Demand your rights to post-16

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Many good secondary schools are being denied the opportunity of providing a sixth-form education for pupils, writes Sir Cyril Taylor

Currently only about three- quarters of English 17 and 18-year-olds are in full-time education or training. This compares unfavourably with our major competitors such as France and Germany, where the stay-on rate is more than 90 per cent. If we are to match this level of participation, we need more than 200,000 extra places for post-16 education. Just over half of our maintained secondaries have post-16 education, providing about a fifth of the total number of places, with the balance being provided by sixth-form colleges, further education colleges, apprenticeships, fee-charging independent schools and work-based learning.

The Tomlinson report has quite rightly called for better vocational education. There is neither an adequate number of places nor quality of provision for vocational students. There is also a concern that many gifted children, especially those in comprehensives, do not receive the attention they deserve. Only 19,000 18-year-olds in this country achieve three As at A-level - equivalent to just over 3 per cent of the total number of 600,000 18-year-olds. More than two-thirds of these students are educated in either grammar or independent schools. These schools only account for 13 per cent of places for 11 to 16-year-olds but 25 per cent of enrolment at post-16.

Few comprehensive students achieve the grades necessary at A-level to gain entry to the better universities.

What can we do to resolve these issues? One way is to increase provision in schools. Last summer, as part of the five-year strategy to improve education, the Government announced that any high-performing English secondary could apply to add post-16 education with a general presumption in favour of approval. This was welcome news to the 1,300English secondary schools without post-16 provision, but sadly the policy does not seem to have been accepted by some local education auth-orities and local offices of the Learning and Skills Council.

The Arden school in Solihull is a high-performing specialist language college for 11 to 16-year-olds with 91 per cent of its pupils achieving five good grades at GCSE. It recently applied to give A-level courses in languages in consortium with the neighbouring Heart of England Business and Enterprise school, which has post-16 provision. The application was turned down by the local LSC, in clear conflict with new government policy. Anne Green, headteacher of the Arden school, says: "My children have a right to choose school-based education in the state sector. This is currently not available in Solihull. As a result, many of my parents are having to pay for their children to attend private schools."

There are some parts of the country where a more constructive attitude is taken by the local education planners towards expanding post-16 education particularly by forming partnerships of schools, sixth-form colleges, FE colleges and sector skill organisations. Lincolnshire is such an authority.

Dr Cheryle Berry, director of education, has divided the county up into 20 consortia. For example, four specialist schools in Grantham with no previous post-16 facility are now offering post-16 courses in conjunction with the local FE college, with the Central Technology College taking responsibility for all science teaching.

Dr Berry says: "The richness of the curriculum available through these partnerships ensures that the young people of Lincolnshire will be able to study for the career opportunities which are so vital in a rural authority."

Similarly in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, the three specialist secondary schools have a joint sixth form and offer a wide variety of high-quality courses.

Surely decision-makers in the LSCs should accept there should be a choice of post-16 provision. Some 16-year-olds will do better with the greater pastoral care provided by schools, especially as so many FE and sixth-form colleges are now large institutions with thousands of students. Schools seeking to improve performance will enjoy greater support from parents if they offer post-16 provision since they know that better teachers are often attracted to schools with sixth forms because of the appeal of teaching A-level courses.

It should be made clear that good 11-16 schools have an absolute right to offer post-16 provision. The role of LSCs only concerns the implementation of such plans. The Specialist Schools Trust will be happy to advise schools wishing to add post-16 provision.

There are, of course, funding issues. FE colleges still receive about 15 per cent less on a per capita basis than schools do, but the gap is narrowing. There will need to be agreed per-course tariffs if students are to take courses in different institutions.

Co-operation and collaboration should be the watchwords, since there will be plenty of students for every institution. If the Tomlinson proposals on better vocational courses are to be implemented successfully, schools, sixth-form colleges, FE colleges, employers and sector-skill organisations will need to collaborate.

It is extremely expensive to provide the equipment necessary to teach the skills required for vocational courses such as those needed in the construction industry. Similarly, both the Cisco Systems and Oracle academies, which provide advanced, practical ICT skills to post-16 students, need dedicated computer provision. Only some employers are qualified or willing to offer apprenticeships.

By involving all the players, both educational institutions and employers, we will be able to promote a wide choice of high-quality academic and vocational post-16 education.

Sir Cyril Taylor is chair of the Specialist Schools Trust

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