Students lose out on course options as schools battle to keep their sixth forms afloat. Karen Thornton reports
Some Welsh schools are more concerned about keeping their sixth forms than whether they offer pupils the most suitable courses.
A significant number of learners in Welsh sixth forms are not on the best courses for them, and a few have been given biased advice to encourage them to stay in school-based provision, according to inspection agency Estyn.
Competition for students, and the resulting mistrust between schools and colleges, is limiting post-16 choices, it says, in a review of collaboration between the two sectors.
Iwan Guy, acting director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said problems such as lack of funding, timetabling and transport problems meant collaboration was "easier said than done".
Dr John Graystone, chief executive of fforwm, which represents FE colleges, said mistrust was "endemic" and the current funding system fuelled competition.
He added: "The structure is wrong. There are too many institutions after students, and it's not focused on learners' needs. We want some kind of tertiary system, although not necessarily tertiary colleges everywhere, and an emphasis on quality."
Collaboration between the two sectors is seen as key to widening the range of vocational, work-based and academic courses available to students aged 14-19. The aim, as per the Assembly government's learning pathways strategy, is to reduce drop-out rates and improve qualification levels.
An Assembly government spokesperson said the report, which it commissioned, "affirms the importance and value of our policy towards collaboration between schools with sixth forms and FE colleges".
A number of initiatives, including funding for joint projects, are helping providers "review the nature of provision in their area and identify recommendations for change", she added.
Estyn says just under a third (54) of Welsh secondaries with sixth forms co-operate in some way with a local FE college - mostly over extra academic A-level courses catering for just one in 20 sixth-formers.
"There is very little collaborative activity for Welsh-medium education or vocational options," notes the report.
Just seven schools share timetables, staffing and courses with college partners. Yet schools have more to gain from joint projects than colleges, says Estyn - including keeping their students.
Around half of the existing collaborations work well, but few have effective quality assurance - and in a significant minority, learners do less well in exams than predicted.
Estyn says more needs to be done to ensure collaboration raises standards, as well as widening course options. Barriers to more co-operation include the post-16 funding system (which is based on learner numbers), timetabling difficulties, and the absence of a strategic body to plan provision across a geographical areas.
But the key problems are transport - particularly in rural areas - and competition for students.
Chief inspector Susan Lewis said: "Schools and colleges in Wales are working better together. But relationships between sixth forms and colleges are sometimes strained. Where they see themselves in competition, there is a lack of trust."
In some areas, Assembly government start-up funding for joint projects is "driving forwards partnership working".
But these projects may not prove sustainable without continued funding, and even this good work "is sometimes hampered by poor-quality working relationships", said Ms Lewis.