Sixth-form colleges must receive dedicated funding for expansion or they risk being unable to meet demand for places from 16- to 18-year-olds in the next decade, principals have warned.
By 2028-29, it is estimated that the number of 16- to 18-year-olds in full-time education will have increased by a quarter of a million – but according to sector leaders, there is currently no capacity for them in sixth-form colleges.
The Sixth Form Colleges Association (SCFA) said three-quarters of member institutions reported an increase in student numbers this year – and many are already oversubscribed and unable to take on extra students.
The SFCA is calling on the government to introduce a dedicated sixth-form colleges expansion capital fund, starting with a £50 million pilot in this autumn's spending review, to allow colleges to build new classrooms and then, in turn, be able to enrol more students.
Tes FE Awards 2020: New College Pontefract named overall provider of the year
Andrew Parkin, principal of St Dominic's Sixth Form College in Middlesex, told Tes that the college gets 4,000 applications a year – of which he said 2,500 are “genuine” – for 700 students.
Why sixth-form colleges are 'special'
He said that student numbers have grown from around 900 to 1,330 in the past four years, and while class sizes have been increased to cater for those students, every classroom is at full capacity and every classroom in the college is used.
He said: “The bottom line is we want to take more students but we haven’t got any room to take them. Around 94 per cent of our students go on to university, and 45 per cent go to a Russell Group university, on average.
“That’s what makes sixth-form colleges so special – we need to tap into that more, and provide successful colleges who have a demand for places with a capital fund that can help us achieve modest growth.”
Mr Parkin said that the college needed around £5 million to build a new block of classrooms with eight rooms.
He said: “A new block would allow us to be creative with our other spaces – at the moment I have no flexibility to do anything with the rooms that I’ve got. We have two fantastic blocks that were built in 2008 and 2010, but then I have another block that was built in the late 80s, in which the dining room has been partitioned off to create classrooms. It’s quaint but it’s not fit for 21st-century teaching."
'The demand is not going down'
Wyke Sixth Form College in Hull is also oversubscribed. Principal Paul Britton told Tes that the college received 2,500 applications for 1,200 places. He said that this year the college could not run the foundation year level 2 programme because there simply was not the space to do so.
“By 2025, we could be having between 2,500 and 2,700 students, and then the demographics do continue to go up still further," he said. "To simply retain our market share, we are looking at another 500, 600 students, for which we would need 10 to 12 new classrooms and another couple of buildings.
“We're already at about double the number of applications we had at the same time last year, and last year we had 300 more applications in total that we had over the whole previous year, and the previous year was the most we've ever had. The demand is not going down, and without more space, without more opportunity to offer places, we'll have to just get more and more tight around how we offer these spaces out.”
Mr Britton estimates that would cost the college £6 million – and said that currently college leaders have to jump through hoops to secure funding.
He said: “It's a bit annoying in that we have to go through all of these hoops and special funds when the next door secondary school received 100 per cent capital funding from the local authority to meet the demand for places at age 11, whereas, as a college, we have to get involved in all of these shenanigans.”
Mr Britton added that a blended-learning model would be in use at the college going forward, which could help with capacity – but said that remote learning simply could not replicate the college experience.
He explained: “The face-to-face experience, the broader enrichment offer you get, the social life that we create as a college. Our students aren’t getting that full experience at the moment. Online works pretty well for teaching, but it is not good for developing the wider social skills, for developing the cultural capital – all the good things about going to a sixth-form college.
"Going into the autumn, I definitely want to have integrated remote teaching. I think there should be some remote element, which might help around our capacity issues a bit. But I definitely wouldn't want us to consider it as a permanent solution for students, or we will be short-changing them.”
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the SFCA, said a dedicated capital fund would be better value for money than building free schools to create new spaces – which he said, as well as being expensive, small and unsustainable, did not work for 16- to 19-year-olds.
'These young people need a place in education'
He said that the government could not leave it until the last minute – and could not pack more students into overcrowded institutions.
“At some point the system is going to have to accommodate over a quarter of a million more students," he said. "The government can't keep refusing to provide institutions with the funding they need to expand, because at the end of the day, these young people will all need a place in education.
“The demographic bulge is working its way through the schools system and has already started to have an impact in some parts of the country. The government has to cater for this growth now. They can't leave it to the very last minute and say, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do now?’ Simply packing more students into existing institutions is often not an option because they're already very overcrowded.”
He added that retaining student choice was vital – and argued that students wanted to attend sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms.
He said: “"We’ve got high-performing institutions turning pupils away. This Conservative government is supposed to be about choice, and students are being told, 'Actually, we can't educate you here because we've got no room for you.' Yes, they may get a place somewhere else, but surely the point is that young people should have the place in the institution of their choice.”
Mr Kewin said that the SFCA sees the fund as being open to further education colleges, too – if they are oversubscribed and high-performing.
He said: “We are asking the government to help successful, high-performing institutions to grow, and we think that is a sensible and reasonable ask. If we are successful, the bar to access this expansion funding will probably be quite high. Institutions will have to provide evidence of the increased demand for places – not just the local demographic growth but also why their institutions should be the one to expand.
“But before any progress can be made, we need the Chancellor to agree to the creation of an expansion fund in this month’s spending review, and we really hope he takes the opportunity to do so.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our further education and sixth-form colleges have a vital role to play in making sure people have the skills they need to get on in life.
“Sixth-form colleges have access to capital funding through the Condition Improvement Fund. The government has provided an additional £560 million to help boost the condition of school and sixth-form colleges' buildings in 2020-21, on top of over £1.4 billion already allocated this year. We are continuing to work with the sector to understand how we can ensure colleges in the future can meet their capacity needs."