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Funding is desperately needed for ‘overlooked’ learners across the region

Alternative 14-16 provisions offer young people who don’t fit into mainstream school a unique setting for them to get the support they desperately need and make positive changes to their lives, with often fantastic results, writes Niki McKenna, Headteacher at Leeds City College’s 14+ Academies.

Despite this, these provisions, such as the 14+ Academies at Leeds City College, are few and far between. In fact, we are the largest in the country and the only one in Yorkshire, and are oversubscribed each year. 

We’re calling on the government to acknowledge the transformative impact these provisions have on the lives of our young people and invest sufficient funding so that we, and other providers, can help more 14-16 year olds – who are otherwise getting left behind. 

Many of our learners come from challenging personal backgrounds, and may have suffered from mental health issues, bullying or have special educational needs (SEN). Some parents have told us that we’ve been a ‘lifeline’ for their child, and that they may not be here today without the support they received from the academies.  

Almost 80% of our students, when joining, say they have, or are currently facing some type of mental health or wellbeing barrier. They’ve had their fair share of struggles. What’s more, an astounding 88% of young people report feeling unsafe at their previous schools.  

These are staggering statistics, and it highlights the crucial role we play in supporting and uplifting our young people. We believe it is our mission to show them that there is hope, that they are not alone, and that they can thrive. We also ensure that we are respectful of their opinions, and try our best to cultivate durable relationships. 

We recently celebrated our 10 year anniversary, and our journey over this time has been nothing short of extraordinary. We have seen over 1,500 teenagers come through our doors, all of whom came in with individual struggles and left with hope, determination and self-belief. This is because provisions such as ours provide learners with the tools to build up their resilience and develop an unfaltering belief in their own potential. 

We have seen young minds blossoming as confidence grows, allowing our students to reimagine their futures. The 14+ Academies has become a haven, a safe and inclusive space where teenagers can develop, maximise their potential and raise their aspirations, all whilst embracing their individuality.  

One of the key challenges faced by colleges that provide a provision for students of this age, is meeting the needs of learners of all abilities with a variety of activities that encourage independence. 

As part of this, 14 and 15 year olds who come to us are able to choose from a range of tailored educational pathways.  

The main offer is the 14+ Apprenticeship Academy, which provides students with the opportunity to focus on core GCSE topics whilst completing a vocational course from a number of subject areas. 

Some also enrol on one of the specialist English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) courses, or the P-TECH academy – which allows students to take part in an industry-guided course in collaboration with tech giant, IBM. 

With a class size of no more than 20, staff can understand how to get the best out of learners, with tailored teaching to match individual needs. It’s not just about academia though, our main focus is on developing well-rounded young people who believe in themselves and their abilities.  

Not only do our learners now feel safe, but they also feel listened to and supported, and frequently express their appreciation for the support they receive. We are here to give them the fresh start they not only need, but deserve.  

We are always delighted to hear that they find their time at the 14+ Academies more enjoyable and rewarding than their previous school experience – and, vitally, now care about their futures. 

Many of the students that we enrol have been out of school for some time and therefore home-schooled as an interim option. Since the pandemic, applications to our provision have skyrocketed, and we are doing all we can to try and meet those needs.  

We have 240 spaces in total for those who need an alternative learning environment to school. This means every year we are able to take 120 new learners in year 10. This year, we had over 400 year 10 applications for the 2023-24 academic year. Although we would like to offer more spaces, we simply do not have the funding to do so. 

This is a stark reminder of the countless young people out there who are still struggling, who are not getting the support they desperately need. Our anniversary is a reminder of our responsibility to advocate for change, because this simply isn’t good enough. 

We will continue to campaign on this issue so we can transform the lives of many more teenagers, because we believe each and every one of them deserves a second chance. 

Luminate Education Group secures STEM Assured award

We have received recognition for our work to promote and enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects within the region.

We were awarded STEM Assured status; an accreditation granted by the UK STEM Foundation, in recognition of  advancing and promoting STEM education and careers. 

The group was praised for its dedication to providing high-quality STEM education opportunities to students and offering a diverse range of STEM-based courses designed to inspire and prepare them for the ever-changing job market.

The report highlighted that the group’s STEM provision is of a high quality, and is aligned with current and anticipated needs of the labour market.

It also said that the provision is committed to continual improvement and innovation and that there are clear engagement processes with employers and key stakeholders both at local and national level.

Ann Marie Spry, Group Vice Principal Adults, said: “We are committed to raising the profile of STEM across the region and addressing the skills gaps to drive economic growth. 

“This achievement is a testament to the hard work of our staff and reinforces our position as a leading provider of quality STEM programmes. It also demonstrates our dedication to equipping our students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in STEM careers.” 

The STEM Assured standard and framework benchmarked the college’s STEM provision in several category areas including: strategy and planning in relation to STEM economic priorities; as well as collaboration and consultation with stakeholders and delivery of STEM education.

STEM Foundation’s Chief Executive, Prof Sam Medhat said: “Luminate Education Group demonstrated distinctiveness in how STEM teaching and learning is approached. 

