Sixth forms working together against the tide

Opening speech to the Sharing Good Practice conference at St.Angela’s school, Stratford, 4th June 2014.

We are all here today because we are committed to providing the best possible educational opportunities to young people aged 16-18 and because we think we can learn something from other educators working in the same field in order to do our jobs better.

Events like this are centripetal rather than centrifugal; they bring us together rather than pushing us apart and I think in a centrifugal context we need to do more centripetal work. So thank you for inviting me to speak and congratulations to Mark, Sakhdeep and the team at St.Angela’s and St.Bonaventure’s sixth form for organising this excellent day of sharing good practice and for putting together such a broad and interesting programme.

I want to start by saying something about the importance of what we do. We are working with young people at a key point in their lives; a time when they should be broadening their horizons while also thinking about greater specialisation and depth, when they are starting to take a view about what needs to change in the world and how they might contribute to making changes. At this stage we should be offering young people the widest possible educational opportunities and the richest most stimulating and challenging experiences possible and building on the foundations of their prior learning.

I am sure we are all doing our best, but how well does what we offer measure up to our aspirations? Are we able to provide all young people with the full and broad liberal curriculum which they deserve? Are they being exposed to the best our civilisation has to offer? Are they being prepared to take their place as skilled, active, reflective, critical and confident citizens, workers and carers? Will they have what it takes to help build a vibrant democracy and a successful economy – including the caring economy?

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” Hannah Arendt

If we are falling short, part of the reason is that the public funding available for 16 and 17 year olds does not match that available for 5 to 16 year olds and has not been protected from cuts. We also cannot draw on tuition fee income for over 18’s as our colleagues in universities can. So we are uncomfortably squeezed between two kinds of protected funding and particularly vulnerable to cuts. Also, our poorest and most marginal students have lost much of the financial support which helped to keep them in learning; the new bursaries are a pretty poor substitute for Educational Maintenance Allowances and, although very welcome, the funding for free meals hasn’t made up the losses. It’s paradoxical that while private fee-charging schools increase their rates at sixth form level to reflect their growing needs, the state cuts its funding for the same age group. We also know that the contact time we are able to offer our students would be too thin to qualify as a “full time” programme in most other European countries.

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” Derek Bok

Of course it’s not all about money and having got the “moaning about money” out of the way what else can be said about the context we are working in?

I would suggest that for young people in education, their experience feels increasingly like “a race to the top …. of the down escalator”. In other words they have to work harder to achieve more with less hope of a rewarding outcome. Youth unemployment is high, with dozens of young people chasing every job vacancy. Competition is accelerated and new institutional and qualification hierarchies mean that there always seems to be a “better” sixth form, a “better” course or a “better” university to aspire to. There is a strong bias against modular, piecemeal learning, vocational and non-facilitating courses despite the fact that all these are valued at university level. The ethos of competition, the awareness of the cost of failure and the anxiety associated with high stakes has become a normal part of teenage life and changed young people’s relationship with the education system.

And what about us; the educators working with young people in this hyper-competitive world? Well, we too are subject to the pressures of a high stakes environment. Post-16 education in England is essentially an unplanned open market, often a “frontier” market where sixth form providers; schools and colleges, established and new, selective and comprehensive are competing for students. All of us are subject to intense scrutiny, via league tables and OfSTED and we’re all only as good as our most recent inspection report, our most recent recruitment figures and our most recent league table rankings. Inevitably our context shapes our outlook; the need to recruit the “best” students, to be acknowledged as successful and to hold our own in the market against the competition. All this inevitably affects our identity and our attitude to professional collaboration.

“World class achievement and benchmarks are superficial, if not absurd in a world filled with inequality, fear and uncertainty.” Maxine Greene

Wherever we work, we are all essentially doing the same job with the same group of people and they all deserve the best that’s on offer. I think we are all still motivated above all by a commitment to public service education. So what should we do? What questions should we ask? Here are a few for starters:

Is it acceptable that some young people don’t get the best possible information and advice about the full range of options post 16?

Does it make sense for year 11 students to make multiple sixth form applications like a scattergun with no central management of their priority choices – couldn’t we have a UCAS type system (FECAS?) for 16 year olds?

Can it be right for each sixth form provider to jealously nurture their own bilateral university links and enrichment programmes rather than sharing them?

Is all the money we collectively spend on marketing a good use of resources?

Do we and the young people we serve really benefit from all this competition? My answers would all be based on the observation that we can choose to collaborate. As successful, autonomous providers and as mature and experienced educators we can decide that working in partnership with each other would make better use of our skills and resources and would better serve our students’ interests.

Partnership days like today help to weave a web of support and relationships across competing providers and we should nurture and build on this. There may be no national post-16 education system but I think that as headteachers, principals and senior leaders we have a responsibility, a duty in fact, to offer system leadership as well as institutional leadership. This is difficult. It takes courage, It means looking beyond the immediate interests of our institution, investing in building trust and relationships and seizing the opportunities to work with others when they arise.

London’s 12 sixth form colleges play a key role in post-16 education in the capital, helping many thousands of young Londoners succeed and progress to university and employment, including many of the most disadvantaged. But we also recognise that we are not the only show in town and we are keen to work in partnership with others and that this is how we will improve on what we all do and to start building a better system.

“Creativity takes courage” Henri Matisse

So, once again my thanks to the organisers and I hope that today’s sharing of good practice is successful for everyone here and that it is part of a process of building a culture of collaboration at all levels between us.

For a few months now I have been blogging about education policy, young people, teaching and learning at and if you’re interested I also tweet @eddieplayfair


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to Sixth forms working together against the tide

  1. Julia Farrell says:

    Hi- I came across your posts accidently but am so glad I did. I was looking at St. Angela’s and Bonaventures website as I am trying to arrange an INSET at a post-16 college to learn from and share good practice. I used to attend St. Angela’s- many years ago but am now head of social science at a school in South Yorkshire.
    I am interested in sharing resources, research and plans for the changes to A levels as well as all aspects of the 6th form. If this is something your college could accommodate I would really love to visit.
    Many thanks
    Julia Farrell


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