Diversity v Entitlement – the future of 14 to 19.

For a long time now, diversity in secondary school provision has been flavour of the month. Much of this has been superficial – for example many specialist schools paid little more than lip service to their specialism. Other kinds of diversity have been about ethos – traditional, progressive, religious or whatever. Even more common has been the attempt to gain kudos in the eyes of parents whether through grant maintained status, church affiliation, academy status, teaching Latin or anything else that might provide a competitive edge.

But real differences in curriculum have not been great. The volume of vocational courses has varied. Iin some areas there were short-lived attempts to spread out the various diplomas between schools and there are some effective A level consortia. But nothing you would describe as a fundamentally different kind of curriculum offer.

That now seems to be changing. The advent of University Technical Colleges (34 open or announced) and studio schools (32 open or announced) represents something very different from the comprehensive that seeks to provide a curriculum suited to all. All of these will take pupils at 14 mainly from established 11 to 18 schools. Then we are about to see FE colleges able to directly enrol pupils at 14. This seems like a trend which is likely to grow. Are we moving, without really realising it, to a world where there is substantial movement of pupils between institutions at 14?

As someone who started teaching in a “Leicestershire style” 14 to 18 upper school, I can still see advantages to a break at 13 or 14. The range of opportunities in such a school can be huge and there is the opportunity to create a more adult college-style ethos. But these high schools were (and are where they still exist) comprehensives.

But the key question will be whether we can pull off what has escaped us up to now and really deliver equal status between different kinds of school and different qualifications. Gove’s fixation with traditional subjects as seen in the so called EBacc suggests that he at least sees the academic curriculum as the gold standard. Where this will leave UTC’s and studio schools is one of the intriguingly unanswered questions about this government’s policy.

The promoters of UTC’s have been clear that they are seeking high status – hence the name and the university involvement. For all of these different kinds of  provision though, there must be a real risk that schools will push the kids they don’t want towards them – provision in FE colleges is perhaps particularly at risk in this respect since many of them already have a successful record in delivering for young people that schools have failed with.

If we do want to deliver parity of esteem at 14+ there is an urgent need to make some sense of the curriculum offer. The government’s curriculum working party argued for all young people to take the full range of academic subjects up to 16. But DfE support for the new range of institutions suggests something different. We need a clear set of curriculum pathways all of which are demanding, include core skills and knowledge and are understood and respected by employers and higher education.

There will remain however the issue of entitlement. The established pattern has been that the school system ensured that pretty much a full range of opportunities would be available to all young people in all areas across the country. That entitlement is beginning to fray at the edges. Some pupils will have access to a UTC but many won’t. Some will be able to access a college but also many won’t. The specialisms available will vary hugely from place to place. A fundamental issue of equity is beginning to arise. After all, kids of 15 and 16 aren’t in a position to move to where the course they want can be found. They have to take what is on offer locally.

It’s been a bad habit of governments over some years to endorse a clever idea without considering the question of whether it can be replicated. We need a real debate about the kind of 14 to 19 provision we want. This isn’t necessarily an argument against more diverse provision and against more choice at 14. But there needs to be proper local planning so that opportunities are available everywhere. Schools popping up at random wherever someone gets an idea into their head will never deliver an entitlement for young people nor will it necessarily deliver the volume and range of skills the country needs.