Biggest is best under free market rules
The writing appears to be on the wall for small, underperforming school sixth forms.
Many area threatened with closure as a new era of detailed planning for post-16 courses dawns with the launch of the new Learning and Skills Council this April.
Collaboration and avoiding course duplication will be the order of the day, while wasteful competition and surplus places should be squeezed out of the system.
Under the new funding regime, from 2002 post-16 education and training will be paid for according to the cost of courses rather than the number of students. Market forces will mean the end of small sixth forms offering a narrow range of courses, say local authority leaders.
While schools with large, successful sixth forms offering a wide variety of courses and school sixth forms serving rural areas should survive, small, inner-city sixth forms offering a narrow range of courses will be much more vulnerable.
Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, said:
"Students will vote with their feet.
"Small sixth forms are not going to be able to offer the range of courses and as a result it will be the students themselves who decide their future."
Informed careers advice combined with educational maintenance allowances - presently being piloted in 56 local authorities - should enable students to make intelligent course choices on where they study.
The Department for Education and Employment technical consultation paper on sixth-form funding in schools, published in December, makes it clear that in future, school sixth forms will be funded in the same way as sixth-form colleges from 2002.
It also reiterates the Government's assurance that there will be parity of funding between school sixth forms and colleges, and that present levels of sixth-form funding will be guaranteed providing pupil numbers hold up. At present, school sixth forms are funded according to pupil numbers and many schools subsidise their cost by using resources allocated for 11 to 16-year-olds.
The DFEE paper is based on the assumption that in future schools will opt to be funded in a differentiated manner - in other words, they will receive funds according to a range of factors, such as their core course costs.
Funding will also take into account the fact that, for example, engineering courses are more expensive to run than English literature courses. And it will also reflect student achievement and retention, student disadvantage, widening participation and a weighting according to geographical location.
Under the new Learning and Skills Council regime the money for all sixth-form work will come from the council via the education authorities rather than from the DFEE, which will continue to fund all pre-16 work.
So, in future - although the consultation paper says that schools will continue to be free to cross-subsidise - governors and parents will be able to see clearly the two separate streams of money coming into schools and just how these sums are spent.
Unless schools can justify cross-subsidies, such new-found transparency may well lead to the gradual disappearance of courses that don't pay their way. "Governing bodies and parents," Mr Lane said, "will start to have some things to say about that - why should money given to 11 to 16-year-olds be used to fund the education of 16 to 18-year-olds?" With the advent of the LSC, for the first time since the incorporation of colleges in 1993, LEAs will be able to create new 16 to 19 institutions. any are expected to do so - abolishing several small sixth forms and providing centralised teaching in one new sixth-form centre or college instead.
Significantly, the LSC will also have the power to set up new colleges. In some LEAs the strength of "save our sixth form" lobbies and other political considerations will lead councils to resist the setting up of such institutions. In such cases, the LSC could set one up to serve a single LEA or, more interestingly, to serve several.
Students, Mr Lane pointed out, didn't care where LEA boundaries were, they just wanted to go where the courses were. This would result in a mixed economy of independent sixth-form college corporations, LSC colleges and LEA colleges.
In his speech to the annual meeting of the Association of Colleges, last November, David Blunkett, the Secretary of Education and Science, announced that three new sixth-form colleges are to be set up in Lambeth, Islington and Hackney to drive up standards of attainment and to widen participation.
He also emphasised that, in future, collaboration - between sixth-form colleges, sixth-form centres in further education colleges and school sixth forms - would be the order of the day.
Area-wide inspections of 16 to 19 education in cities, he added, would provide the LSC with evidence to enable it to raise standards area by area. This could herald new collaborative arrangements and a new generation of sixth-form colleges or centres.
Significantly, one of the consequences of schools losing their sixth-forms may be that they start catering more for their local community and adult education needs. For example, by offering art, computer or literacy daytime courses for adults.
Government advisers - notably Tony Blair's education adviser Andrew Adonis - who have been visiting sixth-form colleges, are impressed by those 16 to 19 institutions with a mix of academic and vocational courses because they attract many more students from working-class backgrounds.
It is also no coincidence that Islington, where Mr Adonis was a school governor, has been picked to pioneer Labour's vision. He is much taken with the William Morris Sixth Form Academy in Hammersmith which was set up by the local authority - albeit illegally - to provide a shared sixth-form centre for schools.
John Brennan, director of development at the college employers' association, said that changing the pattern of post-16 study could be achieved by colleges specialising in different subjects and students and staff travelling between institutions.
He added that part of the rationale for creating new, more attractive, 16 to 19 institutions was political, as parents in areas such as Islington are effectively exercising a vote of no confidence in local sixth forms by sending their children elsewhere.
Mr Lane said the proposed new differentiated funding system would put power into the hands of students, rather than the institutions, as they could choose where to study.
FUNDING OF SCHOOL SIXTH-FORMS
Funded by LEA.
LEA sets rate .
No set weightings.
Schools free to move funds between upper and lower school funds .
Payment made to school regardless of results.
* FROM 2002
Funded by LSC (top-sliced from LEA budgets).
Same across country.
Weightings to benefit: - expensive subjects such as physics.
- additional studies such as PE, RE amp; key skills.
- higher costs in different parts of the country.
Schools free to move but with more careful accounting.
10 per cent of cash to be paid only if pupils succeed.
Moves towards national sixth-form funding, FE Focus, 26