Ministers yield over sixth forms

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Government says schools must consult colleges before setting up competing 16-19 services. Joseph Lee reports

Colleges have won an assurance that schools will not be able to set up new sixth forms without considering the impact on further education.

The Government has accepted an amendment to its new education Bill which says that schools must consult colleges over the creation of new sixth forms.

College principals had feared that giving schools a free hand to set up new post-16 services would lead to a fall in college student numbers and create small, ineffective sixth forms. The Bill also allows the creation of new sixth-form schools run by local education authorities.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman who tabled the amendment, said schools should be stopped from creating sixth forms that were not viable. "Colleges are concerned that smaller sixth-form schools tend to have inferior results, quality of teaching and choice of subject, and that they are more expensive because of the funding gap between themselves and further education colleges," she said.

"We are not opposed to the setting up of new sixth-form schools. They might be the best and safest environment for some young people. In that case, it is important that any new sixth-form school be set up in collaboration with others in an area to ensure that choice and quality are not affected."

Ms Teather said the Government's position was confused, with this Bill favouring school sixth forms, while the FE white paper presumed that new sixth- form provision would be in colleges.

Schools minister Jacqui Smith admitted earlier this year that pupils in large sixth forms or colleges performed far better than those in small ones.

Ms Smith told the parliamentary committee considering the Bill that the statutory guidance to schools would now require them to consult colleges.

Originally, the Bill proposed giving local authorities the leading role in deciding on the creation of new sixth forms, and abolishing independent school organisation committees.

While the Learning and Skills Council would have the right to object, colleges feared their interests would be marginalised.

Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, admitted that winning the right to consultation did not mean colleges would always be able to block decisions. "But we do know of some circumstances when colleges have almost missed the fact that these things are going on because there's been a deal between LEAs and schools.

"At least colleges will know when the consultation is happening and will get a chance to express their views.

"Other schools already have to be consulted, so it's not as if we were asking for anything that's outrageous. Colleges are the majority provider of 16 to 19 education," he said.

However, Conservative MPs on the committee opposed restrictions on schools'

right to expand into post-16 education.

John Hayes, the Tories' shadow minister for FE, suggested that colleges might benefit from focusing almost exclusively on vocational education.

"One might say that there is a direct counter-argument that it might be rather helpful to FE to refocus its energies away from what could be done through collaborative arrangements, but essentially around school education."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said a Mori poll showed people would pay more for classes. "It should still be possible for colleges to increase fees for other courses such as learning for personal and community development and there is no reason why good courses should close where there is demand for them," he said.

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