Battle for brightest continues

Post-14 education reforms might signal the end of the road for the sixth-form college. Francis Beckett reports

The Government wants to see an end to the days of schools and colleges fighting for the brightest students. But ministers have not yet found a way to do it effectively, Ivan Lewis, minister for young people and learning, told a conference in Birmingham on the future of sixth-form colleges.

The Leicester University report says "a tripartite system of provision for post-16 education, with funding allocated to those who are successful in 'capturing' the student, is bound to create market tensions".

A typical sixth-form college competes with two general FE colleges and five schools with sixth forms.

Established links with feeder schools sometimes account for up to two-thirds of a college's intake. But they still have the other one third to fight for.

The battle may be especially ferocious when sixth-form colleges compete against each other. One college principal told the Leicester researchers:

"There is acute competition between sixth-form colleges, because that's what the Further Education Funding Council has encouraged."

Many colleges like this competitive environment. One principal told researchers that students were travelling up to 20 miles to attend his college, a "lovely situation" because they had to be very motivated to travel so far. A college head of department admitted they were "creaming off the more able pupils".

The report suggests colleges are competing especially effectively with independent schools, and says that many parents are taking children away from fee-paying schools at 16 and sending them to maintained sixth-form colleges instead.

However, about a fifth of all sixth-formers are in independent schools, as opposed to just 7 per cent of the school population as a whole, according to the Independent Schools Information Service.

Many teachers collaborate and share expertise with colleagues in other local institutions, and many principals approve of this.

However, according to the Leicester researchers, "the environment for collaboration was less strongly perceived than the environment for competition".

In some areas, the fight for students gets ugly, and the report repeats the now well-known complaint from colleges that schools are not telling their pupils that they have a choice.

The reality for many colleges was summed up by one head of marketing who told the researchers: "It is a very tough marketplace. That's why I spend thousands of pounds on advertising - and so does the local FE college."

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