in FE. It is essential to build up a better picture of what motivates these young people and how we can all work together to improve their outcomes.