Blurred vision of secondary patterns

15th July 2005 at 01:00
The Government's lack of coherent thinking is damaging post-16 provision, writes Don Lillistone

I was very optimistic when I read the foreword to the Department for Education and Skills' publication, 16-19 Organisation and Inspection: a consultation document, which stated that "the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council from April 2001 for the first time brought together responsibility for all post-16 education".

The Government appeared to be willing to grasp the post-16 planning nettle and the LSC was to address the absence of coherent planning of post-16 education.

Four years on, my optimism has been severely dented.

Last month's Ofsted 14-19 area inspection report on Middlesbrough states that "there is a lack of coherent planning for post-16 provision".

The situation it refers to is an example of how, in this country, decisions taken for a particular purpose are allowed to run counter to the concept of coherent planning.

When Middlesbrough LEA was established in 1996, the stated pattern of provision was for 11-16 schools with separate post-16 colleges. The only anomaly was the city technology college which had its own sixth form and was an independent, but publicly funded, ad hoc creation.

In 2002, Middlesbrough closed two 11-16 schools and replaced them with an 11-16 academy. There was no local opposition to this as it was in keeping with the existing pattern of provision.

In 2003 the LEA closed two more 11-16 schools and opened a second academy, this time with a sixth form (in keeping with the sponsor's "vision"). There was significant opposition to this both from the 11-16 schools and the colleges as it broke the pattern.

In the same year our local LSC, Tees Valley, decided not to support the creation of a sixth form at a secondary school in a neighbouring LEA because it did not fit its strategic plan. Yet a year later, the local LSC supported a proposal for a 14-19 centre to be created between this school and two others -in an LEA which has only 11-16 schools and post-16 colleges.

The decision was especially contentious because it was taken before the strategic area review was completed and because the local LSC's own review consultation document stated that "Tees Valley has more post-16 providers than would be expected for the population size".

The post-16 muddle in Middlesbrough has only been possible because of the lack of coherence in Government thinking. It is risible to establish a post-16 planning body and, at the same time, to allow ad hoc 11-18 academies that are independent of the planning body to be established in areas with an 11-16 system.

It is equally risible to ask the planning body to carry out area reviews to develop strategic options and then, in the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, to "strengthen the presumption in favour of agreeing" proposals for new school sixth forms.

Joined-up thinking? I think not.

Creating additional post-16 providers where there is already adequate provision, especially where there is also a demographic decline, is both destabilising and a waste of public funds.

The Government claims that it wants to see both more school sixth forms and more sixth-form colleges. It is difficult to see how this can make any sense.

If we want coherently planned quality provision that is cost-effective, is it not time to establish a single pattern of secondary provision for the whole country to replace the myriad patterns that exist?

It is ludicrous to suggest that 11-18 provision suits young people in X, but that 11-16 provision plus a sixth-form college suits young people in Y.

Young people do not change according to geography.

It is also nonsense to suggest that density of population determines patterns of provision. Countries as politically and geographically different as France and Sweden show how a single national pattern of provision can apply equally to sparsely populated rural areas and densely populated urban areas.

It is rather that, in England, administrators and politicians often favour particular patterns of provision for personal reasons or vested interests.

Having spent half of my career in secondary schools and half in colleges, I feel I can be even-handed on this point.

I am not arguing here for one pattern over another. Rather, I am arguing that the absence of a prescribed pattern leads to a lack of coherent planning.

Moreover, I doubt that it is a coincidence that countries that do have a nationally determined pattern of provision, such as France and Sweden, also have post-16 participation and achievement rates that are significantly higher than ours.

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's college, Middlesbrough

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