A time traveller from the 1960s would feel at home with our schools, universities, and FE colleges, but would be baffled by sixth-form colleges.
Sixth-form college students are typically 16-year-olds who no longer want the constraints of school. They mark the transition from schoolchild to student. They symbolise a society and educational system in transition, too, with their origins in the death of deference. They may die as a seamless post-14 education system is born.
Fifty years ago, teenagers who were likely to go to university expected to turn up to school in their uniforms until they were 18 and be subject to roughly the same rules that had governed them since they were 11.
The Sixties killed all that. Teenagers such as Malcolm Wicks (further education minister in Tony Blair's first term) demanded to be taken out of the deferential atmosphere of school at 16, without forfeiting the right to do A-levels. A few pioneering 16-year-olds found their way into further education. By the late 1960s, the system caught up with the trend, and created the first sixth-form colleges.
Yet today, despite the popularity and success of most of them, they look like becoming anachronisms, with their rigid starting and finishing points. They are strictly for the 16 to 19 age group and mostly for those who want to study academic rather than vocational subjects. Some are merging with FE colleges, which themselves offer an alternative route into university. Others are increasingly becoming the educational equivalent of a tied house, taking most of their students from one or two feeder schools.
Once they have done this, it is hard to see how they differ in practice from the growing phenomenon of sixth-form consortia, such as LaSwap in Camden, which is the sixth form for four Camden secondary schools. Of course, sixth-form colleges receive funding via the Learning and Skills Council, and so are technically in the college rather than the school sector.
At present they are flavour of the month for an increasing proportion of 16-year-olds. Unlike schools and FE colleges, sixth-form colleges have not attracted the attention of educational researchers, but a group of researchers at Leicester University aims to fill the gap, and not before time. There are now 102 colleges, catering for a quarter of the country's sixth-formers. They are bigger than school sixth forms, so they can offer both economies of scale as well as a broader curriculum.
The Leicester study finds that most emphasise pastoral support and a tutorial system, and provide what the researchers call "cushioned adulthood".
Harrow, in 1974, pioneered the idea of doing most post-16 education in colleges, and created a large number of small secondary schools. A former head of a Harrow college, now retired, said he thought the area's education had benefited enormously. "We are a bridge between school and university," he said. "We enable students to make that leap of maturity to become young adults.
"Sixteen is a natural age to make the break, both in terms of children's development and because it is the end of compulsory education. It is good for them to be taught by people who do not remember the embarrassing things they did when they were 11."
For all these reasons, their popularity with pupils grows each year, and several sixth-form colleges are massively over-subscribed. Woodhouse College in Barnet, north London, is turning away hundreds of applicants while some local sixth forms are struggling to stay viable.
All of this has led to accusations that they are "creaming off" pupils. In some areas, they begin to look as though they are replacing the 11-plus with a 16-plus. While controversy rages over schools that still select at 11, sixth-form colleges can have any entry criteria they choose, so long as their governors agree to it.
Just now, they are successful institutions, seen as the prophet of a brave new world. If the idea of a seamless route through education, from age 14 to degree level, comes to pass they could, if they fail to adapt, come to be seen as the same sort of anachronisms as the grammar schools which gave birth to many of them.
The report, by Jacky Lumby amp; Ann Briggs, with Michael D. Wilson, Derek Glover and Tony Pellis is available online: Sixth-Form Colleges: Policy, purpose and practice, Leicester University. www.le.ac.ukseresearchcompleted6thformcollege.html