Post16 education in England: will it do what it says on the tin?

I am currently observing a key local debate on post16 education in England from close up.

The forum for this is Richmond upon Thames Borough Council which is holding a very public Cabinet meeting on Thursday 24 May to discuss options for post16 education within the local authority at a potential additional cost of at least £25m to the public purse.

The context for this is legislation that is coming into force over the next few years extending compulsory education up to age 18.

The main issue is whether this education should be provided to students staying longer in their current schools, or by being transferred to often larger colleges, some of which can be a fair distance away by public transport. The underlying debate is about the extent of choice that should be available to post16 students in terms of both institutions and courses. This mirrors an existing debate on higher education that has been catalysed by the tripling of some university tuition fees from September this year.

I find it easiest to follow the pathway of a ‘typical’ student and see the specific points at which decisions can or can’t be made:

  • around about age 13-14 most students will be making decisions about which GCSEs to take – this will be informed by their teachers and views from their parents – there may not actually be a lot of real choice in the process apart from the perceived academic rigour of the qualification they will sit for, usually when they are 16 (though see today’s Ofsted report on the dangers of early entry to GCSE Mathematics).
  • once they have received their GCSE results they will then need to decide rapidly on where and what to continue to study to higher level, assuming they have the necessary grades to satisfy this.
  • If they are taking an A-level route then under the current system (which may change) they have another decision point at the end of their AS levels -whether to continue with or drop a specific subject – there is less choice in other qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate. They will also need to decide on which university course they wish to apply for which can be complicated and depend on a range of factors.
  • by the time they are 18 or 19 most students will have completed their further education or a form of training such that (hopefully) they have achieved the desired level of certification needed for real higher education or employment choices.

Assuming post16 education helps most students progress through such a pathway then it will have done ‘what is says on the tin’. But individuals are not simply mass-produced to a single educational template (well, perhaps with the exception of North Korea and other totalitarian nations). There is variety in their learning aptitudes and experiences shaped by combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic factors such as perseverance, family values, cultural geography etc. So it is difficult to predict with 100% accuracy the outcome of any specific path. That’s a behr fact.

Which means that I am afraid the answer isn’t clear cut and perhaps the best formulation would be: “yes, assuming there will be a variety of tins with different shades of outcome within them, depending on available choices.”

I’ve not yet seen a shelf like it!