Sixth-form row shatters picture of harmony

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Rutland Council angers secondaries with 'divisive' plan that observers warn highlights potential pitfalls of local authorities' 16-19 provision

A bitter row over sixth-form provision in England's smallest county has broken out with observers warning it illustrates the pitfalls awaiting local authorities when they take responsibility for 16-19 education in April.

There are only three state secondary schools in Rutland and the county council has managed to alienate two of them over its plans for a new sixth form.

Until last summer Catmose College, Uppingham Community College and Casterton Business and Enterprise College all thought they were involved in a proposal to create a joint sixth form.

But in August it emerged that the new 480-pupil development, despite being branded as Rutland County College, will actually be a new sixth form run by Casterton.

Jan Turner, Uppingham head, accused the council of going behind her school's back and taking the decisions that led to the proposal "without our knowledge".

Her counterpart at Catmose, Stuart Williams, claimed his school was also left in the dark. "We had, in the space of a summer holiday, gone from a consensual plan to the current divisive one," he said. "We still do not understand why."

Ill feeling has grown as the consultation on the proposals draws to a close on Monday (February 15), following a series of stormy public meetings, with a parents' campaign group demanding the plans are halted.

Rutland Council says the county does not have enough pupils to make a standalone sixth-form college viable and that allowing all three secondaries to open their own would "make post-16 provision in Rutland less likely to succeed".

Other local authorities could find themselves in similarly tricky positions after April when they take over the funding and commissioning of 16-19 provision from local Learning and Skills Councils.

Martin Rogers from the Local Government Information Unit said: "I think the Government, for a number of years, has given local authorities a very difficult task by saying, 'You have got powers and we want you to use them but at the same time we want you to maintain harmonious relations with schools.' That has been the case on a number of issues and I shall be surprised if (16-19 provision) doesn't turn out to be another."

In Rutland, local MP Alan Duncan has written to Helen Briggs, county council chief executive, saying it is "undeniable" that the two schools left out were "never given a clear and unambiguous opportunity to participate".

The Conservative accuses the authority of failing to give a satisfactory explanation for its solution.

He warns that without one "there is going to be enormous unhappiness in most of the county" and that the proposals are "leading to a seemingly insoluble conflict and a lack of trust".

Rutland Council is taking the lead on the issue ahead of the law change because the withdrawal of an FE college from the county, which forced its review, will not take place until after April.

ALL CHANGE FOR POST-16

In April the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act will come into force and change the way 16-19 education is funded. The beleaguered Learning and Skills Council, recently at the centre of controversies over sixth-form funding and the college building debacle, will be abolished.

In its place the Skills Funding Agency will look after post-19 skills education. All 16-19 provision in school sixth forms, FE and sixth-form colleges will be commissioned and funded by local authorities, overseen by a national Young People's Learning Agency.

But if the Conservatives win this year's general election it could all change again, with plans to create a new national funding agency for FE colleges.

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