There is only a weak correlation between the publicity sought and gained for a policy announcement and the impact made by that policy. For example, the encouragement of free schools is a headline Coalition policy, yet not only is the proportion of pupils so far enrolled in these schools a tiny fraction but many free schools may end up providing an education not easy to distinguish from other Academies and maintained schools. In contrast – as Paul Johnson argued yesterday - apparently small changes in tax incentives can lead to major shifts in behaviour and revenues.
There has today been relatively little coverage of an announcement which could have major implications for the whole pattern of secondary schooling. In a letter to two college principals, the thoughtful Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock (who recently visited and commended the RSA Academy in Tipton), has said that from next year FE colleges which meet certain, relatively permissive, criteria will be free to admit 14-16 year olds on to their rolls.
Overall, this is surely a good thing. It offers pupils – particularly those least engaged in a traditional academic curriculum – the opportunity to attend institutions which may better suit their needs and which will tend to have stronger connections to the world of work. It could also be an important step towards a shift in the way we think about the stages of education so that the 11-14 stage focusses on universal core academic and other competencies, while the 14-18 stage is much more oriented around the educational and vocational routes chosen by young people. In turn this might lead to a gradual, and surely welcome, reduction in the obsessive focus on GCSE scores at sixteen.
Whilst one might hope that the way this new opportunity develops would reflect the choices and best interests of young people, in reality local factors and organisational incentives will probably be more determining.
In relation to the former, the key issue will be whether there is an FE college that meets the Hancock criteria in the vicinity. But as currently nearly 300 colleges do make the grade, it will be organisational interest which will most mediate the opening of new options for young people.
There are two key incentives to consider; intriguingly they point in opposite directions.
On the one hand, the kind of pupils who might be most attracted to FE may also be the ones least likely to meet the 5A-C or EBac benchmark, so schools may see offloading these pupils as a way of improving their scores and league table positions. This perverse incentive would not be so strong if the focus of school evaluation and accountability was on three levels of progression but – regrettably – the Government seems to be de-emphasising this measure.
On the other hand, schools and school leaders generally see their size as a symbol of status and success and might not want to see those pupils who have a choice voting with their feet at the end of year nine. Furthermore, the pupils most likely to take the FE option are more likely to attract the Pupil Premium, something which will make them sought after by both schools and colleges.
As Shadow Education Minister Karen Buck has emphasised, this potentially radical shift needs to be carefully planned and overseen. But two factors mitigate against this aspiration. First, the ambiguity and confusion over the role of the only body which has the span and legitimacy to take on the task of coordination – local authorities; second, the evidence that the devolving of careers advice to schools has – entirely predictably – led to a decline in spending. It must also be assumed that the advice is also less independent and more driven by the school’s self interest.
Given the traditionalism of many of his colleagues, Matthew Hancock may be careful about what he says bur he does, I sense, recognise there should more on offer to secondary school pupils than the EBac, and more that is vocationally related. His letter could come to be seen as one of the most important reforming actions of this Government.
It is vital now that central and local Government, schools, and colleges and independent careers advisors make this change work for young people, and not allow it to be scuppered by poor planning and organisational gaming.