Funding is desperately needed for ‘overlooked’ learners across the region

Posted: August 17, 2023

Alternative 14-16 provisions offer young people who don’t fit into mainstream school a unique setting for them to get the support they desperately need and make positive changes to their lives, with often fantastic results, writes Niki McKenna, Headteacher at Leeds City College’s 14+ Academies.

Despite this, these provisions, such as the 14+ Academies at Leeds City College, are few and far between. In fact, we are the largest in the country and the only one in Yorkshire, and are oversubscribed each year.

We’re calling on the government to acknowledge the transformative impact these provisions have on the lives of our young people and invest sufficient funding so that we, and other providers, can help more 14-16 year olds – who are otherwise getting left behind.

Many of our learners come from challenging personal backgrounds, and may have suffered from mental health issues, bullying or have special educational needs (SEN). Some parents have told us that we’ve been a ‘lifeline’ for their child, and that they may not be here today without the support they received from the academies.

Almost 80% of our students, when joining, say they have, or are currently facing some type of mental health or wellbeing barrier. They’ve had their fair share of struggles. What’s more, an astounding 88% of young people report feeling unsafe at their previous schools.

These are staggering statistics, and it highlights the crucial role we play in supporting and uplifting our young people. We believe it is our mission to show them that there is hope, that they are not alone, and that they can thrive. We also ensure that we are respectful of their opinions, and try our best to cultivate durable relationships.

We recently celebrated our 10 year anniversary, and our journey over this time has been nothing short of extraordinary. We have seen over 1,500 teenagers come through our doors, all of whom came in with individual struggles and left with hope, determination and self-belief. This is because provisions such as ours provide learners with the tools to build up their resilience and develop an unfaltering belief in their own potential.

We have seen young minds blossoming as confidence grows, allowing our students to reimagine their futures. The 14+ Academies has become a haven, a safe and inclusive space where teenagers can develop, maximise their potential and raise their aspirations, all whilst embracing their individuality.

One of the key challenges faced by colleges that provide a provision for students of this age, is meeting the needs of learners of all abilities with a variety of activities that encourage independence.

As part of this, 14 and 15 year olds who come to us are able to choose from a range of tailored educational pathways.

The main offer is the 14+ Apprenticeship Academy, which provides students with the opportunity to focus on core GCSE topics whilst completing a vocational course from a number of subject areas.

Some also enrol on one of the specialist English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) courses, or the P-TECH academy – which allows students to take part in an industry-guided course in collaboration with tech giant, IBM.

With a class size of no more than 20, staff can understand how to get the best out of learners, with tailored teaching to match individual needs. It’s not just about academia though, our main focus is on developing well-rounded young people who believe in themselves and their abilities.

Not only do our learners now feel safe, but they also feel listened to and supported, and frequently express their appreciation for the support they receive. We are here to give them the fresh start they not only need, but deserve.

We are always delighted to hear that they find their time at the 14+ Academies more enjoyable and rewarding than their previous school experience – and, vitally, now care about their futures.

Many of the students that we enrol have been out of school for some time and therefore home-schooled as an interim option. Since the pandemic, applications to our provision have skyrocketed, and we are doing all we can to try and meet those needs.

We have 240 spaces in total for those who need an alternative learning environment to school. This means every year we are able to take 120 new learners in year 10. This year, we had over 400 year 10 applications for the 2023-24 academic year. Although we would like to offer more spaces, we simply do not have the funding to do so.

This is a stark reminder of the countless young people out there who are still struggling, who are not getting the support they desperately need. Our anniversary is a reminder of our responsibility to advocate for change, because this simply isn’t good enough.

We will continue to campaign on this issue so we can transform the lives of many more teenagers, because we believe each and every one of them deserves a second chance.

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