GREATER collaboration between schools and colleges will be key to the survival of small sixth forms under government plans for post-16 education.
The inspectors, the Further Education Funding Council and the Education Secretary want to establish fairer funding, cut down on duplication between schools and colleges and broaden the range of subjects available.
A more cohesive relationship between schools and colleges has been signalled in recent policy documents and by the fact that the Office for Standards in Education has been given the task of inspecting 16 to 19 education in colleges.
But mutual suspicion, resentment and a history of competing for students must first be overcome.
In Newcastle the education authority is drawing up a blueprint for developing partnerships. Keith Nancekievill, a secondary head who is re-examining 16 to 19 education for the council, warns: "The heritage of a 10-year recruitment war will not be buried at a stroke by a change of policy."
The Government's intentions were signalled at the June launch of Learning to Succeed, the lifelong learning White Paper. The Education Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted more co-operation between school sixth forms and FE.
"We will also guarantee that the present level of funding for any school sixth form will be at least maintained in real terms, provided student numbers do not fall."
His words prompted fears that small sixth forms may close if they are unable to deliver the full range of the broader curriculum outlined in the earlier consultation paper Qualifying for Success. This urged schools and colleges to mix and match academic and vocational qualifications. It also said the range of subjects taught at A-level should be extended to include up to five Advanced Subsidiary exams, representing the first half of a full A-level, plus three to four A-levels.
Mr Blunkett's caveat about student numbers alarmed the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "If the Government values small sixth forms and understands their social importance then it has to be realistic about the need for sufficient resources," said general secretary Peter Smith. "No matter what the guarantees, common yardsticks cannot be applied across all settings which offer education for young people."
The ATL is concerned about proposals on the funding of school sixth forms which appeared at the same time as the White Paper. Two alternative fundamental changes to the way sixth forms are financed from 2001 were outlined.
Under one system the education authority would distribute funds to school sixth forms but in response to detailed guidance from the Secretary of State.
The minister would draw on advice from the new learning and skills councils which are to co-ordinate planning for all 16 to 19 education, heavily influenced by the needs of local businesses.
Under the alternative scheme the national Learning and Skills Council - which will oversee between 40 and 50 local skills councils - would give education authorities the money for sixth-form courses in their area, again guided by the Secretary of State. Authorities would decide how much to give each school and could provide additional cash if they wished. This is the clause which most worries schools.
OFSTED has suggested that sixth forms with fewer than 50 students will not be able to deliver the broader range and increased number of qualifications. The DFEE could therefore decide the sixth forms are not viable, and withdraw funding, leaving education authorities to bail them out.
Just over half of England's 3,500 mainstream maintained secondary schools have a sixth form. A third of these 1,800 sixth forms have 200 or more pupils; a quarter have 100 or fewer; and 6 per cent - or 108 schools - have 50 or fewer pupils. These would be the most vulnerable.
College principals and managers have been lobbying behind the scenes for equal funding with schools. They say that they educate far more 16 to 19-year-olds more cost-effectively than schools, yet school sixth forms receive far more cash per student.
Government figures show the average cost over two years for pupils studying A-levels is pound;7,380 in schools, pound;6,250 in FE colleges and pound;5,910 in sixth-form colleges.
Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, is a staunch supporter of a wider role for colleges. "Collaboration within and between the school sixth form and college sectors is potentially an important way of achieving greater efficiency and value for money," she said.
She commissioned OFSTED and the FEFC to look at the effectiveness of existing partnerships. Their report, Post-16 Collaboration, published in July, concluded: "All of the collaborative arrangements serve to broaden the curriculum on offer to post-16 students. In most cases they do so in an economical way."
However, striking an ominous note for schools with small sixth forms, the report added: "Post-16 consortia offer a significantly broader curriculum than institutions, particularly schools, could provide individually."
The report also pointed out weaknesses of collaboration including poor joint planning, inadequate quality assurance, loss of autonomy over timetabling and increased demands on staff time.
The authors highlighted the cultural differences and obstacles to collaboration. These include the distance between institutions, different approaches to teaching, the vested interests of staff who wish to retain their hold over sixth-form teaching and an unwillingness to compromise over timetabling and organisation.
However, headteachers and principals are left in no doubt collaboration is the way forward. The lifelong learning partnerships, set up this year to develop post-16 education locally, are urged to include consortia arrangements in their plans and consider extra help with transport costs and crucially the convergence of the funding arrangements for schools and colleges.
There has been a surprising lack of debate on the implications of the post-16 reforms, but behind the scenes schools are anxious.
Gareth Matthewson, chairman of the secondary schools committee of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "There is a determination on the part of the Government to eradicate duplication, and have co-operation rather than competition. But a lot of schools and colleges could be in a situation where co-operation is forced on them."
Colleges tend to complain that headteachers try to stop pupils attending local colleges. "For some subjects the colleges can offer things we can't, specialist facilities such as courses in the performing arts, dance, drama, video production and catering," said Mr Matthewson.
"We recognise co-operation is a good thing but there's bound to be an element of 'we don't want to talk to colleges because they will nick our kids'. There is a tension."
AOC's view, V
KEY FINDINGS OF OFSTEDFEFC REPORT
* collaboration can significantly increase breadth of the curriculum offered to students;
* co-operation avoids duplication in a region, while offering courses more economically;
* valued courses such as A-level modern languages and music can be protected;
* collaboration offers a bridge for students between schools, colleges and higher education;
* joint working provides professional development for staff and creates opportunities to teach A-levels in a wide range of subjects;
* joint working can encourage 16-year-olds to stay on.
WHO TEACHES THE POST-16s?
There were 1.8 million 16 to 18-year-olds in England in 199798.
More than half of them, 55 per cent, were in full-time education with 314,000 or 17 per cent in maintained schools, and 495,000 or 27 per cent in FE and sixth-form colleges.
A further 4 per cent were in independent schools with 7 per cent in higher education.