Further education chiefs have launched a research project that will assess the outcomes of thousands of 14 to 16-year-olds in college across England for the first time.
Around 10,000 students aged 14 to 16 learn in colleges rather than mainstream schools, with more than 100 of England’s 228 colleges catering for those learners, according to the Association of Colleges.
Now, the AoC and IOE, University College London’s faculty of education and society, have teamed up to research the outcomes of those learners and inform future policy.
Running until 2024, the Nuffield Foundation-funded research is set to assess the trajectory of those learners, with project bosses saying that the high likelihood of those learners to become NEET – not in employment, education or training – has been recognised but not researched to date.
David Hughes, AoC chief executive, said: “This is a ground-breaking project which will strengthen our collective understanding of a cohort of thousands of students which policymakers know little about.”
Those behind the research said it would represent the first in-depth study into “direct entry” learners and would help policymakers in their decision making in future.
Catherine Sezen, the AoC’s senior policy manager and principal investigator for the project, said: “This group of students is among the most vulnerable in further education, and building a deeper awareness of them and their outcomes will help the sector improve its provision for this cohort.”
Colleges have been able to deliver 14 to 16 courses since 2013, often catering for students who find mainstream school does not meet their needs.
Direct entry has, however, proved problematic for colleges as they are included in the government’s national league tables for Progress 8 – a score that tracks students’ progress over time from ages 11 to 16 and compares them to students of similar ability.
Latest Progress 8 scores were published in 2019 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and showed an average of -2.10 at 16 FE colleges with provision for 14- to 16-year-olds.
That was the lowest of any type of educational establishment, with the benchmark no lower than -0.5. The figure for all state-funded schools that year was -0.03.
In 2018, FE leaders called for colleges to be excluded from the government’s Progress 8 data, arguing that because colleges could only take on learners from age 14, they had less opportunity than mainstream schools to achieve better progression as they only had students for two of the five years Progress 8 scores measure.
Two big college groups – London South East Colleges and NCG – walked away from delivering direct entry provision that year and said that the misleading figures were negatively impacting reputations because national newspapers would list them as one of “the worst schools in the country” based on their Progress 8 scores.
The issue had also impacted on Ofsted inspections, with South Devon College complaining in December 2017 that it had been marked down in its inspection for its 14 to 16 provision.
Leeds City College in 2018 ended up in the bizarre scenario of being listed as one of “the worst schools in the country” by national newspapers because of its low Progress 8 score, but had an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating for its 14 to 16 provision.
Lynne Rogers, co-director of the centre for post-14 education and work at IOE and co-investigator for the new research said: “It is scandalous that so little is known about these young people. Given the evidenced vulnerability of this cohort and the longer-term consequences for young adults who fail to gain essential literacy and numeracy skills and drop out of education, there is an imperative to understand the role of FE provision in supporting these young people to achieve positive educational outcomes.”