Half of all school sixth forms will have to axe courses or face the risk of closure as a result of a major overhaul of post-16 funding to be introduced in September, headteachers have warned.
Changes to the system are expected to result in school and college budgets being cut by 15 per cent over the next three years, according to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
Heads have calculated that, as a result, it will be "unviable" to maintain sixth forms with fewer than 200 students. At present, more than 1,000 state schools - 50 per cent of the total with sixth forms - fall inside that category.
Schools and colleges could be forced to increase class sizes and reduce the number of A-level courses and vocational qualifications offered in order to survive, ASCL deputy general secretary Malcolm Trobe told TES ahead of the union's annual conference, which starts today.
The union fears that student choice could be severely restricted, with some young people being forced to travel long distances to study specific courses.
"There is a great deal of concern among principals," Mr Trobe said. "There is going to be a significant funding reduction, which they fear will impact the courses they can offer, as well as exam results.
"It is highly likely that we will see some small sixth forms forced to close over the next few years because of lack of funding. Some of the most vulnerable will be in rural, sparsely populated areas where there are already limited options for studying post-16."
From September, schools and colleges will no longer be funded per qualification. Instead, they will receive the same basic level of funding for each 16-19 student, irrespective of what they are studying. Schools will no longer receive extra money for running more expensive courses.
In a survey of more than 500 ASCL members working in school sixth forms and colleges, 25 per cent said provision would be jeopardised, with a further 68 per cent saying that the changes would "make life more difficult".
Two-thirds of respondents (67 per cent) said there would be a reduction in the number of courses they offered, with 13 per cent saying that they expected to make "significant" cuts to provision. Almost nine in 10 said they would have to increase class sizes, with 51 per cent saying this would have an adverse effect on standards of education.
The ASCL's concerns follow a warning from leading scientists - including the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology - that the changes could dramatically reduce the number of schools offering science A levels because they will no longer be compensated for their extra cost.
As part of the expansion of the academies programme, many schools have been encouraged to open new sixth forms.
New Charter Academy in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, opened a sixth form in 2010 with just 21 students. It now has about 90 sixth- formers but principal Stephen Ball said the school's provision could be placed at risk by the funding changes.
"Many academies were set up with a view to raising the expectations of students, particularly where there was a tradition of people not staying on beyond the compulsory school age," he said.
"We were certainly encouraged to set a sixth form up: we were pretty much told it was compulsory. The changes to funding would be totally counterproductive. It would seem to threaten the intention of academies. To introduce a funding change that will damage sixth forms is an odd thing to do."
David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association, told TES that many schools with small sixth forms would only be able to provide a "severely restricted offer".
Of the sixth-form college leaders who responded to the ASCL survey, 39 per cent said the changes would have some negative impact on the experience of post-16 students, while 51 per cent said there would be a significant negative impact.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the current formula, based on funding per qualification, had "acted as a perverse incentive for schools to enter students for easier qualifications".
"Funding schools and colleges per student instead will free them up to deliver demanding and innovative courses that meet the individual needs of all young people," she added.
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Original headline: Funding change will make half of school sixth forms `unviable'