MINISTERS are considering creating a new generation of human-scale sixth-form colleges, based on collaboration between small groups of inner-city schools.
They hope the new colleges would maintain high academic standards associated with school sixth forms, while reaching out to vulnerable and low-achieving teenagers who might otherwise be lost in further education colleges which can have as many as 30,000 students on their books.
Controversially, they are considering allowing such colleges to remain under local authority control. One possible model is an "illegal" sixth-form college run by the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for the past seven years - despite incorporation which put all colleges in the hands of the Further Education Funding Council.
Ministers believe the William Morris Joint Academy (see story above right), a sixth form of six schools, could offer a "third way" of expanding FE in the wake of Learning to Succeed, the post-16 White Paper published in June.
As a model, it would sit alongside FE colleges and traditional school sixth forms. It would require legislation in the further education Bill which is expected in the Queen's Speech next month.
This new type of sixth-form college would be larger and offer more choice than school sixth forms, but would be smaller and more focused than FE colleges, which have expanded hugely since incorporation launched them into the market for students and funds.
It would also meet Prime Minister Tony Blair's desire for more sixth forms and greater co-operation between schools and colleges.
Expanding school sixth-forms is problematic: they are expensive to run, with funding per student considerably higher than that of FE colleges. But colleges are felt to be too large for some students to thrive. Since 1992, they have taken in growing numbers of adult education students, mature learners, part-timers and business clients - leaving some traditional post-16 students feeling overwhelmed.
William Morris was created by six schools (one has since closed) pooling their sixth forms after local authority proposals for a new FE college were rejected by the then education secretary John Patten.
Considerably smaller than most FE colleges, it is run for the schools under a service-level agreement by the council, which bankrolled the start-up costs. Governors from each school sit on a joint management board; Hammersmith's director of education is the college principal's line manager.
Any move to return to local-authority-run sixth forms is likely to bring protests from the college sector - although teaching unions would welcome it; school staff enjoy better pay and conditions than in the tightly-squeezed FE sector. And the Government still has to solve the problem of funding. The Further Education Funding Council is currently working on a solution.
Ministers consider the William Morris Academy to be technically illegal - although the authority has taken advice which suggests otherwise - but are looking at ways around it.
The FEFC too has been concerned about the issue for some years, but has been reluctant to act against the college because of its success.