THE future of school sixth forms will come into question in a major inquiry into post-16 education in England.
The review will be modelled on the "three wise men" inquiry that brought huge changes to primary education.
It has been launched by the Learning and Skills Council, the pound;9 billion body responsible for education and training. The council intends to speed up the pace of change and closure of unviable sixth forms using the advice of an "expert" inquiry.
The dates of the inquiry and the names of those who will conduct it have yet to be fixed but Bryan Sanderson, LSC chairman, said it would be radical and swift.
"It is a big agenda everyone is scared of. There really ought to be a rational look at all this," he said. "It is hard to understand why Kent has 180 sixth forms while Hampshire has so few."
The 1,800 school sixth forms in England are funded by the LSC, which took control of budgets from local authorities under a wider package of post-16 reforms introduced last year.
School sixth forms get between pound;1,000 and pound;3,000 more per student than further education and sixth-form colleges and the LSC wants to measure their financial viability. But it will face big problems convincing the Government of the need for radical action. Middle England parents are fierce defenders of school sixth forms and ministers fear upsetting them.
However, Andrew Adonis, head of the Prime Minister's policy unit, has made no secret of his preference for sixth-form colleges.
Mr Sanderson said the post-16 inquiry would not be a quick fix but added:
"It is time this was looked at as seriously and dispassionately as possible. We need a group of wise men backed by the LSC to lead this who are apolitical - something like the three wise men for primary schools."
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "If they genuinely are wise men with experience of the college and sixth-form sector, who can command the sector's respect, then it will be comforting. But if they are people with no experience of education, brought in to introduce commercial experience, then they are likely to be just another nuisance to heads."
He said it would be dangerous to move too quickly and added: "Changes need to be well considered, properly founded and fully consulted upon.
The influence of the "three wise men" primary inquiry by Chris Woodhead, Robin Alexander and Jim Rose was unquestionable. It called for "a return to traditional schooling" and a "shake-up of the three Rs".
Its 1992 report also helped create the regime of testing and league tables by pointing out what could be achieved and examined and how this could be done.
* Mark Haysom, a former tabloid newspaper executive, was appointed LSC chief executive this week. The managing director of national newspapers at Trinity Mirror Group, which includes the Daily Mirror, replaces John Harwood this autumn.
FE Focus, 27