A second chance shouldn’t mean second best

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Our new CEO Andy Ratcliffe gives his thoughts on educational outcomes for disadvantaged 16-19  year olds, as part of Impetus-PEF’s Life After School campaign. For more info, take a look at our infographic and report.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, isn’t a fan of Further Education colleges. Seven weeks ago he described the Further Education sector as “inadequate at best”. And just two weeks ago he told MPs that “16 to 19 should be done in school” not in FE colleges.

I think he’s wrong. The best FE colleges complement what schools can offer and give young people a different choice. Because of their scale they can offer a wider range of courses, including vocational options. Because they are focused on over-16s they can provide a different learning environment for young people making the transition from school to work or university, and for those young people who didn’t get on with school. And, practically, FE colleges teach 984,000 under 19 year olds, a number that the school system couldn’t absorb.

But although his solution is wrong, Sir Michael identified the right problem. At the same hearing where he criticised FE colleges he also said “Youngsters who don’t do very well at 16 often don’t do very well two years later, particularly in English and maths where the results are pretty poor”. Every young person should be supported to get good GCSEs in maths and English at school. And if they don’t get the grades at 16, they need a second chance to catch up by 19. A second chance shouldn’t mean second best but, as our report out last week shows too often it does. We need to focus on giving 16 to 19 year olds decent second chances in their maths and English. And we need to find innovative and effective ways to provide catch-up teaching.  Otherwise, we’re going to see more and more young people being made to do catch-up qualifications without much chance of success – wasting effort, money, and, more importantly, talent.

These catch-up qualifications matter, and they’re going to matter more and more. The most obvious reason is that the qualifications matter.  Previous Impetus-PEF research has shown those who leave school with only GCSE-level qualifications (or less) are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with better qualifications. Many young people don’t get those qualifications the first time round, particularly if they come from a disadvantaged background. Ideally, of course, every young person would get to 16 with all the qualifications they need. But lots don’t. Six out of ten young people from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have a Level 2 qualification in maths and English by 19. And it’s three out of ten even for their better off peers. So second chances matter.

And more young people are going to want those second chances. More young people are going to be taking ‘catch-up’ qualifications in the next few years. Raising the participation age means young people will be required to retake their maths and English GCSEs if they don’t get them at 16. We’re already hearing informally from FE colleges that enrolment in English and maths GCSE catch-up courses has trebled since the participation age was raised. That’s a good thing because if you haven’t got the qualifications you need the first time it’s good to have a second chance, but it means the quality of the catch-up provision will be even more important.

But the quality is a big concern. The chances of success in GCSE maths and English the second time around are too low. It’s impossible to come up with directly comparable figures since the participation age was raised, but we do know that in 2011/12 only 42% of entrants for a catch-up English qualification at GCSE Level 2 achieved it by the time they were 19. The comparable figure for maths was 35%.   

So, how we do we make sure young people get the second chances they deserve? There are three areas we should look at. First, we need to start by focusing attention on the problem.  As a minimum, we need reliable data on attainment in Level 2 maths and English at both 16 and 19, and success rates in catch-up qualifications. The government might consider setting a goal of increasing the percentage of all young people attaining Level 2 English and maths by the age of 19 to 77%, doubling the current progression rate between 16 and 19.

Second, we need to acknowledge the uneven financial playing field between FE colleges and schools. FE colleges get less money per 16 to 18 year old than school sixth forms, despite serving more disadvantaged students.  This is in effect a ‘pupil penalty’ for poorer students which undermines some of the benefits of the pupil premium in schools.

Finally, we need better evidence of what works in catch-up education. It’s an area ripe for new thinking and innovation. The Education Endowment Foundation are starting work now to review the evidence on catch-up teaching to improve our understanding around what works and identify areas of promise. And we at Impetus-PEF are committed to working with them and our charity partners to identify and spread the most effective approaches.

The good news is that Sir Michael is not alone in focusing on this issue. The Department of Education is looking closely at post-16 provision. And the Prime Minister said in his speech on life chances that what motivates him is ‘helping the most disadvantaged kids catch-up’. So let’s focus on that rather than on blaming FE colleges.  Let’s fight to make young people’s second chances first class.

Andy Ratcliffe is the former CEO of Impetus.

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