College dropouts 'anxious to work'
The number of young people who apply for college places but fail to enrol has risen, according to research by the Association of Colleges.
Stockport College is classified as outstanding by Ofsted. A huge flat-fronted building, dominating the high street of this Cheshire town, it is usually popular.
The college's principal Lynn Merilion wanted to know why. She employed a research company to contact the students and find out, feeling that 16 year-olds would be more likely to talk frankly to an independent body.
More than 200 students took part in the survey. It turned out that more than a third were studying elsewhere; a smaller fraction said they could not afford the fares to get to Stockport College , and the third largest group, 27%, said they had either found or were seeking work.
It was this which surprised the principal. She told me most of her students had part-time jobs anyway. The idea that they would give up studying to concentrate on employment aged only 16 had "a sadness" about it, as the jobs the students were doing were low paid and unskilled: labouring for instance, working in bars or shops.
Stockport, like other sixth form and further education colleges, usually takes a significant proportion of under-achieving students, who will enrol on "Level 1" courses. These are pupils who failed their GCSEs by a considerable margin, scoring F and G grades if any.
They may come back to college to resit, or more likely study vocational courses, and improve their basic numeracy and literacy skills by doing so.
Analysing enrolment data for this year, the Association of Colleges(AoC) has found that the number of these students has dropped by 14% compared with last year - a significant fall.
So far the AoC has looked at data from a third of all colleges in England - the number of "missing" students is just under 5,000.
College principals are worried because these are the students who they say "need most support" and who often come from poorer families. Overall the number of students has fallen by about 3%.
The AoC does not know for sure why the numbers of Level 1 students have dropped so much. The current AOC president, Fiona Macmillan, head of Bridgwater College in Somerset, says it is critical that colleges work with other agencies, to find out why these students appear to be giving up on education.
Stockport College runs a programme for young Neets (the term for those not in employment, education or training) to entice them back. I met 17 year-old Joe, who left school in 2010 to work in a garage. He had not got any GCSEs: if he did return to education, he would probably be doing Level 1 courses.
Employment or education?
Joe was clearly pleased to be back in education. He is doing a short "taster" course in sports coaching. But he did not take himself back to college: the Stockport tutor had called his mother and suggested it.
Now that the Connexions youth service has been cut back, colleges say, it can be harder to track down people like Joe, and persuade them to return.
John Hayes MP, the Minister for Further Education and Skills, told me he was very concerned to learn of the drop in enrolment of underachieving students.
He added that the government was taking action to address this - by setting up a new careers service next year - and that he personally would talk to the colleges and local authorities about tracking down these teenagers.
I told him about Lynn Merilion's survey. He was also struck that 16 year-olds seemed to be focussing on employment before education in the current economic climate, and said it was important to show them you could work and learn at the same time, through apprenticeships, or part time work.
The AoC research shows that Level 1 student numbers are falling most - but better qualified pupils are becoming disillusioned too - Stockport College's survey covered all ability groups.
He does have his GCSEs, including A* equivalent for Drama and ICT. But he told me that most of his friends who went to college last year dropped out within the first three months..
He's worried that he would "waste" a couple of years in college and then find it hard to get any job at all, given the youth unemployment, so he would rather just get started.
I asked him whether finances directly affected his decision: if the Education Maintenance Allowance had still been in place, would he have gone to college?