Cut-throat competition in the post-16 sector is distorting professional decisions about the quantity and quality of courses offered in school sixth forms and restricting students' choice, a new study reveals.
The survey of 256 maintained sixth forms by the National Foundation for Educational Research, shows the new post-16 marketplace has produced a greater variety of institutions in which to study, but has not necessarily expanded the range of courses available to students.
The study, to be published in May, also found that collaborative arrangements between schools, FE colleges and sixth form colleges, in which the institutions meet to plan courses and avoid duplication, are breaking down.
Co-operation exists in theory rather than practice, schools report. One interviewee said that "we all sit around and make the right noises", but in reality all the institutions were actively trying to recruit each others' students.
The good news for school sixth forms is that predictions that they would wither away in the face of competition from colleges have been proved wrong. The sector is healthy; the introduction of grant-maintained status has allowed schools to opt out of tertiary reorganisation, and sixth forms are popular with parents and many pupils.
There is no longer a clear distinction between sixth forms offering academic A-levels and FE colleges providing vocational courses. Schools have adopted vocational qualifications with enthusiasm, say the researchers (although GNVQs are invariably regarded as a second-rate option by both pupils and staff), and as the range of courses offered by schools and colleges has converged, competition has increased.
While most respondents felt the market ethos in post-16 education was distasteful, the same people were "resigned to the inevitability and necessity of open competition". Colleges' fears that schools were throwing away their prospectuses will be confirmed by this study - based on 1994 data - but schools also complain of "aggressive" and "slick" marketing by colleges.
Only 37 per cent of the respondents said that college representatives were allowed into the school to talk to students. Staff said that competition became nastier as each institution reacted to perceived aggression - one school responded to a college's "over the top" recruitment drive by cancelling the school bus to the local college's open day.
The most worrying aspect was that competition was dictating provision. Schools are introducing courses - particularly vocational ones - specifically so that students are not lost to colleges.
Schools also worry that colleges are accepting students on to courses that are beyond their ability, with disastrous consequences for the youngsters' self-esteem, and complain that students often leave school to take a particular college course, then are told when they arrive that the course has been cancelled and they will have to switch to another. However, some sixth-form students had also faced pressure to take courses offered by their school. Overall, the picture presented by the study is much harsher than that of the Office for Standards in Education report on sixth forms published in January.
Local authorities contacted for the study confirmed that schools were motivated by "protectionism" in failing to circulate information about other post-16 providers and that colleges could be aggressive: in one college advertising drive the school "was made to present a stuffy, fussy image to students".
LEAs predictably deplored the loss of their ability to direct provision and enforce co-operation, and now see their role as that of an "honest broker" attempting to keep institutions from each others' throats. They also said that if schools and colleges were funded on the same basis, schools would have to abandon their "bottoms-on -seats ethos" and consider the suitability of courses more seriously.
Talking to sixth-formers, the researchers found many had restricted their options to what was available at school without exploring alternatives. The study recommends that a "regional body" be given the power to resolve disputes.