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College and school sixth forms clash: 'The most significant education policy U-turn since the general election'

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“It’s the marketplace; why are we surprised? The dirty tricks brigade comes in and the only thing that matters in the end is winning the funding.”

These words, succinctly expressing the no-holds-barred competition for post-16 students between some schools and colleges, were uttered by David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, back in 2012. They could just as easily have been spoken today. Tensions between the two sectors have been exacerbated by the previous government’s urging of schools to open their own sixth forms. Under the coalition, 169 new sixth forms opened.

For better or worse, former education secretary Michael Gove strongly held the opinion that a school sixth form was a powerful motivational tool for young people, and competition between different providers would drive up standards, to the benefit of all students.

It always appeared, however, that promoting duplication of existing provision at the same time as imposing stark funding cuts in FE was at best ill-timed, at worst frivolous.

But this week, all that changed. Buried on page 14 of the guidance on the FE area reviews came two paragraphs that amount to the most significant U-turn on education policy since the general election.

“Similar provision in sixth forms is often duplicated in relatively small geographical areas when it could be delivered in a more joined up way,” the document says. “This may be particularly the case where sixth forms are very small, as some evidence raises concerns about the costs, breadth of offer and outcomes for these providers.”

The fact that this inconsistency is finally starting to be acknowledged is to be applauded. Equally welcome is the call for institutions to take a “visionary” approach, focused on developing new options for overhauling provision to benefit “the area as a whole”.

Designing the education system from scratch, who on earth would create 50 separate colleges in Greater London alone? Better coordination of provision and sharing of back-office services would save the taxpayer millions at a stroke. And, if given the necessary resources and support to aid this evolution (a big “if”, admittedly), FE could flourish.

As Eddie Playfair eloquently put it in TES last month, providers are being offered “the chance to help rethink our system from the bottom up” and create a truly collaborative post-16 system.

Except, of course, that when the government says “post-16 education and training institutions”, what it really means is “colleges”. Schools can be covered by the area reviews, but only where they agree to take part. Unlike colleges, they are under no obligation – and the resulting recommendations for structural changes will only focus on FE and sixth-form colleges.

In acknowledging the problems posed by the spread of small school sixth forms, the government has made an important step towards rethinking post-16 education. But if the area reviews are to be truly visionary, they should require schools to engage in the process as fully as colleges – and ensure they face the same consequences if they don’t.

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