The relative merits of school sixth form, sixth form colleges and FE colleges might be fiercely debated, but there is no doubt about the social backgrounds of most of those attending FE colleges.
The recent Social and Ethnic Inequalities in Post-16 Choices report from the Social Mobility Commission again found that children from a non-professional background are more likely to enrol in FE colleges than school or sixth form colleges. Young people from poorer areas are also more likely to attend FE colleges. It also reveals that poorer students have worse outcomes and higher drop-out rates even when they live in richer neighbourhoods, and have similar GCSE attainment to their peers. They are also less likely to study the kind of qualifications that can lead to selective universities and well-paid jobs.
As a charity whose mission is to help young people make confident and informed decisions, Brightside strongly supports the case for better careers advice. The post-16 qualification landscape is highly confusing, particularly for those choosing routes other than A-levels, as a disproportionate amount of disadvantaged young people do. If they have little immediate experience of further or higher education in their family, it is essential that they have expert help to decipher the jargon around Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications for example, alongside more general advice about the importance of the soft skills employers are looking for.
But young people making the transition to further education also need deeper support than just more information. It is perhaps ironic that even though they are statistically less likely to go on to higher education, those who attend FE colleges are thrust into a setting with far more resemblance to a university than those who go to sixth form. Larger class sizes, a more diverse environment with older students and those from further afield, and even different buildings have to be negotiated on top of the additional challenges of a timetable which requires taking more responsibility for one's own learning. Unlike many of the more advantaged schools or sixth form colleges, FE colleges often do not have the resources to help students make this step, even though the fact they are entering a less familiar environment arguably means they need it more.
While there are excellent examples of FE colleges engaging with prospective students, there is still a need for the sector approach outreach in a more systematic way. This means not just preparing young people for what they will study, but also developing soft skills such as time management and - crucially - making sure they feel like they fit in. The higher drop-out rates for disadvantaged students at 16 might be partly explained by prior attainment, but the prospect of studying in a strange environment of which neither you or anyone in your family and friends has any experience is also a factor.
This isn't something that can be done just on an open evening. Long-term peer support is required to build relationships, familiarity and a sense of belonging. There is potential for the current model of student ambassadors deployed by some colleges to be scaled up into more long-term engagement with local schools. Regular visits to their old schools by current college students that young people can relate to, talking about not just the practicalities of studying but also their own personal experiences and the other opportunities FE can provide, would do much to reassure those nervous about the transition. This could then be developed into 'buddying' schemes, so that young people have a friendly face they can turn to for advice when they arrive.
Clearly the issue here is one of resources. The further education sector is hampered by funding cuts. However, there are severe consequences for social mobility if this problem is not tackled. And the advantages would also amply repay the investment if the sector gets it right. Alongside supporting disadvantaged students entering, staying in and progressing from further education, and addressing FE colleges' issues with retention, students who become ambassadors, buddies or mentors would benefit by developing the communication skills employers are clamouring for. Tight budgets have caused many colleges to cut enrichment activities for their students: buddying or mentoring schemes would not only better prepare young people entering further education, but also for when they leave, improving outcomes for both individuals and the institution. The leap to further education is large and frightening for many young people. Having someone just ahead of you who can offer a helping hand means more young people can successfully make it.