John Brennan: Autumn hope replaces the August blues

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The Independent Online

Reading some newspapers in August is not good for the spirit.

Reading some newspapers in August is not good for the spirit. Especially if you are one of thousands of teenagers who has just spent the past two years studying for GCSEs or A-levels, and you haven't got your hoped for grades. To believe some commentators, anybody getting less than a string of A* grades might as well give up. Fortunately, colleges understand young people's achievements and needs better. Not only do they educate more young people to A-level standard than school sixth forms, they also work with those who didn't make the grade first time, helping them to re-sit exams or fulfil their ambitions through other routes.

Two recent examples are particularly inspiring. Clare was predicted to get very low GCSE grades at school. So she turned to her local Lewisham College instead. And having achieved a vocational GCSE standard diploma there - known as k4 - she is now studying for three A-levels. Her lack of GCSEs turned out to be no barrier: the diploma gives her broader knowledge than her classmates who have come through the traditional GCSE route. Another student whose talents were only brought out in college is Simeon Brown, who has just released an album You Don't Know at the age of 17. Two years ago, he was experiencing difficulties at school before his teacher introduced him to New College Nottingham's part-time BFD Music Technology course. Simeon now also runs a record label producing up and coming hip hop and garage musicians from his home studio.

These young people have succeeded against the odds, with the help of college tutors and courses. This is what the Government calls "personalised learning" in action. And despite the media hype, we should remember that examinations remain challenging for most young people. After all, barely half of all 16-year-olds gain the five or more top GCSE grades at school deemed crucial by employers' organisations. Many need to spend a couple of further years at college to reach that standard.

But young people's level of achievement is rising, and this should neither surprise nor alarm us. Teaching has improved. Students have more resources at their disposal than ever: research is easier with the internet; there is better data about weakness and strengths available; and they have access to more help in improving their study skills.

Even so, many who get A-levels overcome family or financial pressures to gain their grades. And those gaining two A-level passes still remain a minority of their age group. The big challenge is not that too many young people are getting good GCSEs and A-levels, but that too few do so.

This term brings hope that the system will start to respond to that challenge, on three counts. First, an education maintenance allowance, worth up to £30 a week to those continuing their studies after 16, will be available across the country. Second, new young apprenticeships come on stream which will link better with the wider apprenticeship programme. And third, Mike Tomlinson will publish his proposals for 14-19 education, including a new diploma which can recognise a wider range of achievement. These developments offer real hope that the system will give every young person a better opportunity to succeed. In the meantime, those who haven't achieved their goals first time around should call their local college for practical advice, support and access to the right courses. It is time to do away with any August blues.

The writer is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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