College provision for 14-16 can no longer be overlooked

Alan Mckenna

More must be done to support direct-entry learners in further education settings as the provision offers a critical lifeline for some, writes Alan McKenna

Around 10,000 14- to 16-year-olds study in further education colleges, yet this cohort is too often overlooked. Since its inception in 2013, provision for these learners has occupied a grey area between secondary and further education, meaning they have routinely been underrepresented in government policy and funding. Being measured against the Progress 8 framework is just one example of how these provisions are unfairly judged.

This lack of awareness is particularly problematic given the vulnerability of the young people who access these provisions. There is a huge misconception among educators and the public that such services are simply for those who are badly behaved, when in reality many of these young people are struggling as a result of complex situations, such as poor mental health or bullying.

These situations can create barriers to learning, which often result in young people failing to gain the essential numeracy and literacy skills they require for later life. The long-term consequences for young people without these competencies are significant, ranging from reduced employment opportunities to an increased risk of physical and mental health complications.

Ultimately, it’s our fear as educators that young people who do not find support outside of a mainstream school environment are vulnerable to becoming NEET – not in employment, education or training.

But the possibility of negative outcomes for this cohort only serves to highlight the importance of a sound educational infrastructure that properly supports their needs.

Research is key

Last year, the Association of Colleges (AoC) announced that, for the first time, they will be undertaking research that will explore outcomes for thousands of 14- to 16-year-olds in colleges across the country. This is something we have been desperate for. The hope is that this research will create a better understanding of what it means to run a 14-16 provision and the positive outcomes that learners can experience as a result.

In response to the research launch, we produced a video sharing staff, student and parent experiences of direct-entry college provision. Through sharing their stories, those at the very heart of the system make a passionate plea to policymakers to invest in a model that is working.

This research comes at a critical time for provisions such as ours. When a young person or parent is seeking an alternative environment to mainstream school, we know that they are already at risk of dropping out of education completely.

The problem is that there simply isn’t the capacity to deal with the current demand for these services, meaning that not every young person gets access to the help they need.

An alternative educational setting

Our students have gone on to achieve great things, whether that’s in employment or continued education, and this success is due to the model of education we have developed.

Our curriculum is designed specifically to support young people who have become disenfranchised with mainstream school, and our bespoke approach to how we work and engage with our young people is set up to remove potential barriers to learning and to cultivate an environment where students feel accepted and welcome. We’ve also partnered with local NHS service MindMate to integrate mental health support and mindfulness within the curriculum.

This approach to learning and engaging with others fosters a sense of security and mutual respect, providing a strong foundation to give young people the life skills they need to progress positively in life. Students and parents have also praised how the balance of core subject learning, vocational training and pastoral support has given learners a ‘head start’ and restored their passion for learning.

The issue we have now is that we need more funding so we can offer the same positive outcomes for more learners, in Leeds and nationally.

As chair of the 14-16 Special Interest Group, I am delighted that the AoC is leading this vital project in unearthing and informing the next steps for 14-16 provision in further education. We know there is a growing demand for something different to mainstream environments and we believe this model is it.

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