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England’s invisible teenagers: how should we support the 10,000 14 to 16-year-olds in FE colleges?

By IOE Blog Editor, on 7 October 2022


Three teen girls wearing hijabs holding hands descending concrete steps

Credit: Cultura Creative / Adobe Stock

Lynne Rogers and Catherine Sezen.

More than 100 of the 228 colleges[1] in England provide education for 14-16-year-olds who have found that mainstream school does not meet their needs. The 10,000 plus young people who take up these places are often overlooked, even invisible, in policy terms, falling between school and Further Education (FE).

Research on the combined experience of these students is non-existent. There is no coherent understanding of the curriculum and wider support offered, whether this varies according to local decision-making arrangements and what factors contribute to success or otherwise. What we do know is that the likelihood of many of these young people dropping out and becoming ‘not in education, employment, or training’ (NEET) is high, the long-term consequences of which are well documented.

New research undertaken by the Association of Colleges (AoC) and IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society (IOE) is set to address the evidence gap thanks to a grant awarded by the Nuffield Foundation.

We believe it is incredible that so little is known about these young people. Given the demonstrated vulnerability of this cohort and the longer-term consequences for young adults who fail to gain essential literacy and numeracy skills and drop out of education, there is an imperative to understand the role of FE provision in supporting them to succeed in education.

The 14 to 16 year olds in FE are drawn from three different cohorts:

  • Full-time students, termed direct entry, who have made a conscious decision to undertake their Key Stage 4 education in FE.
  • Electively-home-educated students who have decided to study part-time in FE and can attend for up to 16 hours per week.
  • Young people on alternative provision who are at risk of exclusion, have been excluded from school, are unable to thrive in a mainstream environment or who have medical issues.

As these three distinct categories suggest, these young people are far from a homogenous group. They include students who are motivated by a technical and vocational option not available at school; those whose attendance at mainstream school was very poor and those with special educational or emotional support needs. What does link these young people is that without joining college they are at a higher risk of becoming NEET.

Our new mixed-methods project runs from September 2022 to October 2024 and will investigate the opportunities and trajectories for 14 to 16-year-olds educated in England to:

  • Provide an in-depth understanding of who 14–16 learners in FE are – including the characteristics and profiles of these learners and whether these remain stable over time.
  • Provide an analysis of the national education offer/provision that these young people receive.
  • Identify variances in delivery of provision and how this reflects local and national needs and the implications arising from this.
  • Develop an understanding of how the ecosystem is functioning at the individual, institutional and community level to enable these young people to develop their full potential.

This research will provide the first in depth picture of 14 to 16-year-old educational provision in FE colleges in England. It will improve our understanding of the complexity of post-14 transitions into FE for vulnerable learners and the factors that support them.

We hope the findings will raise the profile of the students and their specific successes and challenges, inform the provision on offer to them, and influence the development of local and national policy responses to enable them to flourish.

Catherine Sezen is Senior Policy Manager at AoC and Principal Investigator for the project. Lynne Rogers is Co-Director of the Centre for Post-14 Education and Work at IOE and Co-Investigator for the project.

[1] There are 161 GFEs, 44 SFCs, 11 land-based, 2 art and design/performing arts and 10 specialist designated colleges.

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