Put school sixth forms on the chopping block, too

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While all manner of providers can choose to opt into the area reviews, as far as ministers (and Treasury bean-counters) are concerned, they’re all about colleges.

And while the focus of the process has been all about ensuring that we end up with “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient” colleges, it has always seemed inherently unfair that school sixth forms have been under relatively little scrutiny.

We saw no fewer than 169 new sixth forms open under the coalition. Former education secretary Michael Gove was less concerned with money being wasted through unnecessary duplication than he was with the benefits that he believed would come from competition between different providers driving up standards.

But there’s a certain irony that since the Conservative free marketeers cast off the Liberal Democrat shackles last May, there has been a distinct shift away from this laissez-faire approach.

In the schools sector, we’ve seen the regional schools commissioners (RSCs) drafted in to occupy the fabled “middle tier” to offer some (relatively) local accountability for academies across the country, now freed from local authority control.

And while education policy on Gove’s watch was all about freedom and flexibility, we’ve now seen sixth-form colleges given the right to hand back their incorporated autonomy and become 16-19 academies, returning to the more heavily regulated world of schools.

But the thorny issue of managing school sixth forms, and ensuring their quality and financial sustainability, has been largely forgotten.

There was the long-overdue acknowledgement in September’s area review guidance that there were concerns about the “costs, breadth of offer and outcomes” of tiny sixth forms, but exactly what will be done to address this has remained unclear.

Until now. Buried in a document quietly published on the Department for Education website last month was a list of the criteria against which any bids by schools to open a sixth form would be assessed by the RSCs.

While it comes as no surprise that schools would “normally” have to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, the other criteria offer an intriguing insight into DfE officials’ thinking.

Value for money

The sixth form should have an “expectation of around 200 students or more”, while students should be able to choose from “around 15 A levels across a range of subjects”. Crucially, the applicant should be required to demonstrate that there would be sufficient demand, considering both any shortage of places and the quality of existing provision.

Most importantly, any expansion into 16-plus provision will need to demonstrate value for money – “including testing financial resilience should student numbers fall and considering the degree and impact on 11-16 education, of crosssubsidisation of funding from the school’s other budgets”. Amen to that.

Another stipulation is that sixth-form and FE colleges must be consulted about any school expansion plans.

While the prospect of cash-strapped college principals welcoming a new competitor is about as likely as David Cameron taking his next holiday in Panama, the fact that their voice will be heard is to be welcomed.

But, as always, the devil is in the detail. However welcome the guidance may be, it is not statutory, meaning that the final say will go to RSCs and come down to how strictly they implement the new rules.

We’ve already witnessed the creation of too many expensive school sixth forms plagued by low student numbers, a limited range of subjects and poor quality provision. It’s in everyone’s interests that the RSCs stick rigidly to the new guidance.

FE is already doing its bit, so let’s be fair. A landscape with “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient” school sixth forms wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing either.

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 15 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here.

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