A NEW inspection regime could lead to the closure of hundreds of "unviable" school sixth forms unless they slash costs.
Schools on average spend an estimated pound;1,500 a year more than colleges per three-A-level
student. Following a rewrite of inspection regulations, new "value-for-money" measures will be imposed from April 2001, making it possible for the first time to compare both costs and teaching quality in schools and colleges.
So far, most of the 1,800 school sixth-forms in England have escaped with minimal inspection. They get little coverage in Office for Standards in Education inspection reports - even where sixth-form teaching is a substantial part of the school's work - and are barely mentioned in chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report.
The difference in spending between schools and colleges was criticised by the Commons education and employment committee last year, which called for a level playing field.
The Learning and Skills Bill, which will overhaul post-16 education and training, avoids mentioning the closure of "unviable" sixth forms. This was reported to have followed intervention by Tony Blair, who is keen to avoid confrontation with "Middle England" in the run-up to the general election.
But ministers are thought to welcome giving substantial influence to OFSTED, which could provide independent justification for politically sensitive closures. Mr Woodhead's organisation takes control of inspections for 16 to 19-year-olds in all schools and colleges from next April.
In line with the new framework for colleges, inspections of school sixth forms will be more frequent than at present. They will be used to compare costs, added value, teaching standards and student ahievements in the two sectors.
In deciding the future of sixth forms, local authorities will have to consult the new Learning and Skills Council, to be set up next year, and take inspections into account.
Regulations for inspection of sixth forms must be changed, Stephen Grix, the newly-
appointed head of OFSTED's post-16 compulsory education division, told the Association for College Management's annual conference in Cardiff this week.
Mr Grix said: "We must do it to get the inspection model right. As things are, it places restraints when we are bringing together the OFSTED model in schools and the Further Education Funding Council model."
Existing regulations would also restrict the work of the new Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI), which will replace the Training and Skills Council (TSC).
The inspectorate will look at post-19 services and work alongside OFSTED. The divide in responsibilities between the two is still not clear-cut. Grey areas include workplace training for 16 to 19-year-olds, and many vocational qualifications.
David Sherlock, chief inspector for the TSC, welcomed the move to apply the same inspection standards to schools and colleges. He told the ACM conference:
"Sixth forms were omitted in legislation from the common inspection framework. But we have undertakings that they will be included under existing legislation."
Details of the new inspection regime were reported exclusively last month in FE Focus and College Manager.
Following a private meeting between Mr Woodhead and the ACM, he revealed that inspections would be more frequent, with heavier emphasis on teaching quality than at present.
The proposed post-16 inspection framework is expected to be published within four weeks.
ACM conference report, III