The conventional wisdom is that practice follows policy; strategic decisions are taken at the centre and practitioners duly implement change. On this view to understand the future one needs to read White Papers and Ministers speeches, and keep an eye on Whitehall. In reality however things often happen the other way round: it is leading edge practice that shapes the future and policy makers struggle to catch up. To understand the way things are moving one really needs to look at what is happening on the ground.
Developing more coherent arrangements for helping young people make the transition from school to work is a case in point. In the think tanks and policy circles around government there is beginning to be talk of a ‘middle tier’; the need for a level of decision making between central government and individual, autonomous schools. Most agree that Whitehall cannot run everything but there is no consensus on what intermediary arrangements should be put in place. Some in local authorities for example see the chance to win back a central role they once held; but for others that would be a backwards step that would undermine moves to free the education system from bureaucracy.
While the policy wonks debate the issue however a new ‘middle tier’ is already emerging on the ground. In Stoke on Trent, as in other areas of the country, the local FE College has taken a lead. It is working with the local authority and other partners to sponsor a number of new studio schools and academies and is working with them to provide progression pathways for their pupils. It is using the ability to form a multi-academy trust to provide a structure within which separate institutions will do what they do best but all will collaborate to ensure that there is clarity and quality for learners. The collaboration builds on and is strengthened by the college’s existing close links with local industry and higher education.
In policy circles there is also increased debate about whether the split of responsibilities between DfE and BIS at age 19 is right; should the two education departments be combined or would it be better for DfE to have responsibility for all those up to the age of 25 (as it already does for those with learning disabilities.)
We in the 157 Group are clear that the split between departments is unhelpful. Many of those aged 19-24 need the same sort of programmes as those under the age of 19; it is simply the case that for one reason or another their progress has been slower. Similarly it makes little sense to split responsibility for apprenticeships from responsibility for pre-apprenticeship programmes.
While the policy is sorted out however colleges are in practice bridging the gap. The latest 157 Group publication Effective Transitions from School to Work, which is published today, highlights many excellent examples of what is being done.
Leeds City College for example has established an Apprenticeship Academy offering a work focussed progression route for young people from the age of 14 to 24. In addition to working closely with schools to promote and prepare young people for work based learning there are four clear pathways for 16-24 year olds - Preparation for Apprenticeships or Foundation programmes; Employed status apprenticeships; Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA) apprenticeships and Higher level apprenticeships. Leeds is not alone. Other 157 group colleges are actively involved, for example through the development of ATAs and other initiatives.
Finally, although government may have set a clear strategic direction following the Wolf Review the all important detail on the nature of study programmes for those aged 16+ is seriously incomplete. It is likely that once again the true shape of the policy will be fleshed out by those on the ground faced with the urgent need to determine what to offer to students from next September. Colleges such as my own are not waiting to be told what to do but are already hard at work on the task.
The report is available to download here.
Sarah Robinson is principal of Stoke on Trent College, part of the 157 Group organisation