“Its active engagement with employers has resulted in the development of innovative programmes in areas such as  engineering, health, digital, bio pharma and environmental sustainability. 

The group joins only a handful of colleges in the region to achieve STEM Assured status.

For more information about Luminate Education Group, visit luminate.ac.uk.

If we really want to deliver diversity, we need a Public Services T Level

Curriculum reforms are welcome, but we need to tread carefully to ensure there is a clear pathway for all learners, writes Gemma Simmons-Blench, Deputy CEO Curriculum and Quality at Luminate Education Group.

The government’s reasons for wanting to de-fund dozens of technical qualifications seem reasonable: to, as the Department for Education (DfE) has stated, ‘simplify the system for young people’ and create a ‘ladder up for all’.

We have now got an impressive range of T Levels available which offer an attractive option for those seeking to mix their studies with industry placements. While curriculum reforms are welcomed, worryingly there are some missing replacements for all of the NCFE, BTEC and other applied general courses which are set to be phased out by 2025.

This is one of a number of concerns about the proposals that demand urgent action, nationally. The challenge is to introduce these reforms in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage any students or lead to successful existing pathways into work disappearing.

In this regard, the DfE’s claim* that only unpopular or failing applied general courses, or those that overlap with T Levels, will be defunded (*As quoted in this 29 January 2023 article) deserves scrutiny.

Take the uniformed public services courses that are currently offered by further education (FE) colleges, as a prime example. These help students – often with very few qualifications – to develop the skills they need to progress and pursue a career in the police, fire service, army, prison service or ambulance service. All crucial sectors for our society, but all facing challenges in terms of recruiting or retaining staff and ensuring their workforces are sufficiently diverse.

Undermining social mobility

These courses, running from Level 1 to  3, provide a unique pathway for young people for whom a direct route into A levels – or indeed, T Levels, and their five GCSE entry requirement – is simply not available. And there is strong demand for them; at one of our group’s FE providers, Leeds City College, we currently have around 350, 16-18 year old students who want to join a uniformed service.

We also have some 40 adults who came to us to acquire the 80 UCAS points they need, through achieving a Level 3 qualification, to go on and join the police through Leeds Trinity University’s Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship, which is funded by the West Yorkshire Police apprenticeship levy.

The government’s planned reforms, however, provide no direct alternative qualification for learners who want to work in the uniformed services. Instead, the DfE has made arrangements so colleges can apply for funding to run, from 2026, a ‘small Alternative Academic Qualification (AAQ)’ in place of their existing course.

The expectation will be for these small AAQs to be studied in combination with two A levels, which will make this new pathway much less attractive – and in some cases, inaccessible – to many. This change would restrict choice and, nationally, lead to a significant reduction in the number of people attempting to join our uniformed services. 

That would represent a disastrous blow for social mobility.

Delivering a diverse workforce

Our uniformed services still have a long way to go to ensure their workforces reflect our society. This government report for the police in England and Wales, for example, showed that as of March 2022, white officers made up nearly 92% of the personnel.

In West Yorkshire, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Alison Lowe described racial diversity last year – when statistics showed that just 7.4% of the force’s officers were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background – as ‘woeful’.

Yet our courses are helping to address these shortcomings. Some 20% of our Level 3 public service students in Leeds last year identified as BAME.

The gender split amongst students is also helping to address the historical imbalance which the police – whose workforce in England and Wales is 66.5% male – still suffers from. At Leeds City College our public services students last year were 60% female.

A diverse and inclusive approach to recruitment also means welcoming applicants from poorer backgrounds, and 40% of our public service students at Leeds City College in 2022 came from some of the country’s most deprived postcode areas.

FE providers are doing the work, now, to create that diverse workforce which our public services have been crying out for – through courses which might soon be gone.

That is one of the reasons why we are, respectfully, asking Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to consider the creation of a public services T Level that will allow colleges to continue meeting the skills needed in these crucial sectors.

Leeds City College praised for being ‘welcoming and inclusive’ by Ofsted

Leeds City College is celebrating after an Ofsted inspection found that it has made significant progress around safeguarding since its full review.

The focus of the visit was safeguarding for 16-18-year-olds at its Printworks campus and the Skills Programme for its 14-16 learners based at Park Lane campus.

The report praised leaders for taking safeguarding very seriously and added that the college has invested in a wide range of resources to enhance how it monitors, records and reports on safeguarding.

Ofsted also noted that the college has put significant and effective arrangements in place to ensure that learners aged 14 to 16 are safe. The report also highlighted that learners with high needs work positively with peers during small-group projects and are positive about their interactions with others.

Bill Jones, Executive Principal of Leeds City College said: “This is the best possible outcome for us and shows how we have consistently grown and developed our approach to keeping our students safe across the college. 

“Safeguarding is our number one priority and we are continually reviewing and putting systems in place to make sure that all learners feel safe and integrate well into the wider college.

“The report is a testament to the hard work of our staff who ensure our students get the best possible opportunities in an inclusive & safe environment.”

Carol Layall, Director of Quality of Education added: “Our learners’ safety, wellbeing and personal development are central to our culture and form part of our wider strategy to  delivering quality education across the communities we serve. 

