Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has been accused by college heads of offering schools false hopes of a renaissance in post-16 education under plans in the latest Education Bill to curb bureaucratic restrictions on new sixth forms.
While the Education Bill is a series of measures to improve discipline and extend selection in schools, it has some far-reaching implications for colleges. The Further Education Funding Council will be stripped of its wider strategic role in planning post-16. It will no longer have the statutory right to comment on the opening of new sixth-forms. New requirements to "co-operate" with careers advisers will also be imposed.
Mrs Shephard and her ministers are attacked for failing to monitor the effects of existing regulations governing new sixth forms. They add that Mrs Shephard has also failed to give a clear picture of how limited the curriculum has become in many of the newest sixth forms.
The proposal is also seen as a last-ditch pre-election effort to win over local authority schools to the grant-maintained school flagship by offering the sixth-form option exclusively to GM schools.
The Funding Agency for Schools admits many in the areas of sharpest competition with colleges are struggling to attract students in their first year. Equally disturbing is evidence that co-operative arrangements which are designed to give the widest range of options will be scuppered in several areas.
Only two GM schools which opened sixth forms last September had more than 100 students, the FAS figures show. Another seven had more than 50, while five had fewer than 50. Deregulation proposals were pushed through for inclusion in the Bill despite concern, notably from the Further Education Funding Council, about small, uneconomic sixth forms.
Mike Snell, principal of Brockenhurst College, Hampshire, said ministers were failing to monitor the effects of its policies. "We want to know that is happening in sixth forms once they are set up. What are the group sizes? Is there breadth in the curriculum?" Mr Snell has led a strong lobby of the DFEE for two years.
The 14 sixth forms opened in GM schools last September are certain to be larger this year as students move into the upper sixth. But serious doubts about viability continue to come from Office for Standards in Education inspectors. They say a sixth form must contain at least 80 students to provide a reasonable range of A-levels.
Others, including FEFC inspectors say the figure is now nearer 400 given the range of general national vocational and national vocational qualification available. One senior inspection source said: "The Bill has more to do with pre-election populist measures than it is to do with concern for education. "
Peter Fenwick, principal of Woking Sixth Form College, said: "It's not cost effective to create large numbers of small school sixth forms. That is why sixth-form colleges were created in the first place."
The Surrey college is facing a sixth-form proposal from Winston Churchill grant-maintained school, which has already had one application turned down by Mrs Shephard who disputed the need for more places and warned that it could damage local arrangements.
Headteacher Peter Barnard rejects her view and will make another bid for a sixth form before the Bill becomes law. He has modified his claim and will offer A-levels but not GNVQs offered by competitor colleges.
He welcomed the deregulation of sixth forms, arguing that cost-effectiveness was not the only criterion: "The present procedures stand in the way of government policy. School governors won't open a sixth form which is not cost-effective."
Earlier efforts to revive GM fortunes by easing policies on new sixth forms failed to have any major impact. They were one of many nails in former education secretary John Patten's coffin.
After an initial rash of applications, the rate slowed. Just 13 in GM and six in local authority schools have been approved in the past 12 months. Slightly more than a quarter of GM secondaries have no sixth forms. Twenty-seven of the 452 with them have begun offering post-16 courses since opting out.
John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges, said the greatest effect had been felt in areas with tertiary colleges and 11-16 schools. "Some colleges have noticed an impact but others have expanded provision in other ways," he said.
Since 1993, the FEFC has objected to nearly three-quarters of the proposals for new school sixth forms. "The Secretary of State should retain power to consider and, if necessary, reject proposals where there is a real risk of existing provision being threatened," said an FEFC spokeswoman.
The FAS figures exclude 36 so-called "illegal" sixth-forms in Kent which were given DFEE approval this summer, against overwhelming FEFC objections. This was the clearest indication of wider deregulation policies on the cards.
Ben Thomason, principal of South Kent College and chair of the Kent Association of FE Corporations, said: "The over-riding of FEFC recommendations by the Secretary of State made it clear that the council does not have any significant strength in the political debate."