As principal of Queen Mary's College, ASCL member Stephen Sheedy has several years' experience working in a consortia of schools and colleges. He discusses the issues surrounding collaboration, looking particularly at the new 14-19 entitlement.
An entitlement for all young people is at the heart of changes to the 14-19 curriculum and the specialised diplomas.
Very few ASCL members would discount this aim; however, what we do know from previous exercises is that entitlement on this scale immediately brings into play issues of capacity, collaboration and responsibility.
These issues are particularly important for the new curriculum for 14-19 year-olds and the 14 specialised diplomas. If schools and colleges are to have the capacity to provide the new curriculum offer, they must pool resources. Furthermore, someone must have overall responsibility for coordinating this collaboration and the executive authority to ensure it happens.
Queen Mary's College has, since the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) in the 1980s, been part of a consortium consisting of several 11-16 schools and some primary schools, another college in the further education sector, and training providers.
Throughout our history, we have tasted some success. We have also been made painfully aware of the difficulties for educational organisations in working together, especially when it appears that they are being encouraged to grow increasingly independent.
For instance, the secondary schools in the consortium have very different levels of capacity. Our experience is that current initiatives have the tendency to increase capacity in those schools that already have the ability to improve, but deliver no such gains for those that need it most.
The risk, in a time of intense competition and growing parental choice, is that their capacity will be reduced even further.
To further complicate matters, it is not clear who has responsibility for making collaboration effective. The local authority claims primary responsibility, along with the local Learning and Skills Council, for the 14-19 entitlement across their different patches (they are not, in the parlance of the day, coterminous).
Neither organisation, however, seems sure of the extent of its powers over those schools or colleges which are unenthusiastic about collaboration or which want to collaborate in their own distinct manner.
The conflict between the rhetoric and the realities of collaboration will already be familiar to many ASCL members. It is a recurring theme in the Education and Inspection Bill and in the Further Education White Paper, though perhaps to a lesser extent.
In Basingstoke, we recognised some time ago that the schools' variable capacity meant that there was real inequity emerging in opportunities for students and that, across the whole area, some subjects were too expensive even for the better off schools to provide on their own.
In this context, from 2004 our consortium started to provide classes at the colleges in psychology, Spanish, dance and engineering at GCSE for year 10 students from the schools. From September 2005, we added French, German, media studies, drama and music, teaching all the courses in blocks on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
In addition, the technology college has provided a range of occupational courses for students from the schools and we are now offering AS level critical thinking. We also have staff going out into the schools to teach photography.
Schools that wished to participate agreed to adopt timetables that blocked year 10 on Tuesday afternoons and year 11 on Wednesdays.
This allowed for the release of students to courses at the technology college under the Increased Flexibility Initiative and was then adopted for a wider programme of GCSEs at both colleges. The courses were integrated into the schools options programmes and taught in mixed classes.
The relatively compact nature of Basingstoke meant that the afternoon slot overcame some of the transport problems, as young people were able to travel to the colleges on foot or by local buses in their lunchtime.
The fact that all the partner schools are 11-16 was clearly a major factor in developing a coordinated approach.
Other arrangements also were tried as it became clear that problems with capacity would not permit the courses to be run solely at the colleges.
Some schools also doubted the benefits of taking years 10 and 11 into the colleges as there were concerns over the behaviour of some pupils and the experience of some post-16 staff in coping with the rather different needs of students at key stage 4.
What has resulted is a partnership based on staff and resource development as key to increasing capacity and the diversity of the curriculum offer.
Thus, the colleges provide support to schools in the form of staff training and loans of equipment for vocational GCSEs in science and in health and social care.
With support from the LSC's Local Intervention and Development (LID) Fund, we arranged two separate curriculum development projects in sports and dance during 2003-04. The aim of the dance project was to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to run a GCSE course.
The sports project freed members of the colleges' sports staff for an afternoon a week to work with four schools to develop materials in support of the introduction of BTEC First in Sport.
We are having continued success with this project and the professional development involved has been instrumental in improving understanding across the phases as well as building young people's confidence in their ability to progress into further education.
Catch up and stretch
We are clear that these new developments must not be focused on any one ability group. While it remains important to us to encourage young people who would not otherwise participate in continuing education, it is equally important to provide stretching opportunities for the highest performing youngsters in the borough.
Therefore we have proceeded on three fronts. The first is protecting or restoring opportunity for curriculum extension, especially in modern languages and science, in order to stretch those who will benefit from increased breadth and in depth. Second, we are developing progression routes from key stage 4, based on the vocational motivation of some students in the schools.
Finally we are diversifying the range of activities available at key stage 4 to excite young people with subjects that they might not easily access at any individual school.
Within the consortium, we have developed useful protocols for partnership working, for quality assurance, for the recharging of costs between schools and for the employment of staff working in a number of different centres.
Through the projects we have run so far, partners have a much greater understanding of the work of their colleagues in their different institutions and of the issues they face in resourcing curriculum.
Our experience of the last five years has given a base of some confidence from which the consortia can consider the introduction of the specialised diplomas.
What is clear to us is that 14-19 education is not something that colleges do to - or for - the schools but something that can only succeed with the commitment brought about by a common vision.
The consortia has unanimously endorsed a policy commitment to a local entitlement to the new curriculum.
This will be underpinned by collaborative systems for providing advice and support, including the open exchange of information which can be used to support students moving from one school to another or from pre- to post-16.
Next phase of entitlement
The next stage for us will be the appointment of a 14-19 coordinator to be jointly funded by the local authority, the schools and colleges and the local LSC. We are at the moment preparing an expression of interest in providing at least three of the first five strands of the specialised diploma.
The challenge will be to ensure that the diplomas take on a local character as a continuation and development of the work already in place - rather than a replacement of it.
The current government has made great claims for having raised the aspirations and achievements of young people in primary schools and in a high proportion of secondary schools since 1997, but it is acutely aware that some secondary schools are still very far behind others.
The reputation of further education nationally is far from secure and there is a growing expression of dissatisfaction with some aspects of higher education in this country, such as to shake confidence in the value of the government's target for 50 per cent of young people to be engaged in higher education by the year 2010.
In other words, there is still a long way to go in improving things for our students. The collaboration conundrum has to be dealt with on a national level because the 14-19 entitlement has to be for everyone.
To have one group of young people who are able to access their entitlement, and another group for whom such a notion is rendered meaningless because it cannot be realised, will not be good enough.
Stephen Sheedy is Principal of Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke.
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