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How many pupils make a sixth form?

Cost, course choice and availability of good advice for students are the keys to determining the idealsize of a sixth form, says Christopher Ball.

Imagine a secondary school with only one student in the sixth form. Would that be all right? I think not. She would be lonely, denied the opportunity of learning from her peer group, unlikely to be offered a wide range of A-level or vocational courses, and expensive to educate.

When teachers account for some 75 per cent of costs, class sizes of one or two are a luxury we can ill afford. It would be better for her - and for the community - if she studied at a college or another school with a larger sixth form. How large? That is the question I want to try to answer.

The sixth-form problem is the converse of Abraham's debate with the deity about how many just men were required to save a city - 50, 30 or perhaps only 10? What is the critical mass for a good sixth form - for students aged 16-19 on key stage 5 and working towards (the equivalent of) National Vocational Qualification levels 1, 2 and 3? I am coming to think that the answer may be a number not less than 400 and possibly as high as 500.

If 500 was right (and if we accepted the consequences) most of the existing sixth forms would have to close. Of course, the natural conservatism of the democratic process will prevent any precipitate change. But the problem is worth considering for three reasons: choice, cost and guidance.

While recognising that young people make important choices affecting their future at a variety of ages - I sacrificed science to Greek at the age of 12 - and that 14 is today a key decision time, none the less the course chosen after GCSE at 16 is critical. Setting aside GCSE resits and the like, and assuming that NVQ options are best delivered through colleges in partnership with the workplace, I would expect a sixth form in a secondary school to offer a choice of at least 10 A-levels and 10 General National Vocational Qualifications. On the assumption of two-year (full-time) courses and teaching groups averaging at least 10 students, this analysis suggests a minimum critical mass of 400.

The cost of sixth-form provision deserves a full-scale study. As an example of the problem, I instance one local education authority which funds its secondary schools at the rate of Pounds 1,700 per pupil up to GCSE and Pounds 2,000 for sixth-formers. Heads of such schools deny that they are subsidising high-cost sixth-form provision at the expense of the pupils aged 11 to 16. They hardly need to, when the funding regime does it for them! But I suspect that one could find cases of the funds Parliament votes primarily for the education of all 5 to 16-year-olds being disproportionately allocated to (selective) sixth forms. Those who lose thereby are likely to be the slower learners aged 11 to 16, and the primary sector.

So long as good guidance is available, the small sixth form offering a narrow range of A-levels and little more, while undoubtedly costly, can meet the needs of those students suited to such a limited curriculum. Others will be helped to see that it would be better to move to a college or another school with a larger sixth form. Is such guidance always available?

As chair of the new National Advisory Council for Careers and Educational Guidance, I am aware of disturbing evidence to the contrary. We are told that some secondary schools, perhaps fearful of losing students to the local FE college, fail to offer pupils a full picture and impartial guidance on the choices available to them at 16. While understandable, this is none the less unprofessional and should not be tolerated. If voluntary compliance with the principles of good guidance is unattainable, the National Guidance Council will have to explore the possibility of regulatory control.

All these problems derive (in part) from a system which tolerates - even encourages - the existence of small, restricted and uneconomic sixth forms. Too many young people find themselves on courses which don't suit them and end up contributing to the relatively high failure rates at A-level. That does them no good - and it does the nation no good.

So what is to be done? Some argue that the consortium approach can solve the problem, but I doubt it. It is time-consuming and costly to organise a consortium of several schools and the local college. Young people are forced to commute to achieve the mix of courses they want and need. In the case of the education authority mentioned earlier, where a student on the roll of a secondary school travels to the FE college for one of her A-levels a transfer of Pounds 600 is made. On the assumption that the average student post-16 is studying the equivalent of two-and-a-half A-levels it appears that the unit cost at the college is only Pounds 1,500. This is hardly surprising: economies of scale exist in education, as elsewhere.

The obvious long-term solution - except for sparsely populated rural areas, which will always be special cases - is to create a tertiary sector of sixth-form and FE colleges to take responsibility for 16-19 education and training. Much of that is already in place. Indeed, there is a secondary argument to be had between the sixth-form college model and the FE model, where the issues are whether it suits either group best to educate adults alongside young people and whether there is an upper limit to the size of a college which seeks to offer a friendly environment and effective pastoral care.

I don't know the answers. But I was interested to discover that the critical mass for sixth-form colleges seems to be about 450 at present. They range from about 200 to about 1,700 enrolments, but there are not many with fewer than 400 pupils. Such a figure is not inconsistent with ideas about the critical mass for HEcolleges, where in the 1980s a number close to 1,000 was identified as a working minimum. And that now seems on the low side.

Some people say that secondary teachers would not be prepared to do the job without the reward and pleasure of some sixth-form teaching. A similar argument is advanced in higher education where it is alleged that university teachers need to do research to make their teaching duties tolerable. I find these arguments unpersuasive. Teaching is a profession. Professionals are supposed to be dedicated to their service. They should not need inducements in the form of peripheral responsibilities which divert them from the main task.

What next? I hope that as a modest first step we may open up what is almost a taboo subject and stimulate a national debate about the sixth-form problem. Are my assertions sustainable? If they are, then it will require skilful political leadership from the Education Secretary to enable the system to change gradually. We could start with some straightforward regulations, to come into effect in (say) three years, which denied the freedom to run sixth forms unless they could enrol (say) 250 students. And then gradually tighten the noose.

Sir Christopher Ball is director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts.

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