Inspectors make the case for comprehensive colleges

A report by the national education inspectorate makes a strong case for comprehensive sixth form colleges rather than vocational colleges. The case is based on evidence that comprehensive colleges are more socially mixed and achieve better results. The report has called into question the government’s approach to technical and vocational education.

Maybe this is the first you’ve heard of this. That’s probably because the report is from France rather than England and relates to lycees polyvalent and lycees des metiers rather than comprehensive and vocational colleges. However, many of its conclusions could also apply this side of the Channel. The French lycee which is roughly equivalent to a sixth form college but includes Year 11, covering ages 15-19. The lycee polyvalent is broadly comprehensive in that it offers both general and vocational programmes under one roof.

“In the context of vocational reform and the aim to promote higher rates of graduation at university, sixth form colleges need to offer each student a programme which meets their particular needs. This means being able to offer opportunities for students to change direction after making their initial choice of pathway. We studied the effectiveness of both comprehensive and vocational colleges.

The specialist vocational colleges created in 2001 started as pilot institutions and the model was then spread more widely. From aiming to prepare young people for specific economic sectors they have not improved student success or participation rates and seem to be more of a tool for selecting students.

Comprehensive colleges, in contrast, have been successful in redesigning the offer for young people. They are more socially mixed and provide many bridges between different pathways without any sense of hierarchy or relegation for students changing pathways. Their baccalaureate results are also consistently better – by about 8%”.

The report suggests a new framework for comprehensive colleges with a minimum size in order to be able to offer viable general, vocational and technological pathways. It also suggests the creation of a network of colleges to support their development.

It seems that there is a strong case for promoting comprehensive sixth form colleges in the interests of all young people, whether they’ve committed to a vocational or a general education pathway. In France the government will have to take notice. In England, where we have a laissez-faire approach driving providers towards greater selection and segregation of post-16 pathways, it might be in the interests of young people for us to listen to this message as well. Maybe it’s time to consider what a post-16 education system might look like based on the evidence of what works best.

Many thanks to the Cafe Pedagogique for their helpful summary. The report itself (in French).

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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