Whatever happened to A-level choice?

FE colleges are being pragmatic, if myopic, by only offering vocational courses, says Neil Merrick
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The Independent Online

A-level students at Cambridge Regional College received a bit of a shock during the run-up to this summer's exams.

Those hoping to return in September and complete their courses found that the college had decided to stop offering A-levels and focus on vocational programmes.

For about 40 teenagers, it will mean switching to Long Road Sixth Form College, four miles away. Adults who are not eligible to attend a sixth form college were told that an access course might be a better route to higher education.

Yusuf Martin, a student governor, says the decision provoked anger but students had little option but to get on with their exams. The National Union of Students is supporting lecturers, who have already held a one-day strike, and hopes to lobby local MPs.

Although just 160 of the 2,700 16- to 18-year- olds at Cambridge take A-levels, Martin says their disappearance will change the ethos of the college. "We were trying to push this as an adult learning centre," he says. "Not everybody fits into a sixth form college."

The decision followed an Ofsted inspection last autumn when senior staff were challenged over why the college still ran courses when numbers had dropped from more than 300 five years ago.

Steve Caley, a vice principal, says it was tricky to come up with a good reason, especially since most taking A-levels come from outside Cambridge and 60 per cent are over 19. "Increasingly, A-levels didn't seem to fit in with what we are all about," he says.

In spite of the anger generated, Caley denies that students who transfer to Long Road, one of two sixth form colleges in the city, will be worse off. "They are going to a vibrant sixth form college with more choice," he says. "Cambridge has a tremendous number of A-level providers in the public and private sectors."

Cambridge Regional College is not alone in focusing on vocational courses. Last year's review of further education by Sir Andrew Foster concluded that vocational skills must be the priority for colleges, a position reinforced in the recent further education white paper. According to the Department for Education and Skills, 195,000 students took A-levels in colleges in 2004-5 compared with 230,000 in 1997-8. The Association of Colleges (AoC) believes as many as one in eight FE colleges (as opposed to sixth form colleges) may no longer offer A-levels, but stresses this is only a guesstimate.

Julian Gravatt, the AoC's director of funding and development, says an increasing emphasis on quality has led to reduced choice, especially as budgets are squeezed. But he does not believe this is necessarily bad news for students. "It's better to take an access course to get to university or a vocational course to get a better job than spend one or two years on an A-level that doesn't lead anywhere," says Gravatt.

West Suffolk College dropped A-levels three years ago after it realised that its results were not as good as local schools and sixth form colleges. But it still has about 650 students on level 3 programmes and nearly half of 16- to 18-year-olds progress to higher education. Phil Thirkettle, an assistant principal, says the college works closely with local schools and this cooperation is likely to increase when new vocational diplomas are launched in 2008. The college is a centre for vocational excellence in four subjects. "It's better for the learner if we specialise in what we are good at," he adds.

Peter Pendle, the chief executive of the Association for College Management, says colleges are being pragmatic, if short-sighted. "One of the benefits of large FE colleges is their comprehensive nature," he says.

The industrial dispute in Cambridge is partly about job losses (although the college says 12 voluntary redundancies have been agreed) and also a feeling that people may miss out on the opportunity to study A-levels. Martin Freedman, the head of pay and conditions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says: "The Government's agenda is meant to be about choice but it seems colleges are taking away choice."

Ellie Russell, the vice-president of the NUS, says students need to be told earlier what is going on and urges the Learning and Skills Council to send out a clearer message about funding. "Colleges should be expanding the curriculum to suit as many students as possible," she says.

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