The benefits run both ways – but the OfS should not expect colleges to drive school improvement, writes Marion Plant
“Universities and colleges have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel of improving that wider community they sit within, and as both educational and civic institutions, improving attainment in our schools is an essential part of that work.”
These were the words spoken on Tuesday by the new director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, John Blake.
I agree strongly with that statement, and I will explain how and why. The more interesting and complicated part is how a college goes about it.
I am in the slightly unusual position as a college leader because I am also the chief executive of a multi-academy trust. We have four mainstream secondary schools in the trust. We also have a sizeable 14-16 provision at the college – alternative provision and home educated.
First of all, I am concerned that the education system is so fragmented that if you are a parent, there is very little clear coherence about the route your child should take through education and ultimately into work.
It is the moral duty, of all those in the system, including those who fund us in government, to create greater coherence in the system.
So if we are talking about colleges getting involved with schools, it should be all about about building coherent pathways into meaningful work. Closer partnership also allows seamless sharing of information at all stages, particularly for young people with SEND.
Colleges as institutions hugely benefit when they work closely with schools. For example, we have learnt a lot from our schools about best practice in English and maths GCSE.
We support thousands of young people and adults to re-sit GCSEs in English and maths, but recruiting great teachers is challenging because of pay disparities. Working together to improve performance before entering college helps close that attainment gap.
At the same time, schools can benefit from many aspects of college life. For a start, schools are usually smaller than colleges and we are able to provide the backing of a multi-million-pound organisation to help reduce back office costs and improve resilience.
This benefit was clearly felt during the recent lockdowns when vulnerable pupils and key worker children from several local schools attended a ‘”joint provision” at the college’s main campus.
Colleges can also provide a breadth of careers advice and experiences that schools might not have access to otherwise, with recognised qualifications, apprenticeships, supported internships and T Levels. These are often opportunities that school teachers are less knowledgeable about.
At the same time, schools can themselves provide work experience opportunities for FE students, which is a growing need, given T Level work experience requirements. Schools have digital IT teams, childcare learning opportunities, and so on.
FE staff can also benefit through continuous development opportunities. We have a SENDCO, for instance, who has worked across the age range of schools and colleges to extend their understanding of learner development across different age groups.
Colleges can deliver adult education through schools
One important possibility is colleges delivering adult education through schools. This is often missed in conversations about school improvement.
Adult education with parents or carers at a school is a hugely powerful way of improving skills and confidence within local communities and also improving a student’s own attainment.
The question then is: is all this already happening in FE? Does the OfS need to call for this?
We perhaps do a lot more work with schools than the average college, but we are not unique. Many colleges work closely with schools.
However, leaders and FE staff should recognise that, yes, there is a funding disparity between schools and colleges, but supporting schools has a moral purpose, and a clear business benefit.
I suspect the OfS doesn’t realise how much work some colleges are already doing with schools.
But we should recognise that the experts in school improvement specifically are school teachers. Where I would urge caution is around any suggestions colleges get involved in intervention in school improvement.