THE Government has been warned that its tough new inspection regime for further education will leave a "Sword of Damocles" hanging over small school sixth forms.
Baroness Warnock told the House of Lords that the Learning and Skills Bill will leave rural sixth forms vulnerable to closure if they fail to offer students a broad enough range of subjects.
But Baroness Warnock's fears, in line with those voiced by the National Association of Head Teachers, were rebuffed by ministers, who argued that sixth forms whose students did well had nothing to fear from the legislation.
The Bill, currently going through Parliament, will extend the role of the Office for Standards in Education and allow the Secretary of State to close failing sixth forms in otherwise good schools.
The legislation will give new local learning and skills councils - the successors to training and enterprise councils - the power to propose the closure of a sixth form if it is deemed "inadequate" in two successive OFSTED inspections.
Baroness Warnock had asked for the legislation to stipulate that small sixth-forms would not be penalised for a lack of subject breadth. She said:
"Provision, particularly in rural schools, may be exceedingly good but not cover all possible ranges that are open to people of 16-plus.
"It is totally unclear from the Bill as it stands what criteria will be used. A new Sword of Damocles is hanging over schools. They will not be clear from the Bill about what it is their duty to provide."
But Baroness Blackstone, the further and higher education minister, said that good school sixth forms had nothing to fear from the new regime. There was "no question" of OFSTED failing a sixth form if its students were achieving satisfactory standards.
She added: "There is no wish in any way to be punitive about arrangements such as a doubling-up of teaching to first-year and second-year sixth forms in rural schools. Indeed, the Government would certainly want to encourage that kind of initiative."
The Government was also criticised for making the legislation retrospective - meaning that a sixth form which was failed by OFSTED before the Bill becomes law could find itself only one inspection report away from closure.