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‘As the DfE’s 16-19 budget falls, the number of new sixth forms is being ramped up’

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, writes:

This year sees the 10th anniversary of the then-Department for Education and Skills’ first and only five-year plan. There is so much sound and fury in modern politics that it is easy to forget the recent past, but many of the aims and plans set out in 2004 are familiar today – higher standards in English and Maths in primary schools, action to close gaps in achievement, schools open for longer hours, etc, etc. The main difference between then and now is how ministers seek change. In 2004 it was through plans and bigger budgets, but these days implementation happens via speeches, league tables and Ofsted.

Five-year strategies were a Tony Blair and Gordon Brown invention to manage a spending process. Departments produced plans as part of a negotiation over money. The education strategy justified a big increase in the education capital budget, including a plan to provide 100,000 more 16-19 places. This is where there was an important change in policy. With increased choice seen as an objective, the strategy announced new mechanisms to secure more places: a presumption that more schools could have sixth forms, competitions to create new institutions in areas of growth and many more academies, most of which would be 11-18.

Ten years on, it is possible to see that 2004 marked a big shift in the English upper secondary system. Between 1994 and 2004, there were only a handful of new sixth forms opened. Between 2004 and 2014 there have been several hundred. It is difficult to count the number because there has never been an official evaluation of the policy. It is harder still to say how the policy has worked, as Ofsted takes very little interest in school sixth-form provision and is silent on the subject in its annual report. According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, this will change from September 2014 and Ofsted will start to grade sixth forms separately. About time – but long overdue.

Despite the official disinterest in impact, there is plenty of evidence in local areas. Some successful 11-16 schools extended their age range and now achieve excellent results for their students at age 18. In other cases the results have been less effective. There are schools that have been through a full cycle of opening a sixth form and closing it – at a cost of several millions of pounds. Elsewhere, there are rumours of ghost sixth forms: visible in the prospectus and the website, but with the teaching taking place in a federation partner. The results seem equally mixed. Some sixth forms do very well in the league tables, but there is a bigger percentage of schools falling below minimum 16-18 performance levels than colleges, despite their ability to screen and move pupils on at 16. 11-18 schools have their strengths but lose more than half of their Year 11 pupils in the following two years.

Given the mixed evidence on outcomes and a fierce public spending squeeze, you might expect an adjustment to the policy, but far from it. At a time when DfE’s 16-19 budget is falling by around 5 per cent a year, the number of new sixth forms is being ramped up with a new emphasis on creating 16-19 free schools. Some of these have prestigious backers and will undoubtedly succeed with the help of this support. Others are small, overambitious and seem destined to fail after a few years once the Department for Education's transitional support runs out. Economics eventually expose even the most cherished projects, but it’s a funny way to run an education system. It is harder for ministers to sell the need for deficit reduction and tough choices when they make decisions based on prejudice rather than evidence; decisions that will so obviously waste money. To misquote George Orwell from an earlier, more serious national emergency, the person in the Rolls Royce is far more damaging to national morale than a fleet of Goering’s planes.

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