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.
Evidence is emerging that, with learner numbers at a premium, policy initiatives - not least the collapse of the Connexions careers advice service, inequalities between different kinds of post-16 providers and financial incentives for institutions to take on more students - are creating a cut-throat marketplace, characterised by damaging competition and wasteful duplication. Principals are prepared to go to extreme lengths to win the battle for students, resorting to both fair means and foul.
Accusations of lying, poaching and bribery are jeopardising years of peaceful co-existence between neighbour schools and colleges. In this most volatile of marketplaces, in which only the fittest will survive, many seem prepared to go to extreme lengths to stay ahead of the game.
A recent report on educational provision in the London borough of Camden highlighted the kind of issues faced by post-16 providers. The Camden Education Commission relates tales of colleges and FE providers being "excluded from careers fairs" in schools, "refused the opportunity to give a careers talk" and even "being asked not to send course literature".
And, according to the AoC, these kinds of incidents are regularly replicated across the country. "We know there are schools which do not allow colleges to come in and advertise their courses, and do not give students the time to go to college open days," explains director of education policy Joy Mercer. "If you are a school with a sixth-form, it's not rocket science that you would think about that income line, and probably not focus on directing the students to other institutions."
As a result, young people often end up making their decisions based on limited information. A recent AoC report found that only 3 per cent of Year 10 pupils surveyed were aware of foundation learning; just 7 per cent identified apprenticeships as a post-16 option.
In contrast, 63 per cent were familiar with A-levels, the most common academic pathway in secondary school sixth-forms. Ms Mercer believes that, in many cases, this can be attributed to schoolteachers' genuine ignorance of the vocational and work-based alternatives that exist outside the traditional A-level route in which they work. "A lot of people who have become schoolteachers have a very narrow life experience," she says. "They have often gone from school to university and got a degree and a Cert Ed. They don't have the ability to understand the complications and interesting routes within vocational provision. The Government is very keen to be delivering a system offering young people a choice, but sometimes they are not clear what it is they are choosing."
Oversupply, but too little demand
Richmond upon Thames College - a general FE college in business secretary Vince Cable's west London constituency - is a typical example of a provider that is finding itself under increasing pressure. This year's 16-18 intake is down by 13 per cent from 2010. And competition is set to get even tougher: no fewer than eight schools in the area are looking to open their own sixth-forms in the next couple of years.
"We are in a situation where there is oversupply," principal David Ansell says. "There is inevitably pressure from schools which are recruiting post-16s themselves; it's in their interests to want these students to be staying on. Part of the issue is that we're not being invited in to meet parents and prospective students. We're seeing the beginning of that change, and I would anticipate things will inevitably get worse."
Even if a student has made a decision to attend a college, that isn't necessarily the end of the story. David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF), has been inundated with complaints from principals about schools' recruitment tactics. "When kids have made a choice to go to a college, then they get rung up by their school and they use strong-arm tactics to persuade them to rejoin," he says. "It's the marketplace; why are we surprised? The dirty tricks brigade comes in and the only thing that matters in the end is winning the funding."
Another problem is that even when impartial information about post-16 options is put together, there is no guarantee that it will end up in the hands of students. While college principals in one London borough may have welcomed a glossy brochure compiled by their local authority for last year's Year 11 students, outlining the full range of qualifications and institutions available, there was one small problem with the plan. Thousands of students never even saw it. "I know for a fact that some heads put it straight in the bin," an FE college source told TES. "It's all about competition; the gloves are off."
The scenario is repeated in schools and colleges around the country. "I am finding myself in a position where there is a huge number of sixth-forms in the marketplace, and a declining roll," says Lancaster and Morecambe College principal David Wood. And in this pocket of Lancashire - a county otherwise dominated by the less competitive tertiary system - the intense pressure on school principals, always with a wary eye focused on their institution's success rate, to outperform their rivals has manifested itself in crude forms of selection.
"Sometimes we can get in to schools, but we are restricted to a particular cohort of students, usually not their brightest," Mr Wood says. "The situation is forcing heads to take a protectionist position. They have to sustain a sixth-form and there is a funding cut across the piece. They need to minimise the loss of these young people."
And college leaders fear it is only going to get more difficult to ensure accurate information about vocational options is passed on to schools. With funding for the Connexions advice service being cut across the country and schools assuming responsibility for providing impartial advice themselves, careers services are becoming increasingly stretched.
South Thames College has reported a 10 per cent drop in its 16-18 enrolments over the past two years, and principal Sue Rimmer partially attributes this to the demise of Connexions. "The main way we were able to get the details of what we are offering into schools was through Connexions; that was our main conduit. Following its collapse, it's very difficult to get any information into school," she says.
This lack of objective and comprehensive guidance flowing into schools serves to undermine the post-16 marketplace approach taken by the DfE, Ms Mercer thinks. "The Government says the customer will decide. We would say there isn't enough information available for people to make decisions about where is the best place for them."
