'There is a lot more to the new Education Bill than a higher learning age'

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The Independent Online

The new Education and Skills Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons next week. The Bill proposes to extend the learning age to 18; unsurprisingly, the debate about compelling young people to stay in training attracted the media spotlight several times last year. There are, however, other issues that need illuminating.

Clause 66 of the Bill places a new duty on schools to provide impartial advice to promote the best interests of the pupils. It says they must not "seek to promote, contrary to the pupils' best interests, the interests or aspirations of the school or of other persons or institutions". We think this is great news. The Association of Colleges has been lobbying on careers guidance for years. Young learners deserve impartial, comprehensive expert advice and guidance. Many people in Britain think that the careers advice they received at school just wasn't up to the job. In our latest survey, over half of all adults said that they would have chosen a different course of study if they had another chance, and that, if they could now access independent careers advice and guidance, they would use it.

Clause 135 allows the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority "to develop and publish criteria for the recognition of bodies which wish to award or authenticate qualifications or credits". In plain English, colleges would be able to create and award their own qualifications, in much the same way that universities and American community colleges do now. While there is unlikely to be a big rush of colleges applying for accreditation, the new proposals would allow them much more flexibility in creating specialist products to suit employers.

Local councils currently have a (rather vague) duty to provide transport for 16- to 18-year-olds in education. As well as cost and distance, the Bill requires them to consider travel time too, to ensure that people don't spend too long commuting to college or school each day. However, we believe that the proposals should be strengthened and that all authorities have a duty to ensure that transport is affordable.

The proposal to extend the learning age has some interesting consequences. Colleges and schools will have a new duty to promote participation in education and training to 16- to 18-year-olds; businesses could be fined if they don't allow young employees to train; councils can enter into "parenting contracts" with the parents of young people not in education or training (similar to ASBO contracts).

There are some notable omissions. In the future, league tables will need to be reformed to give more incentive to institutions that attract those young people currently not in education; colleges are likely to take an extra 40,000 learners through their doors as a result of the Bill, but there is no mention in the legislation of the extra funding needed. New statistics show that a record 753,000 16- to 18-year-olds are already staying on in further education, so the pressure on colleges to meet demand is as strong as ever.

The writer is acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges