New Forest sixth-forms welcome proposals

Mark Whitehead

Youngsters taking their GCSEs in the New Forest area of Hampshire have plenty of choice over where to continue their studies. The sparsely populated area on the south coast of England has a tertiary college at its centre in Brockenhurst and several other colleges in towns dotted around its rim.

Two years ago three schools in the area started their own sixth-forms, partly, according to Gordon Skirton, head of the 1,350-pupil, grant-maintained Arnewood School in New Milton, because of the number of pupils dropping out of the colleges.

"One reason we wanted to establish a sixth-form was that we were concerned at the drop-out rate in the further education sector," he said. "There were too many pupils going off to college and disappearing."

Government proposals in this week's White Paper to introduce an element of payment-by-results into school sixth-forms aim to reward those institutions that manage to hold on to their students until the end of their courses and achieve good examination results. The plans hold no terrors for Mr Skirton, who claims a negligible drop-out rate.

"If it leads to setting higher targets, it's a good thing," he said. "It would mean schools paying very close attention to making sure they recruit students into the appropriate courses."

Nearby Brockenhurst College has been living with payment-by-results for the past four years. The principal, Mike Snell, says it has not led to a dramatic reduction in drop-out rates, which are currently running at about 6 per cent. But it did mean making sure students were given the best advice on which courses to choose.

"Under the old system, if you got the youngsters, you got the money and that was that," said Mr Snell. "If they didn't pass their exams, you still got the money. Now the real incentive is to get students on an appropriate course because if you don't, they will drop out. The main thing is to make sure the student is on the right course in the first place."

At Ringwood school on the north-west edge of the New Forest, headteacher Tony Maw welcomes the payment-by-results scheme, which he believes could mean more rigorous selection.

"It could drive some schools to be more selective in their A-level entry, " he said. "But that would be beneficial because it would be a disincentive for schools to advise students to go on to courses for which they are not suitable. "

Plans to fund school sixth-forms and colleges equally - the so-called "level playing field" also proposed by the Government in the White Paper - appear to be welcomed in theory by heads in the New Forest area, where, as in many other places, tensions between schools and colleges over recruitment are barely below the surface. How it will work out in practice may turn out to be another matter.

"Let the market decide," says Mr Snell. "The schools always say pupils drop out of colleges. But they also drop out of schools. Let us all be treated in the same way and then let people judge."

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