And, she warns, there are no measures to deter schools from skewing the information, advice and guidance (IAG) they offer. "Schools are supposed to offer objective advice, but how are we ever going to find out if they have? The responsibility for providing impartial IAG has been passed to schools, but there are no real sanctions if they don't do it. Equally, in their Ofsted reports, it is likely there will be one sentence on careers advice. So there is no carrot and no stick; nothing to stop schools thinking, 'We're going to do our damnedest to keep students here'."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), shares the concerns about the consequences of the "dismantling" of Connexions. "It's absolutely crucial something is put in place to ensure impartial, face-to-face guidance for all students. That has to be completely objective. There is no benefit to keeping students in a sixth-form if they are not suited to a course, nor for colleges to recruit students for inappropriate courses."
But, at Lancaster and Morecambe College, Mr Wood disagrees. He believes that the financial pressures schools are under will always inevitably influence the guidance they give their students. "The Government can legislate for impartial careers advice, but who will check this is going to happen? I've always said that you don't need impartial IAG if you just let us come in to speak to students; I'll do the work for you."
When questioned about the issue at November's AoC conference, Professor Alison Wolf - whose review of 14-19 vocational education for the Government reported earlier this year - criticised the stubborn insistence on an "outmoded model" of traditional, face-to-face careers advice. "We expect some poor person to know everything about everything. I don't think it's where we should be putting vast amounts of money... It should be overwhelmingly online, accessible online and clearly objective national information."
But while experts may disagree about how IAG should be delivered, they agree on one thing: students should be given the facts they need to make a well-informed decision.
FE and skills minister John Hayes is familiar with the anxieties surrounding the issue. "In schools, we know performance is patchy across the country. We need greater consistency and impartiality," he says. The minister announced in November that statutory guidance will be issued in early 2012 to inform schools of their new legal duty to "secure independent, impartial careers guidance".
While the nature of this guidance has yet to be revealed, Mr Hayes told TES that the "scope and scale of what we are envisaging in quality" will ensure that genuinely impartial advice will be delivered. "It's not going to be without its challenges, but... the statutory guidance will go a long way towards dealing with that." While interpreting the "legal obligation" will be at the discretion of headteachers - "They know what's best," Mr Hayes insists - this flexibility will be contextualised by "a clear set of expectations". "In the end, I want everyone to have the advice they need to choose an option which suits their talents, not a preconceived view of what is right for them," he adds.
While many colleges would love their prospectuses to be more widely read in schools, staff at Lancaster and Morecambe College could be forgiven for wishing they hadn't bothered. After spotting a host of new vocational qualifications sprouting up in his local schools, Mr Wood suspects headteachers have been paying a little too much attention to his college's promotional literature. "They just get a copy of our prospectus and replicate the soft options. They are starting to deliver courses at levels 1 and 2, effectively copying FE provision. There is a massive duplication."
The ASCL - which represents principals in both secondary schools and colleges - fears the consequences of such aggressive behaviour could be damaging for the post-16 sector as a whole. "That's the Government's policy, encouraging people to open new schools. It's encouraging that sort of development: surplus places, more competition and inefficiencies. We are concerned, in a time of economic constraints, that we are seeing schools opening provision where it's not required," Mr Lightman says.
But, even in areas where there may be sufficient sixth-form places, advocates of the academy programme feel extending the age range can still bring about real benefits for schools. The Schools Network (SN), formerly known as the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust - the body which represents hundreds of academies and assists them in opening their own sixth-forms - argues that, for its members, post-16 provision is more of an aspirational tool than a cash cow.
"We're talking about the wider participation agenda, opening up post-16 provision to families who don't have any positive experience of it, or any experience of it at all," SN operational director Bill Watkin says. "Some academies are taking the opportunity to make use of their independent status to encourage students to consider the possibility of staying on into sixth-form. They think it would be academically beneficial to take their school to the next level; they think older learners would give the younger students role models to look up to. Academy sixth-forms ensure students are well equipped to choose - and that they have a choice."
There are many who would disagree with Mr Watkin, but it is by no means just academies who are ruffling the feathers of their neighbouring providers. Fearing a loss of students as a direct result of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) - worth #163;30 a week for young people from the poorest backgrounds - being scrapped, many FE colleges are dipping into their own revenue funding to offer extra financial support to students who may have otherwise been deterred by the reduced 16-19 bursaries that replaced the EMA. For instance, Newcastle College has set up its own maintenance allowance, worth up to #163;1,200 over two years.
While providing support for struggling students is an unquestionably worthy goal, it is inevitably perceived as an effective recruitment tool. While the lucky few can afford to offer additional support packages to retain their most vulnerable learners, this is a luxury which many smaller institutions simply cannot afford.
Sixth-form colleges, often with much lower student numbers than their FE counterparts, are particularly disadvantaged, according to Mr Igoe. "Big general FE colleges are shamelessly offering extra bursaries. That's not the right thing, to be spending revenue funding in replacing the EMA. It's supposed to be spent on students' education directly. Students do need (the support) but it should be a level playing field for everybody. Sixth-form colleges don't have as big a pot of disadvantage funding."
