16 year olds need a universal “sixth form UCAS”

Nick Clegg’s announcement that the government wants to introduce a “UCAS-style one-stop on-line shop for 16 year olds who do not want to go to university” (BBC 27/02/14) is an interesting idea, even with all those hyphens. However, as presented in the media so far, it is also seriously flawed.

The proposed service was described as a purely “vocational website” offering searches for “college courses”, apprenticeships and traineeships in contrast to all the A-level and university guidance which is already available online.

16 year olds would certainly benefit from a sixth form UCAS (or “FECAS”) but only if it is a universal system covering all qualifications. The approach as described so far seems to be based on several misconceptions about what colleges do and what “college courses” lead to:

1. “College courses” actually include the full spectrum of education and training opportunities including A-levels, GCSEs, vocational courses, traineeships and apprenticeships. These are available in a range of different types of institution including general FE colleges, sixth form colleges, specialist colleges and training providers.

2. Vocational pathways often lead to university and choosing a vocational route at college is not synonymous with “not wanting to go to university” – quite the opposite. Post-16 vocational courses are an excellent preparation for vocational degrees and the students who choose them are making a commitment to a particular sector, often with a view to pursuing their studies at degree level.

3. At the end of year 11, students are free to apply wherever they want. The problem is that they are not guaranteed high quality information, advice and guidance about the full range of post-16 options; whether about the courses available or the type of institutions available. This is particularly true in schools with sixth forms which are keen to retain high achieving students. We have a highly marketised post-16 system where “consumers” often don’t have the information to make decisions which are in their interest. Too many young people are making important life choices based on flimsy, partial or downright biased information.

4. We should not be expecting any 16 year old to have decided they “don’t want to go to university” It’s far too early to have made such a decision and even for those who don’t go at 18 or 19, Higher Education offers many part-time and mature study routes. If we want lifelong learning and an open system of higher training and professional development, it does nothing but harm to make a rigid distinction between those who do or don’t want to go to university.

There is therefore a strong case for a national UCAS-style information and application process. To be effective such a service would need to include all post-16 options and all post-16 providers and every year 11 student should be able to use it to apply, receive offers and manage their choices, as with UCAS.  I think it should be a single national service. Handing this function to local authorities, as suggested in the media report, makes little sense when students take no account of local authority boundaries when applying. Having hundreds of overlapping mini-UCAS systems would simply lead to duplication, inconsistency and waste. There are some excellent examples of locally developed systems built on years of trust and painstaking partnership work (in Leicester and Cambridge for example) but most areas of the country haven’t been able to develop this on their own.

A single national service has the added advantage of being able to produce comprehensive data about what is happening; analysing trends and providing the market intelligence which is so essential to students, policy-makers, and educational providers.

Luckily, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. UCAS is an excellent model for such a service; independent, national and virtually universal. It is highly responsive to the needs of all its stakeholders and has turned what used to be a rather cumbersome process into a transparent and streamlined one.

Such a national “FECAS” system, if combined with good, independent advice and guidance for all secondary school students, could really transform the way young people make the decisions which will will change their lives.

So, two cheers for this proposal and we look forward to being consulted on the detail very soon. A truly universal “FECAS” for 16 year olds is long overdue and any government which makes this happen would be doing something really positive to improve young people’s educational opportunities.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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