There's no explaining this sixth-form bias

30th May 2014 at 01:00

"The consistent success of sixth-form colleges is one of the glories of the education system." So said Sir David Bell when he was chief inspector of schools under the Labour government, in a 2005 landmark speech about standards in further education.

An update of this statement for the current political landscape could read: "The consistent undermining of successful sixth-form colleges is one of the great inexplicables of the education system." For this is the situation in which England's 93 remaining sixth-form colleges find themselves. And it is inexplicable.

These institutions are overwhelmingly excellent. Originating in the great comprehensive reform movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, the majority of these colleges are some of the most inspiring educational establishments around. From Hills Road in Cambridge (which comes third only to Westminster and Eton in sending students to Oxbridge) to BSix in deprived East London (a TES FE Award winner in 2012), they perform to the highest level.

You want more? Sixth-form colleges have a better A-level success rate than their mainstream counterparts. Nearly 90 per cent are rated good or outstanding by inspectors. They deliver more variety and choice of qualification. They better prepare children from poor areas for the transition to university.

And yet the government seems determined to put roadblocks in their way. One such blockage is the prioritising of free schools and school sixth forms - especially in academies - despite comparing unfavourably in results and in many cases being unrequired in terms of demand.

Financially, too, sixth-form colleges are beset by injustices, largely of the government's making. The most glaring is that unlike mainstream schools they are obliged to pay VAT on many purchases. According to one estimate, this sets the average college back pound;300,000 a year. One principal dubbed it "a tax on learning".

And then there's the way that competitor secondaries are allowed to offset recent cuts to post-16 per-student funding by using the more generous allowances for younger pupils to cross-subsidise.

Some 30 sixth-form colleges have been forced to close in recent years by these financial problems. David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, paints a bleak picture of what's in store for the survivors. Another 30 could find themselves with budget deficits within the next two years, he reckons: "Our fear is that we are writing the last chapter of a story that could soon be confined to the history section of English educational provision."

What is also truly depressing is that no one in government seems prepared to speak up. Why? Is it simply the default love of independent-sector-style 11-18 education? Is it because colleges' origins can be found in progressive philosophies that make many right-wingers feel uncomfortable? Is it that the lives of politicians rarely touch these institutions?

Whatever the reason, it almost doesn't matter. These shining beacons of state education are in danger of becoming an unread footnote in the narrative of English education. It would be excellent if this fate were not treated as inevitable, but I'm not holding my breath.

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