Think of all the 16- to 18-year-olds in your area. What do you see? Talented and ambitious young people keen to improve their knowledge and skills? Students eager to make a positive contribution? Anxious consumers, uncertain about how to make the choices that will improve their chance of success?
Now consider all the post-16 provision in your area. What do you see? Cuts and reduced choice across every type of provision? Competing providers trying to attract students at each other’s expense? Patchy information, advice and guidance at 16? Wasteful duplication? Small sixth forms surviving only thanks to a subsidy from pre-16 funding?
Then imagine instead that your area is served by a comprehensive post-16 system. The same staff, buildings and facilities, the same expertise, ingenuity and commitment involved in post-16 education across the patch, but effectively co-ordinated and put at the disposal of all those young people in a way that responds to their needs and aspirations. Courses, teaching, materials, advice, guidance, support, enrichment and progression all planned to put learners’ interests first.
Utopian? Perhaps. Sensible? Certainly. And if it can be imagined, it must be possible to take some steps towards it.
Sixth-form education in England is in an uncomfortable place right now. The austerity we face could easily shrink our view of what can be achieved. The market context in which we work makes us behave as competing providers, putting institutional self-interest above educational aims and viewing qualifications and students as commodities whose value is linked to earning power. But it does not have to be like this.
Despite our troubles, we can see the elements of a better system all around us. These signs of hope include the commitment and expertise of our staff, our experience and appetite for collaboration, and the possibilities of new types of partnership and governance at national, regional and local level. These include hard and soft federations, trusts, teaching school alliances – and, of course, our wonderful students.
In the report Reviewing post-16 Education and Training Institution published by the government last month, we are being offered the chance to help rethink our system from the bottom up – an opportunity I believe we should grasp with alacrity. It proposes a new programme of area-based reviews of post-16 provision. This is welcome if it means that all the appropriate agencies will work with post-16 providers and their local communities to take an objective view of local provision, and agree on the best configuration using a range of criteria including quality, cost-effectiveness, geography and demand.
These reviews will need to draw on the imagination, system leadership and better instincts of all concerned. We will be expected to rise above institutional self-interest in order to build the best possible system for young people in our regions. Because the current pattern of provision is different in each area, the outcomes will not be uniform.
One of the suggestions is that we need “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers”. The implication is that larger colleges are better placed to provide quality, plan strategically and survive austerity in the medium term. If this is so, the point applies not just to colleges but to all 16-19 provision. When the guidance on these reviews is published, it will be essential for school sixth forms to be automatically considered as part of the local system. To leave them out would be a colossal missed opportunity. If some colleges are not cost-effective, this must also be true of many small school sixth forms. So if we want to invest cost-effectively in quality, we have to review the provision that is most dispersed or least effective as well as that which is already successful or more efficient.
The document also seeks to encourage “greater specialisation in genuine centres of expertise” while at the same time maintaining “broad universal access to high quality education and training for students of all abilities”. Squaring this circle may be easier with fewer colleges, but doing it well requires the creation of inclusive, comprehensive local systems. Without this, the least qualified and most vulnerable young people are more likely to be overlooked or segregated.
We must not allow an austerity mindset to affect our ambition. If anything, our vision should broaden just as our financial room for manoeuvre narrows. Can we find the courage and ingenuity to develop effective national, regional and local collaborative systems and release the collaboration dividend? Can we marry our commitment to all learners and to high standards with radically new ways of doing things? Actually, I do not think we have a choice.
We need to work with new partners, build new coalitions and create new structures. This means networking and federating at various levels, building on our strengths and experience. We also need to work with our stakeholders, elected politicians and the new regional school commissioners who are already using their strategic powers in parts of the post-16 system.
So let us welcome these area reviews and engage with them from the outset. If they are comprehensive in scope and founded on educational criteria they could help us bring about positive and sustainable change. There is much at stake and we cannot afford to fail.
Eddie Playfair is principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in East London and chairs the Sixth Form Colleges' Association. He blogs at www.eddieplayfair.com and writes here in a personal capacity