As sixth-form colleges face an uncertain future, a consortium in the South-east is reaping big rewards from its teamwork. Shekhar Bhatia reports
Sixth-form colleges in Surrey are jubilant after recording their third outstanding rating from inspectors this month.
Reigate college was awarded the top grade from the Office for Standards in Education on Monday, following Godalming and Esher colleges, which got grade one ratings the previous week.
The successes follow the formation of the S7 Consortium in 2002.
Seven colleges in Surrey have joined together to help each other with ideas, give practical support and exchange views to help more than 7,000 pupils.
The good news for Surrey's sixth-form colleges comes as the future of such establishments remains uncertain. They say the Government is sending out mixed messages about whether sixth-form colleges are in favour or in danger of being phased out.
The Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF) has called for no-nonsense guarantees that their numbers will not be further eroded. A series of proposed mergers with general further education colleges has led to unhappiness among sixth-form college supporters, teachers and parents.
But the S7 group has grown in strength. Its departmental heads have developed exchange programmes, and IT managers from the seven colleges meet to discuss techniques and developments.
The S7 is made up of representatives from Esher, Farnham, Godalming, Reigate, Spelthorne, Strodes and Woking sixth-form colleges. A song by the defunct band S Club 7 played in the background at its first meeting.
An S7 website has been set up to provide up-to-date research information, and library resources are made available to its members.
The seven member colleges have appointed a co-ordinator, Jo Trump, who helps to keep up the flow of information and support.
Godalming and Esher had already been praised by Ofsted for the strength of its support and guidance for students as well as its outstanding leadership and management.
Reigate college's success has added to the belief among S7 members that the collective approach brings results.
David Adelman, principal of Godalming college and former chair of the S7, said the collective was represented on Learning and Skills Council committees and at other agencies, and that this had given the colleges a stronger voice.
He said S7 aimed to promote the benefits of sixth-form college education and enhance the quality of provision. "This is achieved by sharing good practice and the development of joint approaches to staff development and curriculum initiatives," he said.
Ofsted said Reigate college had been outstanding in business and ICT, and good in humanities, science, maths, English and modern foreign languages.
Provision for visual and performing arts and media was judged as good overall, with visual arts marked as outstanding.
The SFCF's fears are deepened by the fact that Bexhill sixth-form college and Hastings FE college are close to merging under the new name of Hastings and Rother New college.
The Forum points out that the existing Bexhill sixth-form college is one of the top-performing institutions of its type, and that removing it shows a lack of faith in those that survive, and in the development of new learning venues.
Sue Whitham, SFCF's head of secretariat, said: "We really do believe sixth-form colleges do a very good job. All the statistics show that, so we want to hang on to the 103 we have, and we'd like to see more of them.
"The Government supports sixth-form colleges, yet you have situations like Bexhill college being merged. That area is a very strong one for sixth-form colleges, and there is going to be hardly anything left if we're not careful.
"I would ask the Government, 'How come, if you support us and want more of us, it looks as if there are going to be fewer of us?'
"Either the Government wants to keep sixth-form colleges or it doesn't.
Mergers do not work.
"There are two totally different cultures in a sixth-form college and a general FE college, and research has shown that trying to merge them is problematic."