“Through the work we do, we ensure that classrooms are welcoming, feel inclusive and that students have a place where they can thrive and progress.”

For more information, visit Leeds City College.

Leeds City College and University Centre Leeds  awarded Sanctuary status

Leeds City College and University Centre Leeds have been nationally recognised for their commitment to supporting refugees.

University Centre Leeds has joined a growing Place of Sanctuary network, whilst Leeds City College has become the only fourth college in the region to be named as a College of Sanctuary. 

The status is awarded by City of Sanctuary to recognise good practice and provision in supporting refugees and people seeking asylum. Both centres were found to have taken positive action to embed concepts of welcome, safety and inclusion through their curricula. 

Ann Marie Spry, Vice Principal for Adults at Luminate Education Group, said, “As a group, we pride ourselves on being a safe and welcoming place for all, especially those seeking sanctuary.

“We have worked hard to embed a culture of belonging, addressing barriers to refugees and asylum seekers and helping them to achieve their potential in an understanding and welcoming environment.

“Throughout the past 18 months, we have successfully implemented staff and student education programmes to share understanding of the importance of sanctuary, the difficult journeys our refugees and asylum seekers have been through and their value to our society.”

Staff in both organisations have held listening sessions with English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students to better understand their college experience, including what they need and what they don’t want from college.

A training programme has also been introduced for staff that explores common misconceptions about asylum seekers and refugees.

Meanwhile at University Centre Leeds, a wellbeing walkway has been opened to provide a welcoming outdoor area for all. It has been used as a safe space to share stories and encourage inquisitiveness and a sense of belonging.

Sara Trewhitt, Director of Operations at City of Sanctuary, said, “We had the pleasure of visiting Leeds City College and University Centre Leeds, and it was so wonderful to hear from such a wide range of staff and students.

“They were so inspiring, and it was encouraging to see so much aspiration and dedication in our discussions.”

Colleges are key to re-engaging Covid’s ‘lost generation’ in education, employment or training

Colleges are the obvious one-stop-shop for re-engaging disenfranchised young people after Covid and bridging the UK’s skills gaps, says Karen Johnson

It’s a little over three years since the beginning of a wave of lockdowns to combat the Covid pandemic. By now many of us are back to business as usual. But for a whole generation of young people whose education and early career opportunities have been stifled the journey has not been quite so smooth. 

According to a recent report from City & Guilds, there are over 800,000 young people in the UK who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). While this figure is shocking to some, we educators know all too well that young people have been among the hardest hit by the devastating aftershocks of that period. 

In response, we need nothing less than a seismic shift in how we think about education. It’s no longer a case of retaining our students, but of reintegrating them and offering them a much-needed second chance. 

Implementing programmes nationally to capture the nearly 16 per cent young people currently classified as NEET is not without its complications. The government’s spring budget recognised the role that economically inactive people could play in filling the 1.3 million vacancies in our economy today. However, consistent underfunding means that existing services and programmes are already under immense strain, and not operating at the scale required to solve the problem.

One such programme is NEET re-engagement programme at Leeds City College, which aims to improve young people’s skills while helping them prepare for their next steps. Further education colleges are unique in their ability to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for careers advice, pastoral support, education and work experience. Other organisations offer some of these services, but it’s rare to find one that has it all.

Our bespoke programme helps students aged 16 to 24 to develop skills in essential subjects, particularly maths and English, all while engaging them in enrichment activities and supporting them with progression. 

The move to online learning during the pandemic deepened the chasm of access to quality education. For some of our most vulnerable young people, the amount of lost learning was substantial, leaving them wholly unprepared for further education or employment. In crafting and delivering our programme, we focus on removing such barriers.

We need a seismic shift in how we think about education

It’s not just in the classroom that young people are facing struggles. Mental health charity, Young Minds reported in 2021 that 67 per cent believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. Issues of low self-confidence have been directly linked to long periods of social isolation; I’ve had countless young people tell me they simply don’t feel up to the challenge of employment. 

One of the young people on our programme had always dreamed of pursuing a career in creative arts, but was too anxious of being around so many people after lockdowns to pursue their ambition. This example is repeated everywhere across the country.

We often think of young people as highly social, but in reality the thought of stepping back into a classroom for the first time in over two years has been undeniably overwhelming. We are fortunate enough to have a smaller facility that can host our programme, and have implemented shorter session times to make them more manageable. 

But by far the most common barrier is finance, with the rising cost of living meaning many young people are undertaking temporary, part-time work at the expense of their studies. As part of the programme, students are offered meal cards and free bus passes to minimise cost and support with their responsibilities outside of the programme. 

Even in its infancy, I’ve seen this programme make a real difference to those who had nowhere else to turn, and with 14 new referrals already this month, it’s clear there’s demand. Like many others across the sector, we are proud of the work we’re doing and we know more needs to be done.

Put simply, the UK’s labour market cannot afford to disregard the potential of so many. Colleges are a natural place to invest in the multi-faceted work this challenge requires, and failure to reengage those who do not currently have the resources to fulfil their potential constitutes a huge missed opportunity for policy makers.

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