This conference season has felt particularly ‘anti-school’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always been an element of schools bashing, but this year it feels more desperate, and I think that’s because it’s not just from the usual suspects.

Working in education and across sectors (primary, secondary and further education) you see the ‘bashings’ come in cycles. First in the cycle comes GCSEs.

What regularly happens here, is a ‘Falling Standards Shocker’ story, where some interested party digs out an old O’ Level paper and compares it unfavourably to a recent GCSE paper.

Then it’s the turn of A-Levels. The record-breaking pass rates will be blamed on ‘dumbing down’ (it’s obviously not going to be attributed to the effects of harder working students or better skilled teachers and lecturers).

Universities aren’t immune; they’ll be tackled over “Mickey Mouse” degrees and of churning out graduates who aren’t ‘work ready’.

So, on one hand, FE colleges share the loud complaints about the standards of literacy and numeracy and the ‘dumbing down’ of exams with schools, but on the other they are spared the howling cries for schools to stuff more and more into the curriculum.

Colleges and training providers say they can’t get into the schools to talk to students, to tell them about the wonderful opportunities at their institution, to save them from their small school sixth forms.

Careers advice is also causing a rift. Connexions, the careers advice service has all but disappeared, and once again schools are tasked with picking up that mantle, but without any additional funding to enable them to do so effectively.

FE colleges aren’t keen; they are suspicious of schools’ intentions and their ability to deliver advice and guidance, impartially.
Funding means that schools are clinging on tighter to their post 16 students and colleges are working harder than ever to loosen the schools’ grip. It’s a flawed numbers game and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

Schools are bemoaning that, in an attempt to lure these students away from them, colleges are becoming quite predatory, putting on free transport and tempting students with free food, laptops and other goodies.

But, as I have explained to schools countless times, they have five years to work on their students, to encourage them into their sixth forms, whereas colleges have a much smaller window to engage with them – often despite school barriers.

I understand colleges’ desperation; some have suffered significant drops in enrolments, the cuts surrounding education maintenance allowance (EMA) and falling demographics have been cited as probable causes. Some colleges’ futures may be in the balance.

FE colleges aren’t keen; they are suspicious of schools’ intentions and their ability to deliver advice and guidance, impartially”

However, academies have also had an effect on college enrolments. The academies have now been established long enough for the interested to see improvements.

Because of their extra funding, and their renewed focus, they are winning influential friends and building enviable reputations; communication with parents has improved, uniforms have gotten smarter, discipline has been tackled, school days have been restructured, and results in the main, have improved. These academies are keeping their post-16 students in numbers before unseen.

But even they are not safe from the ‘new kids on the block’. Free schools with sixth forms, supported by high profile academic sponsors, and UTCs (university technical colleges) sponsored by big business are causing secondaries and colleges to quiver.

Funding dictates that post-16 is a numbers game; institutions’ survival and jobs depend on getting students through the door.

Of course students would do better if education weren’t chopped up into sectors, and not require each sector to eat the next sector in order to survive, but we are where we are, and schools are an easy target.

Schools get it in the neck for all that is wrong with society, and like it or not, they’re more visible than colleges, schools get the ‘column inches’ and those with agendas use that for their own ends.

Our education arena is already cluttered and confusing, and bashing the very schools that feed our colleges is not going to help. At this time of year, why not be the bigger sector, find some goodwill and play nice?

Ruth Sparkes is Director of EMPRA. She tweets @EMPRA

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