My View

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The Independent Online
"So, we're very happy to offer you a place at college, provided you meet our entry requirements," I say, concluding the interview. "Have you any more questions?"

"Well," says the 16-year-old, shifting in his seat, "our head of sixth form told us in assembly last week that college lecturers often don't turn up for lectures. And that nobody's prepared to help you outside lesson time." His friend who has accompanied him confirms the story. "He said that our teachers at school do turn up for lessons, so we'd be much better off staying at school. Is it true what he's told us?"

I am not much surprised. I have met this sort of comment before. Or the one about there being "of course" no pastoral care at college. This has often been passed from school to parent. For the college where I work at least, these comments are myths (if I'm being kind to the perpetrators) or lies (if I'm not). Pastoral care at this college happens to be extensive; teachers do turn up for lessons, and give generously of their time to individual students.

However, before anyone accuses me of a selective presentation of facts in the manner of a party political broadcast, promoting colleges over school sixth forms, let me accuse my own sector, too. I have no doubt that further education colleges are equally capable of below-the-belt tactics in attracting students. I saw a college advertisement recently which depicted those who stay at school after 16 as sad wimps who still need their mums to pack their sandwiches. Real students, it implied, come to college.

I am also aware that the examples I have given, while actually more common than most in the field will probably admit, are not typical. The pressure on students at 16 to stay at their existing schools and not transfer either to college or to another school is often strong but is usually more subtly exerted. Of course there are examples of genuine co-operation between schools or between schools and colleges in transferring students or allowing students to study at two institutions concurrently, taking perhaps two A-level subjects at one school and a third, unavailable at the "home" institution, at another. But from what I have seen, there is a lot of very polite lip service paid to the idea of co-operation when, in reality, the competition can be intense.

Nobody should be surprised about this. So many developments in the past decade have inevitably encouraged competition between educational establishments, often quite explicitly. The funding mechanisms, the publication of league tables, the increasing sophistication of the marketing strategies employed, the publication of inspection results, the dilution of local authority control over the planning of education services in a particular area have all contributed to the demise of co-operation and the increase of competition.

In this atmosphere it is not surprising that teachers, heads of sixth forms and head teachers will sometimes, albeit unconsciously, allow their knowledge of what is in the best interests of the school to influence the advice they give to individual students.

There may, for example, be a natural, though unrecognised, reluctance to advise an able student to leave for another institution, thereby transferring his/her potentially high Ucas "score" to that other institution's league tables. If you place institutions in a competitive environment then you must expect some of them at least to yield to the temptation to behave in a negatively competitive way. Teachers, course tutors, and principals in colleges are subject to similar pressures.

All this is highly ironic. With the publication of Sir Ron Dearing's Review of Qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds, there is at last a sense of the dismantling of barriers between the different interest groups.

At a conference in central London, Sir Ron himself commented on the symbolic significance of the co-operation between two organisations in staging the conference: Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, providers of A-level and GCSE syllabuses and examinations, and Business and Technology Education Council, providers of vocational courses and qualifications.

How ironic, therefore, at a time when these qualities are seen to be most needed in the 16-19 field, that so much has been done to diminish them in the institutions that are to deliver the curriculum. For a full range of opportunities to be available to all 16-year-olds, there must be co-operation between institutions. It will be impossible for any school or college, however large, to offer complete choice across the three pathways (academic, applied, vocational) at each of the four levels (advanced, intermediate, foundation, entry) and to offer a wide enough range of programme combinations to ensure the availability of the breadth and depth recommended in the review for all students. The review lays emphasis on the need for "high-quality advice to young people on the choices they have to make". That can best be achieved in an environment in which all teachers see themselves as colleagues, not as rivals.

Unless the competitive atmosphere between educational institutions is eroded, and eroded quickly, the new vision for 16- to 19-year-olds proposed by the Dearing review, and apparently welcomed so warmly by the Government, will be destroyed by the market-led culture that that same government has deliberately created.

The author is a senior lecturer in a college of higher and further education.