Mick Fletcher and Geoff Stanton undertake research and consultancy in the post-16 sector.
Their full report on this topic is available as working paper 38 on the Nuffield 14-19 Review website
Why is there no debate about 16-plus admissions policies? The Department for Education and Skills's five-year strategy for schools firmly opposes "a free-for-all in which more state schools are allowed to ban less able children from applying and turn themselves into elite institutions for the few". Higher education policy is also dominated by the debate on fair admissions, but currently seems designed to promote it.
As Sir Andrew Foster's recent review of FE pointed out, school sixth forms on average are less socially inclusive than universities. FE colleges, on the other hand, recruit 16- to 19-year-olds fairly evenly from all social backgrounds. This means they have nearly twice as many of those whose parents are in routine jobs and a wider ethnic mix.
Labour MP James Purnell wrote recently that "public services can develop an unintentional bias against those with weaker voices". The segregated post-16 system illustrates his point. There is a clear funding differential, with school sixth forms receiving more funding per student than colleges for equivalent provision. Even in colleges, 16-year-olds studying at level 3 (A-level equivalent) are better funded than those working at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and below, many of whom are capable of progression but require more time.
Furthermore, those "with weaker voices" suffer from experimentation with vocational qualifications, which contrasts markedly with the careful and cautious approach to reforming the academic route.
Different parts of the country vary in the extent to which they have selection, offer a choice of provider or involve specialist institutions. A report from the National Foundation for Education Research, published by the Learning and Skills Network, shows that, when prior attainment and social deprivation are accounted for, there is little difference in post-16 participation between sectors. Having a choice of institutions at 16 does not boost participation.
The Youth Cohort Survey, published in an annex to the FE White Paper, shows there is little difference between the performance of schools, FE and sixth form colleges, and indicates that what differences remain are probably explained by social deprivation. In short, there is no evidence that choice of providers improves stay-on rates or results, though it can increase social segregation.
Unplanned "choice" also leads to a loss in overall efficiency, further reducing the resources available for those most in need. Moreover, it reduces the choice of subjects as minority options cease to be viable.
There are, therefore, powerful reasons for not leaving post-16 arrangements to the market and for developing a transparent approach to admissions.
Perhaps the proposed local prospectuses will act as a catalyst.