Fewer schools are applying to open sixth forms despite Government attempts to make it easier for them, latest Department for Education and Employment figures reveal.
The statistics show a significant drop in the rate of approvals. During the past six months just seven proposals have been approved while 11 were rejected. Previously, about two applications per month were being passed by ministers.
The number is the lowest in the 20 months since John Patten, the former education secretary, published guidelines which were expected to open the floodgates to school sixth forms.
The news has been greeted with dismay by secondary schools hoping to enhance their status and attract more parents and pupils by establishing new sixth forms.
But it has been welcomed by some college principals who say schools are reconsidering the point of opening uneconomic sixth forms which, they believe, lead to wasteful competition and reduce colleges' chances of meeting growth targets. Others, however, remain cautious, fearing the figures are a temporary dip rather than a downward trend.
Government guidelines on sixth forms were published in February 1994 by Mr Patten. Most of the subsequent applications have come from grant-maintained schools in areas where local authorities favour post-16 college systems.
Of the 37 proposals approved since February 1994, 23 were made by GM schools. A total of 33 bids were turned down, 19 of which were from GM schools. Currently 34 proposals (including 20 from GM schools) are awaiting a DFEE decision.
Mary Moorhouse, head of Gleed Girls' School, a GM secondary modern in Lincolnshire, is waiting to hear whether her proposal will be approved. A similar application was turned down a year ago.
She said: "I would be very disappointed if the FE lobby won out and the number of sixth forms being approved continued to decline. Some pupils simply aren't mature enough to go into colleges. I think there's room for both of us. "
And Geoff Wynne, head of Noel Baker Community School, a 1,120-pupil grant-maintained comprehensive in Derby, added: "We were very disappointed to have our application turned down a year ago and will be publishing new proposals in the near future. Many of our parents voted for GM status because they wished to be able to determine their own future. Their wishes have been frustrated."
Earlier this year, the Further Education Funding Council told ministers it was alarmed by the rate at which schools were applying to open sixth forms. The council objected to 35 of the proposals it was consulted on in 19945. It said the new sixth forms were surplus to requirements and might damage college courses.
Mike Snell, principal of Brockenhurst College, Hampshire, one of four FE principals who have been lobbying ministers for the past 18 months, said: "The powers-that-be are beginning to realise that small sixth forms are very expensive. That may be the reason why policy is changing."
Meanwhile, the Secondary Heads Association said this week that stiff competition between schools and colleges was hampering the A-level transfer process.
New guidelines for SHA members on the transfer of students between schools and colleges condemned "highly selective and misleading quotations from inspection reports" and urged heads and principals to apply "high professional and ethical standards" to advertising and recruitment policies.
Russell Clark, SHA's deputy general secretary, said: "There is some evidence of extreme competition between institutions and we wanted to produce guidelines before things got out of hand."