There is much talk of college mergers as a solution to financial problems but this is not an answer for sixth-form colleges.
A recent article by Julian Gravatt of the Association of Colleges advocated it as a solution, particularly for general further education (GFE) colleges. Sixth-form colleges, on the other hand, have been glad that the merger agenda seems to be moving away recently. Although there have, since incorporation, been several mergers involving sixth-form colleges, research shows that, because of the different cultures between sixth-form colleges and GFE colleges, these have not been particularly successful.
Strategic area reviews of post-16 education and training by the Learning and Skills Council produced several merger proposals involving sixth-form colleges, but the only ones to have happened so far are those supported by colleges' senior management and governors. The Sixth Form Colleges Forum welcomed school's minister Jacqui Smith's decision on Hastings and Rother which will leave Bexhill sixth-form college as an independent institution rather than being merged with Hastings FE college. We hope that Bexhill SFC is now left to get on with what it does best, successfully educating 16 to 19-year-olds, instead of being diverted to energetically fight off merger threats. We hope that the minister's message, that successful sixth-form colleges should be left alone, will spread.
The SFCF is aware of potential funding problems ahead but, even so, would hardly see the merger of sixth-form colleges as the solution to that problem.
The Government seems to have taken on board our concerns about the opening of new school sixth forms within its five-year strategy and the Department for Education and Skills has worked hard to try to ensure that the number of eligible schools is limited. Although, as Julian states, nearly 2,000 secondary schools do not have sixth forms, the DfES has assured the SFCF that the number of schools eligible to apply for sixth forms does not make three figures, though its current guidance still leaves a lot to be desired.
The 14-19 white paper thankfully seems to turn the strategic area review process from considering major restructurings, which it says are unnecessary, to mapping local provision and ensuring the required collaboration between independent institutions.
The SFCF has particularly welcomed the fact that under the five-year strategy, every 16-year-old is to receive a prospectus, setting out for the first time all the post-16 options in their area. As it is proposed that this will contain references to the performance and achievement of each available institution, subject-by-subject, students will at least be able to make properly informed decisions of which institution to attend.
So, far from looking for a decline in the number of sixth-form colleges, the SFCF is actively campaigning to bring forward proposals for new ones.
We support the Government's mantra of choice and believe every 16-year-old should be able to attend a sixth-form college within a reasonable travelling distance. We commissioned RCU Research to produce a report providing evidence of the impact and performance of sixth-form colleges compared to other forms of post-16 provision, using Greater Manchester as the example. This report dispels the myth that all sixth-form colleges are elite, selective institutions.
Amongst the report's findings were:
* the 13 sixth-form colleges in the study offered more than 900 learning aims, just 59 per cent of which were at Level 3;
* more than 30 per cent of sixth-form colleges' students came from areas of relative deprivation;
* sixth-form colleges have higher success rates across all broad ethnic groupings than general FE colleges;
* sixth-form colleges in Greater Manchester have a retention and achievement rate close to 90 per cent;
* areas with sixth-form colleges are associated with a more rapid improvement between GCSE and GCEVCE results than other areas;
* the presence of a sixth-form college is associated with high participation in a way that is not replicated (particularly for males) in school sixth forms; In the Ofsted report Why Colleges Succeed, of the 29 "highly successful"
colleges referred to, 17 were sixth-form colleges. No sixth-form colleges met the criteria to be included in the companion Ofsted report Why Colleges Fail. All these colleges were awarded a grade 1 (outstanding) for leadership and management, had an average curriculum grade of at least 2.1 and the following inspectorate judgements in common:
* very good retention and pass rates;
* highly effective teaching;
* extremely successful learning;
* excellent support and guidance for students at all stages in their programme;
* an exemplary response to educational and social inclusion;
* outstanding strategic leadership;
* good curriculum management;
* rigorous quality assurance processes.
The SFCF has recently produced a directory of sixth-form colleges which illustrates the range of students' learning aims, ability and ethnic origin and the work already being undertaken in relation to 14 to 16-year-olds.
This and other research supports the fact that sixth-form colleges remain one of the main success stories, in terms of participation, achievement, diversity and value for money, in the maintained education sector. Far from predicting a decline in numbers, the SFCF will do all it can to try and achieve a steady increase in the number of sixth-form colleges so that learners in all areas can benefit from their particular expertise.
Sue Whitham is head of the secretariat of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum