Secret Lecturer: Wasted opportunities - why let students leave college in May?

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Some of my long-suffering GCSE resit colleagues saw a brief glimmer of light at the end of the maths and English  tunnel last month, with the news that more students were passing these exams by age 19 in 2018 compared with previous years. The increase, though heartening, is still small change, given the injustice of a continued lack of teaching and training provision for the 50% of 16-18s (ca 300,000) who don’t go to university each year.

What is on offer is really patchy - these young people may or may not get an apprenticeship; or they will stay on at school to take BTecs and other applied general qualifications. Ironically, public funding for many BTec routes is under scrutiny and the subject of a two-part government consultation this year. The government says many BTecs are poor quality and/or overlap with existing A-levels and future T-levels - qualifications that are not open to more than around half the 300,000 cohort because of their lack of GCSEs. 

A put-upon group of teenagers

I do wonder where the government is coming from? Get rid of BTecs and there will be even less training choices for this huge 150,000-plus cohort; they will generally not be taking T-levels, which are seen as another route to higher education alongside A-levels. Even the recent post-18 Augur report contained little about the future of this put-upon group of teenagers. 

All the time, the numbers are stacking up. We now have around 15 million citizens without a level 2 qualification, many with basic literacy needs. What can we do for them?

Things have to change. Legally, students have to stay on at school or college or receive workplace training till aged 18. But ask a 16-year-old student what their legal educational entitlement is and they don’t know.

‘You can’t have finished in May, surely?'

I recently asked one 17 year-old how college was going. “I’ve finished!” he said exuberantly.

“What?” I replied. “You can’t have finished, it’s only the last week in May.”

“Ah well, my course tutor told me I didn’t need to come back until September.”

“But don’t you know the government is paying for someone to teach you until the middle of July?” 

“What do you mean?”

I explained that all students were entitled to a programme of study over three terms. The penny dropped. He realised he was owed at least another six weeks’ free tuition.

Huge summer break does no favours for resits

He was a bright student who had finished his level 2s and was going on to level 3. The question was if the government had paid his college to teach him for 35 weeks for 15 hours a week, why was he not getting support now to start his level 3 studies during the rest of the term? Why wasn’t he going on a trip or doing other activities to help him build up his CV or his presentation or life skills to improve his chances of a good job or apprenticeship? 

Often only those students struggling to finish level 2 project work by the end of May are asked to stay on to complete it by term end. The early finish also means many students (who have finished their project work in May and yet continue to struggle to pass English and maths GCSE resits) have a huge gap in their tuition from May through to September and forget much of what they have learned - something that just prolongs the cycle of failed resits.

Students are being short-changed 

Similar misunderstanding was evident among the student’s friends. Out of six, only the one attending a sixth form college said she was expected to turn up until mid-July; she’d already been given study homework for the summer. She was getting a completely different offer to the others, who quickly realised they were receiving something less than they should. 

I can’t blame the tutors; they genuinely think they have done all that is necessary, that they have completed all the course modules, ticked all the right boxes. They are subject specialists and not overall educationalists so they are not trained to see the person as a whole. They believe they are doing the students a favour in letting them go early so they can do something significant in the summer months. 

Tutors need ‘whole education’ training

What the tutors need, though, is the training and materials to fully understand and deliver the programme of study promised by the government to all 16-18s when the school leaving age was raised to 18 - a programme combining the gaining of a qualification overseen by Ofsted, maths and English GCSE resits until age 18, career advice and a focus on a student’s whole education. If at 18 they still have no level 2 or 3, we need a really clear follow-up policy for 19-24s and to stress the importance of level 2s.

The poor quality and often unclear 16-18 offer even extends to apprenticeships, with examples of young people who don't even know they are apprenticed and/or not getting anything near the offer they would have got at school. Some don’t get days off-the-job training; they don’t even get an externally awarded qualification after finishing - just a certificate stating they have met certain standards.

Number of Neets is biggest worry

The greatest concern here, of course, is the number of Neets aged 16-18. If they don’t improve their literacy skills they will end up as very disillusioned, low-paid adults with similar problems and still be dependent on the state for literacy support.

So what can colleges do? Firstly, return to the concept of a specialist teacher delivering the theory of a subject like literacy and then seeing the practice done in more vocationally oriented classes such as IT and catering. That way students would be improving both literacy and vocational skills . . . at the moment very little of this is happening. 

Colleges also need to undertake their own staff training and make better use of the term-time they have for the students. The tutors are paid to teach the students who leave in May through to July, so teaching a full complement of students for another half-term will not affect the budgets. 

So what are we waiting for?

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