Big fish: Small pond
FE colleges are welcoming more and more 14 to 16 year-olds but what does their arrival mean for the staff and the existing 16-plus students? New research pinpoints the strategies being deployed to cope with these younger learners, says Tami McCrone.
In recent years, FE colleges have been encouraged to open their doors to students at Key Stage 4 in local secondary schools. The advent of diplomas and other changes under the 14-19 agenda means that FE institutions are increasingly likely to be working with this age group, yet there has been little research so far into how colleges and schools can best help these 14 to 16 year-olds to integrate into the traditional FE profile.
Aiming to fill this gap, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has studied the strategies that FE colleges and their staff have used to integrate 14 to 16 year-olds into their institutions and the impact that these young people have on the colleges, staff and older learners.
Researchers chose five FE colleges as case studies in May and June 2007 and interviewed learners, lecturers and college managers. The colleges were selected to represent a range of geographical areas in England and had substantial experience of providing courses for 14 to 16 year-olds.
Impact on students and staff
Predictably, the situation and location of each college played a large role in how much impact the presence of 14 to 16 year-olds had and what approaches were adopted.
However, on the whole, the majority of interviewees believed that older students were largely unaffected by the presence of younger pupils in college, predominantly because many older learners were unaware of the presence of the younger ones. Those who were aware either did not mind or were positive.
The minority who were not enthusiastic tended to say that younger students were noisier and sometimes misbehaved in the corridors and canteens and occasionally in lessons.
It appeared that teaching 14 to 16 year-olds in colleges increasingly was becoming an expected element of lecturers' roles. Attitudes towards teaching these students had become more understanding in recent years, largely because of a greater awareness of the benefits to the pupils, the challenges involved, the skills needed and the importance of more refined selection of students.
Senior managers were reported to be very aware and supportive of the 14-19 agenda and were keen to provide career and professional development for lecturers teaching 14 to 16 year-olds, particularly in behaviour management, health and safety and child protection.
Staff in all five colleges commented on the positive impact on progression post-16. Additional benefits included young people being better prepared and making more informed choices about post-16 courses and greater awareness of future career paths.
Most staff and students also mentioned the positive repercussions in the local community. This was partly because communication and collaboration with schools improved as a result of closer liaison but also because there was a widely held view that attending college had improved the behaviour of many young people who were not progressing well at school.
Some staff felt that these 14 to 16 year-olds had been encouraged to develop greater self-worth which in turn had a wider impact on society.
The research was able to extract a number of issues which have implications for other colleges looking to improve provision for 14 to 16 year-olds.
It was seen as essential to take into account the college context - its facilities and the characteristics of the local community - to decide what provision would be appropriate for 14 to 16 year-olds.
For example, one college, where 14-16 provision was perceived to be central to the community, had built a 14-16 block. Another college was building new facilities for its higher education students because it saw 14-16 provision as merging into the 14-19 sector.
Regardless, the inclusion of 14 to 16 year-olds in FE will most likely have an impact on colleges' physical capacity and on their resources. Alterations may be needed in order best to cater for them, possibly by providing social facilities specifically for this age group - space to play football or a common room with a pool table, for example.
Evidence suggested that lecturers feel more comfortable teaching 14 to 16 year-olds as they gained experience in, for example, behaviour management and teaching and learning strategies for this age group.
NFER's research further emphasised the importance of having staff who are enthusiastic about teaching this age group and who are fully involved in the process of selection of the students.
It was suggested that colleges consider how to support lecturers systematically to share their learning and expertise, for example in seminars open to all lecturers of 14 to 16 year-olds.
The research highlights how 14 to 16 year-olds value the different relationship they have with FE lecturers as distinct from their school teachers.
There is some suggestion of a need for more parity with schools over behaviour management and discipline. However, college managers might want to consider how to accomplish this while still maintaining the FE ethos, where students call lecturers by their first names and the atmosphere is generally more informal.
How to maintain a balance of age groups so that the traditional FE ethos is preserved is another issue to consider.
There is little doubt that collaboration between institutions benefits young people and the research highlights some of these points. Even accounting for variations according to geographical area, whether an area is predominantly urban or rural or whether schools have sixth forms, sixth form colleges or FE colleges, certain benefits remain constant.
For example, shared training days could be used to reflect on mutual issues such as discipline and practical considerations such as dealing with student absence.
Other issues of concern to both schools and colleges include parity of funding with regard to 14 to 16 year-olds and pay between school and college lecturers teaching the same age group.
Health and safety
The colleges involved in this research clearly had comprehensive health and safety procedures in place. However, the inclusion of 14 to 16 year-olds did raise concerns.
For example although all staff are checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, older students are not. In addition, supervision of all 14 to 16 year-olds in break times proved to be challenging. It is hard for colleges to address all possible risks and issues such as this must remain an ongoing consideration.
Having year 10 and 11 pupils to study on their premises is new territory for many FE colleges and requires fresh thinking on their part. However, as the research shows, a great deal of knowledge has been accumulated by institutions which have already embarked on this road. Sharing that knowledge around the sector will be essential as the changes to post-14 education take shape.
Tami McCrone is senior research officer at NFER.
Making it work in practice
Strategies for the successful inclusion of 14 to 16 year-olds in FE colleges
An appropriate and transparent process was needed for selecting young people for courses. Effective selection included ensuring that the young people were thoroughly informed about the skills required and the course content and that college staff were involved in the selection process.
Close liaison and effective communication with schools were necessary not only during the selection process but throughout the young person's college course so that both institutions could work together in the best interests of the young person.
It was important to ensure that 14 to 16 year-olds were taught by lecturers who were committed to and enjoyed teaching them. This often involved lecturers who volunteered to teach the younger age group. Training for lecturers in teaching and managing the younger age group was viewed as key to success.
Strategies had developed to provide pastoral support for 14 to 16 year-olds on subjects such as transport and issues related to their courses. Colleges had introduced tutorial systems and anti-bullying policies, for example. Extra support in the classroom, either for specific pupils or more general assistance for lecturers, was also desirable.
A college-wide and holistic approach to the inclusion of this new age group was recommended. It was suggested that the 14 to 16 year-olds should have a comprehensive induction to the whole college so that they felt part of the community. And although a policy of inclusion for 14 to 16 year-olds should be promoted across the college, a balance of age groups was also important to maintain the FE community ethos.
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