Post-16: education’s wild frontier

Sixth form education in England has become the wild frontier for selection and marketisation with a plethora of new providers, whether 11-18 academies or 16-18 free schools trying to outdo each other in setting ever more exclusive entry requirements and competing for the most qualified students. Post-16 performance tables value high average grades in a narrow range of subjects and encourage the ‘weeding out’ of less successful students mid-course. Cheerleading from politicians and the media simply serves to puff up the selective bubble.

So, your local comprehensive sixth form has a year group of 400 A level students admitting them with 5 C’s or above at GCSE and their average point scores are below the national average? Don’t worry, a new selective sixth form will open with a year group of 250 requiring at least 5 grade B’s at GCSE. Not good enough for you?  There’ll be another one along soon which only has a year group of 150 and expects 5 grade A’s at GCSE. Each turn of the screw inevitably rewards the most selective institutions with ‘better’ results even if their students do worse that the top 150 or top 250 students in the comprehensive provider, which meanwhile may find it more difficult to actually remain comprehensive.

And all of this is sanctioned by government and funded with public money.

Markets and selection advancing hand in hand

Post-16 selection and marketization are advancing hand in hand. Selection is a way of rationing choice within a system which worships choice. It encourages hierarchies, reproduces inequalities and introduces unnecessary scarcity and elitism. Market selection puts greater power in the hands of the institution doing the choosing rather than the individual ‘consumer’ who thinks they’re doing the choosing. Decisions about the basis of selection are taken by people in power; a highly conservative process where judgements about what skills or knowledge are valued and what are good measures of ‘potential’ reproduce those already valued by the current system. In effect, the decision about where and what you can study is taken by others and the existing power structures remain unchallenged.

Instead, the super-selective schools and colleges should be asked: “Why segregate? What is the case for exclusion?” After all, a comprehensive intake is the norm for primary schools, why should things change at 16? Faced with a proliferation of selective post-16 providers, we should be asking: “Why is it OK for a school to be comprehensive from 11-16 and then become selective in the sixth form, thereby excluding most of its former students? Why don’t you provide the non-facilitating A-level subjects many students want? Why don’t you offer the vocational courses which help so many students progress to university? Why don’t you offer the foundation and intermediate courses which provide vital stepping stones to advanced study for so many students who did less well at 16?”

Playing to young people’s strengths?

This is the argument that academic selection simply supports the institutional specialisation needed to help everyone flourish. Being academically selective is: “just like being a ballet school or a football academy; we need to identify those who have demonstrated the potential to benefit from a specialist education. We are simply playing to people’s different strengths.”

This is the flip side of the ‘one size fits all’ charge which implies that advocates of comprehensive education seek forced uniformity rather than universalism and collective standardisation rather than individual flourishing. It ignores the opportunity for specialisation, diversity and pluralism present and practised in comprehensive schools and colleges. Young people can and do develop as expert dancers and footballers within a comprehensive system and without being segregated from their peers or having other doors closed to them.

When Richard Cairns, headmaster of fee-charging and selective Brighton College, said “we must get away from the idea that we can successfully deliver both vocational and academic courses in the same school”  he offered no evidence for this assertion. The achievements of thousands of students every year in the many successful colleges which offer both types of course make the eloquent case to the contrary. The desire to segregate is strong but once we start to draw such arbitrary lines, why stop there? What about the idea that we can successfully deliver science and art courses in the same school? Or history and engineering in the same university?

Older students need selection?

Another argument is that selection becomes more acceptable as students get older. The case for specialist and differentiated offers becomes stronger the further along the educational journey one travels. Different students obviously need a range of different experiences based on the educational and career journey they’ve chosen. Clearly everyone is not the same and increasing differentiation is needed.

But we need to distinguish between differentiation and selection. The range of needs is wide and overlapping and therefore the range of educational offers to meet these needs should be made available within a common system rather than requiring us to invent a new type of provider for every need. The arbitrary divisions in a binary or tripartite system are simply too crude to reflect the diversity of student needs.

Trickle-down selection?

The fact that in England academic selection is permitted and resurgent post-16 makes it more likely that advocates of selection at 14 or 11 will reason in reverse; making the case that: “If it’s OK to select at 16, why not do so at an earlier age? If there’s no principle at stake, what difference does a few years make?”

The range of courses and specialisation available post-16 does require a larger system or network of providers to provide them cost-effectively but there is no reason why all these courses can’t be offered within a single institution or even under one roof. Because they operate in a market where students choose where to study, this doesn’t require post-16 providers to be either ‘niche’ or selective.

It’s time we saw our successful comprehensive sixth forms, whether in schools or colleges as the benchmark even if they don’t top the performance tables for raw exam scores. By doing a great job for all students, they pose a daily challenge to more selective providers to justify segregation. It is the advocates of more selection who need to explain what their proposals are for the education of all those students they keep out. Surely they should be raising their game rather than simply picking the low-hanging fruit?

Meritocratic or parasitic?

Another argument for post-16 selection, and selection in general, is that it is meritocratic, allowing poor bright students to be rescued from mediocrity and to become upwardly mobile.

The promise of greater social mobility within a meritocracy is a distortion of the egalitarian impulse. This essentially offers opportunity to a few to ‘get on’ within a stratified and unequal society while failing to address the needs of the many or to do anything about existing profound inequalities. While ‘getting on’ is a valid aspiration such approaches can actually function as palliatives; justifying inequalities and polarising society.

When a new selective sixth form college was created in our area, championed by Richard Cairns (see above), it was described by its founders as a ‘lifeboat’, presumably because it was going to save poor bright students from drowning in mediocrity. Sticking with the analogy; by setting high entry requirements and offering a narrow curriculum the lifeboat in question was cherry-picking the saved very carefully, leaving most to ‘drown’ and even subsequently pushing quite a few of the chosen back into the water if their grades were not high enough half way through their course. Only a very close reading of the new retention measures will reveal the extent of such ‘selective exclusion’ and these data are not yet publicly available.

Surely, a genuine lifeboat would aim to save everyone by providing appropriate routes for all students, including those who have achieved less well at school. The reality is that such selective practices depend on the existence of more inclusive, comprehensive providers nearby to act as the real lifeboats, picking up the rejected.

Rediscovering comprehensiveness

Our understandable desire for an education which helps us or our children ‘get on’ is translated into a striving to find the ‘best’ school or college, often with diminishing returns. We are obsessed with the pecking order rather than being obsessed with education and flourishing.

If we could agree that we can achieve more as a society if all students ‘get on’, we would be able to champion the virtues of our best universal public services and seek to extend the comprehensive principle. The comprehensive school or college sixth form keeps students’ options open, allowing movement between different pathways and from different starting points while also promoting social cohesion by creating a single community where everyone’s aspiration can be nurtured and everyone’s contribution valued. It is a place where citizens can experience equality, can be treated with equal respect, can meet and work with others on equal terms and can have their individual needs met regardless of their starting point. Like other public services at their best, comprehensive sixth form providers model the social relationships of a more equal society.

This is not a theoretical argument. When parents and potential students experience what being comprehensive means in all its diversity and ambition, they respond very positively and continue to support the practice.

English education has yet to have its ‘NHS moment’ but the founding principles of a single universal health service which meets the full range of people’s needs could just as well be applied to our education system. A system designed for everyone is better placed to promote excellence for everyone. The challenge, both post-16 and pre-16, is to revive the comprehensive system rather than to abandon it.

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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