By hook or by crook

Using fair means or foul, colleges and school sixth-forms are battling to attract as many post-16 students - and the associated funding - as they can. Stephen Exley reports on the desperate fight to survive in the face of fierce competition

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September is a busy time at Cadbury Sixth Form College. As well as welcoming the latest cohort of eager 16-year-olds, the college publishes its new prospectus and gears up to promote itself to thousands of students preparing to take their GCSEs at the schools in its catchment area. This year, staff have been out and about visiting 40 secondaries in and around Birmingham, heavily promoting what the college has to offer.

This may sound an impressive marketing push, which in some ways it is, but principal Jeremy Rogers is far from content. "We take students who have attended more than 100 schools around the Birmingham area," he explains. And this time around, the college has been unable to access almost two-thirds of them. The question, of course, is why? At the heart of the answer is the most significant source of friction currently gripping English education.

"Nearly all of the schools we got into were 11-16 schools. It has always been a problem, particularly with 11-18 schools. But it's getting worse. When they have a vested interest - wanting to keep the students in their school sixth-form - we're often not allowed in the door."

Even on the all too rare occasion that the college is given permission to attend schools' options evenings, it fares little better. "The school might do a presentation on its own sixth-form, and just give the college a stand in a backwater, which no one will walk past. But the boxes are ticked; that's how the game is played."

With the Department for Education keen to encourage successful schools to expand under the guise of the academies programme, many are taking advantage of these laissez-faire policies and using them to attract additional learners - and extra funding in the process. As a result, 26 state schools have opened new sixth-forms since the Coalition came to power; 23 of them were academies. Dozens more are planned to open in the next two years. Ministers are adamant that competition between rival providers will force all parties to up their game, to the ultimate benefit of students.

But the view on the ground looks rather different. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the UK will drop by more than 90,000 by 2015. So while the number of places on offer across schools and sixth-form and FE colleges is rapidly increasing, there will be fewer students to fill them. Indeed, a survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) published in October revealed that half of colleges have already seen their 16-18 intake drop this year.

You can read the full article in the December 9 issue of TES.

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