As colleges face the problems of the latest Government search for "efficiency gains", three official reports throw light on what type of post-16 institution is most cost effective.
A Department for Education and Employment study suggests that it costs more to put students through three A-levels in a sixth-form college than in a school or general further education college.
But Birmingham University researchers contradicted the DFEE when they concluded that it probably costs less to teach the standard A-level student in a sixth-form college than in an FE college and they achieved better results.
Finally, an Office for Standards in Education study said school sixth forms were doing their job, but not necessarily cost effectively as about 50 per cent of schools have little idea of how much sixth forms cost.
Although the reports appear to give different messages, there is a common theme. The type of institution is probably less important than the size of the cohort. The DFEE study concluded unsurprisingly that funding costs were higher in small schools as they can't benefit from economies of scale.
The Birmingham researchers found that the three most cost-effective colleges in their survey had the largest A-level cohorts, two of the three happened to be sixth-form colleges.
Again, OFSTED inspectors concluded that to be effective a school sixth form needed a minimum of 125 students.
To sixth-form colleges, the notion that large intakes mean high quality and cost effectiveness is just common sense. But put alongside the FEFC chief inspector's 1995 annual report, other implications are apparent. The report shows that both sixth- form and specialist colleges achieved more top grades (1s and 2s) for curriculum areas and lessons than did general FE and tertiary colleges.
Terry Melia, the chief inspector, said: "Such differences need to be seen in the context of the narrower curriculum offered by sixth-form colleges and specialist institutions."
Sixth-form and specialist colleges have two great advantages. They are relatively small and they are precise about their mission. By concentrating on 16-19 students, sixth-form colleges are able to combine the benefits of homogeneity, low basic costs, cost-effective group sizes and, within their chosen area, breadth of choice.
Specialist colleges have similar advantages. Perhaps the frequent requests for sixth-form colleges to diversify should be treated with caution? The future may belong to colleges identifying their niche market and concentrating on it? Businesses seek an escape from an uncertain economic climate by concentrating on their core business, so perhaps sixth-form colleges should do likewise.
There has been impressive growth of sixth-form colleges since incorporation. In these past three years they have had the largest growth of any type of college, 18 per cent compared with 12 per cent for the FE sector overall. This proves their combination of a manageable size and a broad, homogeneous curriculum has proved attractive to 16-19 students and their parents.
The type of institution which 16-year-olds attend is relatively unimportant; the important thing is that they receive high-quality, cost-effective education and that they and their parents have a range of providers to choose from.
The taxpayer needs to be assured value for money is guaranteed. All post-16 provision should be inspected using the same criteria and the results should be widely published.
If OFSTED inspectors had to inspect and grade school sixth-form provisions, and publish the results - as happens in FE - then potential customers would be able to make real comparisons between their various local providers.
The OFSTED inspectors' conclusion that a minimum size sixth form is necessary for curriculum breadth should be accepted. An institution offering less than that minimum should not be licensed to offer post-16 education.
There should be a common funding formula for all post-16 provision.
A common funding formula should be easily understood and would be seen to be patently fair. Then we could all concentrate on the real issues. These are what resources we should be putting into educating 16 to 19-year-olds - regardless of where they are educated - and how we can guarantee that our students get value for the taxpayers' money.
David Kelly The author David Kelly is principal of a sixth-form college, Palmers in Essex