It is widely acknowledged that the sixth-form college sector is the most successful in English education. So it is surprising that the sector in its present form could disappear as a result of the government’s decision that colleges can apply to become academies through the area reviews. What is going on?
Some background may be helpful at this point. The 90-odd sixth-form colleges (see map, right) outperform sixth forms at both local authority schools and academies, while educating higher proportions of disadvantaged students and receiving less funding. They deliver better outcomes for learners at a considerably lower cost.
I am chair of governors at Barton Peveril Sixth-Form College in Hampshire, a non-selective institution that had more than 1,000 students taking A levels or equivalent qualifications in 2015. The performance of our top students matches or exceeds most private school sixth forms, both in the average points achieved per student and the average points per subject taken – and this is on much inferior funding and a far less selective intake.
This level of achievement continues into higher education. In 2014, 83 per cent of Barton Peveril graduates obtained firsts or upper seconds at university, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This was not only above the average for the sixth-form college sector as a whole but also the averages for private and state schools. The percentage of “good” degrees at Russell Group institutions was even higher.
One might, therefore, be forgiven for assuming that, as part of its mission of “educational excellence everywhere”, the government would be doing all that was in its power to protect and promote places like Barton Peveril.
The reality is exactly the opposite. Not only have sixth-form college budgets been squeezed – some institutions have lost a third of their funding between 2011 and 2016 – but the government has also allowed schools, free schools and academies to open or expand sixth forms with grants, cross-subsidies and concessions that are denied to colleges (including not having to pay VAT).
What is even worse is that many school sixth forms are too small to offer a diverse and challenging curriculum, as pointed out by FErret (“Way, shape or sixth form”, 29 April). These schools are both damaging the education of their students and wasting public money on a grand scale. Yet school sixth forms have been deliberately excluded from the area reviews that are aiming to put post-16 education on a sustainable trajectory. You really could not make this up.
The government has now responded to lobbying by the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association and others about how unfairly colleges have been treated by giving them a “once and for all” chance to apply for academy status.
This puts colleges like mine in a quandary. Not least because there are still many uncertainties. For example, it is not clear whether all converting institutions would have to be part of multiacademy trusts. Nor are we sure about the possibilities of commercial borrowing, HE funding or the recruitment of overseas students. And, more importantly, how should we value the annual (and not inconsiderable) VAT savings against the seemingly inevitable reduction in autonomy that will result?
College governors are very conscious of the obligation to safeguard their colleges, and in particular to maximise the resources available, especially in these straitened times.
But even with better funding, is helping schools to raise their game (where needed) what a college should be doing? Our core mission will continue to be providing the best sixth-form education we can for our 16- to 18-year-old students.
Does the need to partner with schools risk a loss of focus, if not resources? Do sixth-form colleges have the necessary experience, expertise and credibility to discharge this role? Will feeder schools that are not part of the same multi-academy trust want to work closely with a college that has other partners? More generally, are academy trusts (irrespective of whether they are single or multi-site) really the best way to improve quality across the entire system?
And even if they are, is diluting the sixth-form college brand and weakening the sixth-form college sector a necessary part of the price we have to pay?
These are all questions that have been raised by members of my governing body. It would be helpful to have some answers before irrevocable decisions are taken.
Roger Brown is emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and chair of governors at Barton Peveril Sixth-Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire