A tale of two boroughs

I want to start by telling the story of 16-18 education in two London boroughs; a story which illustrates some of the things I think we should be concerned about.

Borough A was an economically disadvantaged area where most secondary schools had small, inefficient and unsuccessful sixth forms. The post-16 staying on rate was low, achievement was low and progression to university was low. The elected local authority decided to do something about this and following wide consultation and debate, it closed most of the school sixth forms and created a comprehensive sixth form college to replace them. The new sixth form college offered a very wide range of A-levels and vocational courses, grew fast and performed above all expectations. It became the largest sixth form college in London, achieved good results and very high progression to university. It also went on to increase the number of students progressing to the most selective universities while remaining a comprehensive and inclusive provider offering courses for all students at all levels.

Borough B was an economically disadvantaged area where the number of post-16 providers tripled from 3 to 9 over a couple of years because a wide range of new post-16 providers opened up. This change happened without much evidence of demand and without any partnership with existing successful post-16 providers. All the new provision was highly selective, aiming at the highest achieving year 11 students, setting high entry requirements and excluding many potential applicants. One of the new sixth forms was opened by a group of the most selective fee-charging private schools in the country claiming to offer great new opportunities to the most disadvantaged young people. In effect public funding for increased social mobility was being entrusted to the leading practitioners of social immobility and social segregation. At a time of deep cuts to the funding for post-16 students, substantial sums of public money were invested in opening these new sixth forms, most of which did not fill all their funded places. Even the local authority joined in, opening its own selective sixth form centre. Duplication of courses across the growing number of providers threatened the viability of some “minority” subjects and more institutional choice was in danger of leading to less course choice. Competition for students meant that between them the sixth forms were spending more and more on marketing themselves and had little incentive to co-operate.

So guess what?

Well, if you haven’t already worked it out, borough A and borough B are the same borough – only 20 years apart. The difference between 1994 and 2014 is the intensification of post-16 market madness, leading to unfettered expansion of selective new providers: academy converters, new academies opening sixth forms and new 16-18 free schools. Virtually all these new sixth forms exploit the fact that publicly funded institutions can be as selective at 16 as they feel they can get away with. They can choose to set high entry requirements which allow them to “cherry pick” those students who are the most likely to do very well at 18 because they did very well at 16.

Similar changes are happening all around us, encouraged and funded by the government. Instead of moving towards a comprehensive, holistic approach to meeting the needs of all young people over 16, the government funds and cheers on more and more selective providers.

All of this is happening in a context of high youth unemployment and austerity policies which have hit young people hard. Their lack of work is blamed on their lack of skills, an argument hardly heard at times of full employment. Financial support to the poorest has been cut, funding for tutorial and enrichment and bigger programmes has been cut and funding for students who need to continue their studies beyond 18 is about to be cut.

Young people are encouraged to see education as a positional good rather than a personal and social good. It is made to feel like a scarce commodity whose value seems to fall faster than most people’s ability to keep up. Young people are in a “race to the top” but they’re running up a down escalator. This feeling of never quite being good enough is reinforced by the constant reminder that only the highest grades and the most valued courses at the best schools, colleges and universities will do. You’ve got A levels? Only facilitating subjects will do. You’ve got A grades? We want A*. You’ve got in to university? Only the Russell group really counts.

In this desperate race, the value of a rounded, humanistic, liberal education is too often forgotten. Under such a system education becomes an engine of polarisation rather than an engine of cohesion and we are all the losers.

We need to remember that things don’t have to be this way. Our education system should reflect the kind of society we want and we should be making the case urgently for another way of doing things; one which values everyone and invests in everyone.

Speech to the Future of Post-16 Question Time, Islington on 14th May 2014 organised by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and University and College Union (UCU)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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