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'Out to sea, the nation’s fleet of sixth-form colleges are weathering a storm like no other'


Jonathan Prest, principal of Barton Peveril College in Hampshire, writes:

One Monday in March, Michael Gove stopped to admire a painting on display in the Houses of Parliament.

The subject of Emily’s oil on canvas was a coastal scene, boats drawn up onto the beach, a calm sea and mist veiling the cliffs in the background. There was nothing startling about the subject matter, but it was exquisitely executed with a maturity that would have hardly seemed possible for an 18-year-old. It was displayed as part of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Art Show organised by the Association of Colleges, which was opened by the secretary of state.

Did Michael Gove recognise the irony in what he saw? Out to sea, the nation’s fleet of 93 sixth-form colleges are weathering a storm like no other and the barometer is still dropping.

Emily’s painting is the product of a sixth-form education that has allowed her to take a diverse programme of biology, maths, chemistry and art. Illness forced her to restart, so she will take a third year at college to achieve her full potential.

Sadly, the Government’s well intended promise to protect 0-16 schools’ funding and the admirably small reduction in department funding imposed by the Treasury has meant a disproportionately high cut for 16- to 18-year-olds.

In the squall of funding reform Emily, who requires a third year in the sixth form, will see 17.5 per cent of her funding fall overboard from next year. I am just glad Mr Gove agrees that her potential is truly eye-catching.

However, the real tempest has been the imposition of a single funding rate for 16- to 18-year-olds at a level that does not cover the costs of a good, broad and demanding sixth-form education. When protection funding is removed in 2016, most school and college sixth forms will revert back to three A-levels or their equivalent: 15 hours per week of teaching against the 20 hours we regularly offer now.

Do students realise that their programmes are destined to be so impoverished, that they, unlike Emily, will be forced to make life-impacting choices between sciences and arts – choices that many are not ready to face?

How will parents feel once their children reach sixth form and their contact with teachers drops by around 40 per cent and tuition could be fitted into a three day week? Will universities welcome a return to depth without breadth?

As principal of a large sixth-form college, I see daily our capacity to transform lives and opportunities. The National Audit Office has championed the value for money of sixth-form colleges; Ofsted has demonstrated the disproportionate number in the category of outstanding or good; Ucas data shows that, along with FE colleges, sixth-form colleges provide the highest percentage of entrants to higher education from the least advantaged areas of the UK. No wonder Sir David Bell once described sixth-form colleges as “the jewel in the crown of the state education sector”.

Why, Mr Gove, are you asking governors of sixth-form colleges to accept a 15 per cent reduction in cash between 2009 and 2016, when pay inflation will increase 15 per cent and other costs 25 per cent over that period? Why is a sixth former’s education judged to be worth £4,000 per year and a 14- to 16-year-old's £5,400?

Othello weathers the tempest that destroys the enemy fleet only to face an equivalent marital storm. Discovered with the body of his loyal and innocent wife, Othello reflects on how he wishes to be remembered:

“Of one whose hand / Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe.”

Let that not be the epitaph of a secretary of state who, I believe, cares passionately for high standards, the life-changing potential of education and its capacity to transform society. After all, Emily, whose painting he so much admired, has experienced just such an education.

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