Beyond the college gates

Beyond the college gates
Date24th Jan 2022AuthorLoic MenziesCategoriesStudent Life

“It’s tough being a young person right now, and it’s tough for providers to be everything they need,” remarks Jim Grant, principal of Cirencester College, a rural college with a catchment area stretching from Swindon to the outskirts of Bristol.

Writing for the Foundation for Education Development (FED) in October, I lamented the fact that “Education policy tends to be dominated by the minutiae of curriculum and pedagogy to the exclusion of other levers that could play a powerful role in reducing educational inequality and raising achievement.” 

Having seen the way factors outside of the school often torpedo Young People on the Margins’ educational success, I argued that education policy needs to look ‘beyond the school gates’. 

How about Sixth Form Colleges? 

My October blog clearly resonated with many teachers and leaders, but as Andy Grant, principal of  St Vincent’s College in coastal Gosport, points out, people often assume Sixth Form Colleges are insulated from the issues I discussed. “There can be a temptation, particularly with Level 3 students, to assume that if they’ve made it through to this stage, they’re already set up to succeed,” he says. Yet many students are in sixth form colleges because they have not got what they needed in the school system and “don’t fit the normal pattern”. In the case of students in care or receiving support from CAMHS, the transition from child to adult services whilst at college can also be fraught with difficulties.

Cirencester College is not unique in drawing students from a large geographical area. It’s a situation which can mean colleges have to liaise with a bewildering array of authorities, agencies and partners, not to mention potentially hundreds of feeder schools. On top of that, budgets are stretched to breaking point in a sector clobbered by a decade of cuts amounting to 11% in real terms - and that was before inflation hit 5.4% this year.

Despite the constraints, Mike Cadman, Cirencester’s pastoral lead, is adamant that factors outside the college gates should not stop his students from succeeding. 

“Ultimately, it’s a case of finding all the bits and pieces they need, so we picture each of our students as a block of needs in terms of the things that will allow them to succeed. A few come to us as full blocks, having all the foundations they need. However, most come in as half-full blocks while others come in as a quarter block. You therefore have to reset their starting point, acknowledging that ‘you’re not where you want to be now, but by doing x, y and z, you’ll get there’.” 

With cash in short supply, support depends on ’the currency of good-will’ - as was only too clear to Andy Grant by 9pm one Friday night:

“A student who was in care, I’ll call him Jake, came to us at four o’clock, just as the college was about to break up for half term. Jake had been accused of stealing and, as a result, his foster family was refusing to let him home, leaving him homeless.” 

Jake had no money and despite college staff’s best efforts, getting through to social services was impossible. With the clock ticking until the college gates needed closing, the only option was for staff to mediate with Jake’s foster carer. It’s not exactly how anyone would choose to start their holiday, but eventually, Jake’s family agreed to allow him home. 

Whilst colleges have historically invested in pastoral teams which focus on developing students’ study skills, cutbacks to other services, growing mental health needs, and high levels of churn among social workers have forced many to re-engineer their pastoral teams to encompass a wider range of expertise.

Rising to the challenge

In Part Two of my blog for the FED I set out three approaches to meeting students’ needs beyond the school gates. David Vasse exemplifies the first of these approaches, which I characterise as ‘providing’. 

David and his team at Sir George Monoux College in Walthamstow have branched out into an array of areas beyond a Sixth Form College’s traditional remit. For example, staff observed that students arriving in the borough from other countries during KS4 and 5 made rapid progress once they overcame language barriers and navigated the bewildering bureaucracy of housing and benefits. The college therefore secured funding to develop additional provision adapted to their needs.

David thinks the case for directly providing an extended range of services is clear. “If we have the funding to employ people ourselves, why wouldn’t we?”  It’s an approach that allows the college’s in-house mentor team to mesh their work neatly with the college’s curriculum and wider activities, increasing consistency.

The other benefit of in-college provision is that it makes the most of staff’s broad understanding of students’ needs. Provision can therefore centre on a young person, rather than different agencies’ discrete remits. Of course, a college’s ability to take on this role depends on being able to afford it, and David is open-eyed to disparities in funding, having previously worked in other regions. 

Even where resources allow, the DIY approach to meeting students’ needs has drawbacks as Andy points out: “The risk is that you can become your own LA and be isolated from people you should be partnering with and mean you don’t get benefit of links between specialisms.”

In an ideal world, where a student can’t get the support they need, Mike wishes the college could just “Do what we need to do and send off an invoice.” This could help drive what I call the ‘commissioning approach’, building on schools’ and colleges’ near universalism and broad understanding of student needs, without requiring them to develop specialist expertise in each area.

Some colleges are taking a commissioning based approach when spending bursary funding, but current funding levels make it hard to truly meet students’ needs and Jim also wishes there was more flexibility to how this can be deployed. As Andy points out, if sufficient cash were available for colleges to embrace this role, they could channel more money to the most needed specialist services whilst exercising a degree of control over what they get back. The question is though, are colleges really equipped to assess specialist needs and do they have the capacity to conduct high quality commissioning - with all the procurement and contract monitoring that this might involve?

Despite his enthusiasm for colleges acting as hubs, David knows that neither college-centred provision, nor commissioning are a panacea. For example, when Jerome arrived at the college having fled from a refugee camp in Sudan, resolving his housing and asylum status depended on a multi-agency approach. Similarly, the college knew that An’h’s studies would become impossible when she, her parents and her two siblings were sent to live in a woefully inadequate single hotel room on the other side of London. In that case it was the borough that needed to find more suitable accommodation nearby. The college also works closely with the police and youth workers to understand gang-related incidents occurring in the community and ensure these are kept away from the college vicinity.

Often, partnership arrangements depend on colleges and other stakeholders’ initiative, but numerous bodies like Children’s Trust Boards exist to provide a degree of structure and formality. These can facilitate collaboration and break-down silos while leaving each partner to focus on its specialism. On the other hand, although Jim is keen to work more closely with other agencies, he is frustrated by the time staff end up wasting in “‘long and badly organised” meetings, particularly because this time is unfunded, pulling resources away from core educational delivery.

A growing need

The influence of the world beyond the college gates will not recede any time soon. Indeed, David believes that pandemic-related disruption has resulted in many students’ needs going unrecognised. Coupled with lost behaviour routines and heightening mental health needs, this means colleges are likely to find themselves extending their remit ever-further in coming years. 

For David, funding for additional hours in post-16 settings from September 2022 has come as partial relief, and will be a life-line in helping colleges respond to student needs. However, only when the sweeping cuts the sector has faced in the last decade are reversed will colleges be able to piece together the optimal mix of providing, commissioning and partnering that students need in order to succeed both inside and outside the college gates.

Loic Menzies is a specialist in education policy and research. He is a former teacher and youth worker and was previously Chief Executive of the Centre for Education and Youth. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Sheffield Institute of Education and and advisor to the Foundation for Education Development and Cambridge University Press and Assessment. You can follow him on twitter @LoicMnzs. His edited collection “Young People on the Margins: Priorities for Action in Education and Youth” was published by Routledge in 2021.


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