It has long been a source of frustration to colleges that while their funding has been repeatedly trimmed, schools have been given carte blanche to splurge millions on opening new sixth forms.
It is especially irksome that in many cases there has apparently been little demand for additional places. And the seemingly wasteful duplication of provision has been made possible only by schools cross-subsidising the expansion using funding meant for younger students.
In total, 169 schools have opened new sixth forms since 2010. Not surprisingly, the emergence of measures to tackle this inefficiency was roundly welcomed in the FE sector.
The guidance on proposals for schools looking to open new sixth-form provision was quietly published on the Department for Education website last month, before being uncovered by those web ninjas at the Association of Colleges (read the story at bit.ly/SixthFormLimits).
The detail buried in the document offers a striking insight into a significant shift in thinking over at the DfE.
Shutting the stable door…
Let’s recap: from now on, new sixth forms will be expected to cater for 200 or more students, and will have to offer around 15 different A levels “across a range of subjects”.
Any application to open a new sixth form should demonstrate “demand, including any shortage of post-16 places, and assessment of the quality of level 3 provision overall in the area and the impact of the new provision on other providers”.
Last but not least, evidence for the project’s “financial viability and value for money” must also be given. Good stuff. So far, so sensible. But what the guidance does not take into account is the plethora of sixth-form provision that is already open but fails to meet these criteria.
After a little snuffling around in the latest DfE statistics, FErret has discovered that there are no fewer than 973 school sixth forms in England that would fail to meet the 200-student threshold. And that’s not all: some 266 schools have fewer than 100 sixth-formers on their books. Value for money? Hmmm.
As guidance for the area reviews (published back in September) confirms, there are serious concerns about the “costs, breadth of offer and outcomes” of small school sixth forms.
And while any move to prevent more wasteful and low-quality duplication of 16-19 provision is to be applauded, it would seem that there’s little prospect of existing small school sixth forms getting a knock on the door any time soon.
FErret has a radical solution: why doesn’t the government instigate regional analysis of post-16 provision to ensure any offerings are robust and sustainable?
These projects – let’s call them “regional reviews” – would solve the problem once and for all by thoroughly examining all kinds of post-16 providers and coming up with a coherent plan. Because surely it would be utterly barmy and unjustifiable to demand greater efficiencies from one kind of institution while letting the others off scot-free…wouldn’t it?