The dust has started to settle. Not the magical sprinkling of Christmas, but the blinding, obfuscating dust storm of agony and uncertainty that has preoccupied and paralysed so many for so long. The government now has a working majority and the withdrawal agreement is in the offing. Of course, the process is only just starting, but policymakers and commentators can at least turn to other issues, previously obscured in shrouds of 1930s Oklahoma-scale dust, with a degree of clarity and certainty.
One of the many urgent priorities facing the new administration is the sharp growth in the number of 16- to 18-year olds in England. We know a population bulge is coming our way, because we have watched it work its way through primary and secondary schools for more than 10 years. Any day now, it is going to reach our sixth forms and we must be ready. At the moment, we simply don’t have enough places for everyone and we need to act fast.
More on this: Sixth-form college staff strike over pay and conditions
The number of 16- to 18-year olds participating in full-time education will probably rise from 1,127,000 in 2019-20 to 1,387,585 in 2028-29 – an increase of 260,585. To put that in perspective, the number of students currently studying at a sixth-form college (at which almost one in four of all A levels is taken) is approximately 160,000. We are facing a monumental expansion.
We will need more classrooms, more facilities, more transport and more teachers. And we need to understand what young people want to study – about three in four currently choose A levels or level 3 BTECs and that is unlikely to change, even with T levels coming on stream – and what our economy and society need. Closing the skills gap, whether in technical, manual, digital, creative or academic skills, is a priority and we must address the perceived hierarchy of pathways and set aside the language of gold standard qualifications; we need to establish what sixth-form education models are effective and affordable if we are to make the most of limited resource; we need to understand when, in any given community, the number of young people will outstrip the number of school and college places available; and we need to build sufficient capacity before that tipping point arrives.
There are several ways to cater for this demographic upturn: by building new (free) schools; by adding sixth forms to existing 11-16 schools and academies; by filling existing institutions to capacity; or by allowing existing, high-performing sixth-form institutions to expand. The government will almost certainly need to deploy all of these strategies at one time or another.
Local context – the scale of the capacity shortage, the nature of the community, the local economy, the quality of existing providers – will influence the decision making: does building extra classrooms in a low-performing school make sense? Does a central sixth-form college in a sparsely populated rural landscape make sense? Does investing in new provision make sense when an existing provider could expand at a fraction of the cost? Can even above-average-sized school sixth forms offer the breadth of choice or the dedicated focus of a 16-19 college.
The answer to all these questions is no, of course, but sometimes local context will make any one of them the most viable solution. The important thing is to have a well-structured and transparent process for making decisions about expansion. We need to set aside long-held preconceptions and make evidence-informed decisions.
A competitive process for establishing new sixth-form provision should take place that is open to all types of sixth-form provider. This is more likely to result in a solution that is right for each local area and is a more effective way of dealing with the national increase in student numbers.
'An important challenge'
It is not surprising that expanding existing, high-performing institutions offers better value for money (it is a lot cheaper to do) at lower risk (they already have a proven track record) than opening brand-new ones. But there is, as yet, no mechanism for sixth-form colleges and 16-19 academies, which are the specialist experts in the field and which have the economies of scale to ensure a broad curriculum offer, to access capital funding for expansion on the scale needed.
As minister Nick Gibb said in March this year, “an important challenge facing sixth-form colleges in many areas over the coming years is to prepare for the anticipated increase in student numbers…it needs extra up-front investment – for example, to build new classrooms – so we will look carefully in the Spending Review at how we can help colleges to prepare for the increase in student numbers that many of them now anticipate.”
2020, a year so perfectly suited to clarity of vision, is almost upon us, and now is the time to prepare for the challenge we can see ahead: build the capacity of the system; make the most of established experts; base decisions on evidence, not on preconceptions; put the needs, interests and aptitudes of students at the heart of our strategy to prepare for the future.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association