If there is one thing that schools and colleges agree on, it is the fact that the playing field is anything but level. And with more competitors occupying it than ever before, institutions are having to work - and spend - hard, if they want to stand out from the crowd.
In September, three new school sixth-forms opened in the Cambridge area. But rather than tapping into a latent demand for student places, the schools have all found themselves in a congested market. Cambridge already has one FE and two sixth-form colleges, as well as several other established state and independent school sixth-forms.
Three months after opening, Parkside Sixth has 68 learners on its books. Keen for the #163;4 million new venture to stand out from its competitors - and with an ambitious target of recruiting 240 students within three years - Parkside Federation principal Andrew Hutchinson has made a bold offer to entice new recruits: a free iPad 2 for every student.
"A cynic would say it's a marketing tool," he acknowledges, "but it's about looking at how students work most effectively." With the tablet computers currently on sale for at least #163;350 each, Mr Hutchinson is aware that eyebrows have been raised at rival institutions. But he insists that a bulk-buying discount, as well as the resulting long-term savings in photocopying, paper and other traditional admin expenses, mean that the initial outlay will be worthwhile in the long haul.
"It's a great transformational tool. Students are saying it's completely changed the way they learn. They take them home; (the iPad) is their possession," he says.
Mr Igoe of the SFCF remains unconvinced of the long-term benefits of "freebies". "It's a flash in the pan," he says. "People are canny. They apply, go and pick up the freebie and, at the first opportunity, leave and go where they really wanted to go. And it's the ones who are in danger of going Neet (not in education, employment or training) who are more likely to go where they can get a better bursary or freebie."
This scepticism is shared by the AoC's Ms Mercer. "It's cut-throat out there. We have heard about iPads and iPhones and payment (for support grants) being given up front. It tends to appeal to students from the lower socioeconomic groups, who tend to be poorer. They have the chance to own items they had always dreamed of owning, or a cash influx. It keeps students for a small amount of time, but it doesn't help them in getting used to a new curriculum and new way of working. It's very short-term and is wasteful of Government money."
It is perhaps ironic that in the age of austerity, with schools and colleges alike under ever greater pressure to deliver more for less, the post-16 market - inherently based on the principle of competition - encourages every institution to take on as many students as it can in order to secure its own financial viability. And this is irrespective of whether there is a need for additional provision in the local area.
"The Government is saying the market will decide the supply. It means we are ending up with really small sixth-forms in schools with just 60 or 70 students. In small school sixth-forms, choice is very, very limited," Ms Mercer says.
And in those cases, Mr Rogers argues that it is the students who lose out. "If you have a sixth-form with fewer than 100 students, that's not a quality sixth-form experience; there is a bare minimum of courses. To get to university, you need to do the right A-levels to get a place on some courses. Small sixth-forms can't possibly allow you to take every combination you might want; or they will allow you, but you will have to do distance learning. Your only face-to-face tuition might be from someone who isn't even a subject specialist."
And without the income from 11-16 learners to fall back on, the pressure to recruit is even stronger for sixth-form colleges, Mr Igoe believes. "If you are a college with under 800 students, it's a real struggle to stay afloat financially. We're in a situation where you've got to be looking at having 1,200 or 1,400 students to stay above the red," he says.
The mercenary approach encouraged by the post-16 marketplace tends to encourage widespread replication of courses and qualifications that are already available elsewhere, eroding the opportunities for individual providers to make savings through economy of scale - a serious concern at Lancaster and Morecambe College.
"As schools duplicate the college's provision," Mr Wood says, "they erode our ability to offer a full range of courses for all abilities. This provision is lost to the area, which reduces choice but adds cost. In an era of economic austerity, this doesn't make sense. The market distorts numbers and undermines the rational use of resources. I think schools and colleges are finding that they are the victims of poor policy making. Schools are under pressure to behave the way they do. This isn't the best thing for the young people and it isn't the best thing for the local area."
But while rival schools and colleges may be quick to point the finger at each other for using what they regard as unpalatable tactics in the scramble for students, they understand the reasons why. "While I would be critical of it, I fully understand it," Ms Mercer concedes. "It is funding that is driving schools to act in that way."
Allegations of unfair practice may be abundant but, with no clear overarching guidelines for schools and colleges, they can choose to play the game using their own rules.
The free-for-all in the post-16 marketplace will inevitably create winners and losers, as schools and colleges are left to sink or swim. But, as Mr Wood points out, the consequences will be felt far beyond principals' offices, up and down the country. "When you are talking about young people's lives, you can't afford to have losers."
The number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the uk
2011 - 2,279,958
2015 - 2,186,192
Source: Office for National Statistics, UK national population projection
Proportion of Year 10 pupils who have heard of these qualifications:
Foundation learning - 3%
Apprenticeships - 7%
Diplomas - 9%
BTECs - 19%
GNVQs - 26%
A-levels - 63%
Source: Association of Colleges.