The battle to hold on to falling numbers of post-16 students has led schools with sixth forms to obstruct colleges' access to their students, throw away FE prospectuses and even to phone students who choose to enrol in college to attack their decision, according to a recent survey.
Ahead of a new legal requirement for schools to provide impartial advice, the Association of Colleges (AoC) surveyed marketing and liaison officers at 96 colleges, with catchments in thousands of schools, to establish how far students are exposed to a full range of options for post-16 study, beyond staying in school.
It found a wide disparity between schools with and without their own sixth forms. In schools catering for 11- to 16-year-olds, more than half provided "significant access" to information about college options and 86 per cent provided at least some access. But in schools with sixth forms, more than half allowed only "poor, limited or no access to information".
Among the most common blocking tactics were preventing college liaison officers from speaking to all pupils, such as the most promising A-level students, not distributing prospectuses and refusing to display college information in the careers office.
In perhaps the most extreme example reported, one college said that a "large school rang individuals on a daily basis, even though they had enrolled with us, to say that they wouldn't have as good an education at college and that they would be less likely to get into university". For sixth-form colleges, this is unlikely to be true: their average A-level point score is 804.8, compared with 773.4 in schools.
A TES report in December found evidence of similar obstructive tactics ("By hook or by crook", 9 December 2011). Cadbury Sixth Form College in Birmingham reported being turned away from 60 per cent of schools; those which did admit college staff tended to have no sixth form of their own. When one London borough produced brochures outlining all the local options, headteachers binned it, according to college sources. And, increasingly, schools are offering post-16 places on lower-level courses, to hold on to students who would typically have been taught in FE.
"We are most concerned in 11-18 schools. There is much less access for colleges," said Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the AoC. "We have to make sure students don't make a decision that is half-baked and ill-informed."
She said new university technical colleges also faced recruitment problems if they were not able to get into schools early to recruit for their youngest students, who are 14.
The cut-throat competition is being driven by increased numbers of sixth forms opening thanks to new academy freedoms. While colleges have seen this as an attempt to capture extra revenue, The Schools Network, which represents academies, argues that they are widening participation. At the same time, the number of post-16 students is beginning to fall: they are predicted by the Office for National Statistics to drop 4 per cent over the next four years. Added to that is the loss of funding in many areas for the advice service Connexions, which was particularly important for groups at risk of becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training).
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which represents the companies that deliver most apprenticeships, argues that uninformed choices are largely responsible for Britain having one of the largest education drop-out rates at the age of 17 among developed countries. Its chief executive Graham Hoyle called on Ofsted to enforce the requirement. "We hope that Ofsted will regard this as a priority under its new framework," he said.
Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw did not quite offer that reassurance when he appeared before the Education Select Committee last month, responding to MPs' fears that the system of advice and guidance was "in chaos". "A good school will have a good careers service," said Sir Michael, adding that Ofsted would monitor careers advice and "comment on it in our reports". But he also indicated that he was concerned that standards in FE were lower than in schools. "It is a worrying sector," he said.
Colleges said that half of all 11-18 schools were blocking their recruitment efforts. Of these:
34% prevented pupils from attending open days
58% refused to display college information in careers offices
74% did not distribute prospectuses to pupils
71% did not participate in taster days
89% declined offers for college staff to speak to all pupils
69% only allowed college staff to speak to certain pupils
55% had low or no take-up of part-time college provision at 14.