Appeals for co-operation over post-16 courses in Solihull appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Two years after college principals began discussing the possibility of franchised sixth form-courses at three 11-16 secondary schools, the West Midlands local authority is backing proposals from the schools to open sixth forms under their own terms.
At least one school may still link with a college for general national vocational qualifications but, as the LEA prepares to publish public notices advertising the sixth-form bids, the accent is being put on competition not co-operation.
Arden, Alderbrook and Tudor Grange schools currently send most of their Year 12 students to Solihull Sixth Form College. Fewer opt for Solihull College, which concentrates on courses for adults. While Arden is three miles from the centre of Solihull and draws many pupils from surrounding villages, the other schools are centrally-based.
Both are within a mile of the sixth-form college and close to Solihull College, on a large campus which also includes a Roman Catholic secondary with a sixth form.
Solihull Council believed the proximity of the institutions opened up the possibility of franchising, with the schools running post-16 courses on their premises for the colleges. Sir William Stubbs, former Further Education Funding Council chief executive, also suggested the sectors co-operate at a meeting of Solihull secondary heads.
But later talks foundered as doubts mounted over franchising in the FE sector and the schools' desire to open sixth forms.
Monica Cross, head of Alderbrook School, said parents were increasingly unhappy about sending their children to ever-expanding FE colleges. "At the moment they have hardly any choice. This school is without doubt large enough and producing enough students to have its own sixth form."
With nine out of 10 local 16-year-olds already staying on in full-time education, the FEFC is opposing the sixth-form bids, describing them as wasteful duplication. All three schools are proposing sixth forms with between 200 and 300 students.
Population growth means an extra 319 post-16 places may be required by 2005 - but the local authority agrees these could easily be provided at one or both of the colleges. Solihull Sixth Form College could lose up to 500 students a year if all three applications go-ahead.
Principal John Korzeniewski fears his college's annual income might be cut by #163;1.8 million, leading to fewer courses, and 26 teaching posts would be at risk. "No one is taking a strategic look at the area's post-16 needs," he said. He is unimpressed by guarantees from heads that schools would publicise college courses as well as their own. "Any head worth their salt can keep the numbers in their lower sixth," he claims.
The three sixth-form applications should fall on the desk of the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard in the summer. The confused situation in Solihull is a direct result of Government policies since the late 1980s. Once the colleges left LEA control in 1993, Solihull Council had little direct incentive to consider the borough's wider post-16 needs because only five schools have sixth forms.
With no party in overall control, the council might be thought to be supporting the few bids out of a desire to stop the schools opting out rather than any firm belief that one new sixth form - let alone three - is actually required.
Certainly the schools are aware that each would be in a stronger position if their application was the only one going forward to the Secretary of State. Yet the distant possibility of limited co-operation between some schools and colleges may sway ministers.
Alderbrook School says it is interested in buying in GNVQ courses from Solihull College while running minority A-levels in collaboration with Tudor Grange School and St Peter's RC School (which already has its own sixth form). Ms Cross, who is a governor at the college, points out the other institutions are only five minutes' walk away.
John Evans, head of Tudor Grange, is doubtful whether sixth-formers would spend part of their week attending courses at Solihull College, but he is willing to discuss collaboration with schools. Tudor Grange is the only one of the three schools submitting applications to have held an opt out ballot but, with parents having twice rejected grant-maintained status, Mr Evans insisted there is no intention of raising the issue again.
Arden School, which already runs adult education, believes a sixth form would allow it to serve the whole community. Head David Chamberlain said Arden was keen to collaborate with Solihull Sixth Form College over GNVQs and believes joint timetabling is possible.
Mr Korzeniewski, however, said this would pose practical difficulties for his college. The scene will become more complicated in September when Solihull College opens a new sixth-form centre to try and lure back some of the 16 to 19-year-olds which it is losing to the sixth-form college.
Principal Colin Flint said the centre would provide a broad part-Dearing curriculum and is supported by local 11 to 16 schools which do not intend to open sixth forms. "The college is happy to co-operate with Alderbrook School over GNVQs," he added, but he still could not see a case for any of the three sixth-form bids.