The case for sixth form colleges

From ‘What’s next for education?’ (New Visions Group, 2015)

By any objective standard, England’s 93 sixth form colleges are among this country’s great educational success stories. They offer more opportunities, higher standards and a broader experience for students aged 16-19 than school sixth forms, and they do it in a more cost-effective way.

Wherever they exist – their avFullSizeRender (4)ailability is unfortunately patchy with many cities and counties having none at all and only one in three young people living within five miles of one – sixth form colleges are popular. The break at 16 offers students the opportunity to work in a stimulating new environment which allows for some specialisation and feels like a real step towards university or employment. Because the colleges have a critical mass of 16 to 19-year-olds, students can choose from a wide range of study options, working with many others who share similar interests and aspirations within a wider academic community while developing greater independence and broadening their horizons. This is why many countries organise a distinct institutional phase of upper secondary education.

In the government’s performance tables, sixth form colleges achieve better average results than other non-selective state-funded providers. A London Economics report (commissioned by the Sixth Form Colleges Association) in 2014 shows that college students score an average of 773 points each in ‘academic’ exams, mainly A-levels. Local authority school sixth formers get an average of 707 points, academy sixth formers 688 points.

This success comes at a lower cost to the public purse. The London Economics report calculates that each point in sixth form colleges comes at a cost of £5.86, against £7.95 in school sixth forms and £8.63 in academy sixth forms. This ‘efficiency’ premium of at least 25% is surely enough to make even the most demanding bean-counter happy in these austere times.

Moreover, Department for Education data from 2012 shows that 67% of college students progress to university compared to 63% from school sixth forms and 53% from academy sixth forms. The figures for the most selective universities, such as Russell Group members, are also higher: 19% for sixth form colleges compared to 17% and 9% for school and academy sixth forms respectively.

Sixth form colleges achieve these results despite having proportionately more disadvantaged students than other providers. Despite having a 14% share of the total number of young people progressing to university they account for more than 31% of the most disadvantaged students progressing.

Yet the colleges remain the worst funded sector in education. They are starved of resources and sidelined by education policy. Why?

The government’s spending protection for education does not extend beyond 16 and colleges were hit hard: first by cuts to programmes that don’t lead directly to qualifications (tutorials and extra-curricular activities for example) and then later by a ‘programme cap’ which penalises colleges where some students aim for more than the usual three A-levels.

In addition, colleges have to pay VAT while their competitor schools and academies are exempt. This costs the average sixth form college over £300,000 per year, an inequity which we describe as the ‘learning tax’. Those colleges which enrol 18 year olds have also seen funding for this age group cut by 17.5% this year; this could be called an  ‘aspiration tax’ because it hits colleges which offer the most second chance opportunities to students who did least well at school. On top of all this, the London Economics report estimates that secondary schools subsidise their sixth form provision from pre-16 funding by an average of between £680 and £1,307 per student.

The result is that by 2016/17 the average sixth form college student will have only £4,128 spent on his or her education each year. That is 82% of the funding for a school or academy sixth form student, 74% of the funding for an 11-16 year old, 49% of the funding for a university student and 16% of the sixth form day fees at a private school such as Westminster. In the private sector, it is quite usual for sixth form fees to be higher than for the rest of the school, presumably reflecting relative cost. At Westminster this is a +8% premium compared to the -16% discount we see in public funding.

Sixth-form colleges also face a growing systemic problem. In many ways they were the pioneers of academy type freedoms. Mostly established in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of school reorganisations led by local authorities, they, along with further education colleges, were taken out of local authority control in 1992 and given wide autonomy and direct national funding. But to operate most effectively, they need some degree of local planning and collaboration. The coalition government, however, emphasizing the merits of greater choice and competition, has allowed academies and free schools to open new sixth-forms.

Because of their history, the colleges – which are in effect super-academies with a record of super-autonomy – should be in a good position to compete in today’s super-market. But choice and diversity can be self-defeating. Paradoxically, a system of more, smaller providers tends to reduce choice because each sixth form can only afford the same narrow range of courses, and ‘minority’ subjects become unviable across the patch. New sixth forms also tend to be more selective, limiting access to students who have already achieved the most success pre-16. And there is much evidence that once a school opens a sixth form it is tempted to cut corners and limit its range of pre-16 advice in order to keep higher achieving students in their school.

In short, we really can’t expect to have both universal school sixth forms and successful sixth form colleges all in the same area without some costs or casualties. We find ourselves without a coherent system of any kind, subject to the interplay of history and market forces, none of which necessarily serves young people’s interests well.

The former education minister Andrew Adonis, in his book recalling an account of his role in developing the academies programme between 1998 and 2008 (Education, Education, Education. Reforming England’s Schools) says he believes “a successful school almost always has a sixth form”. He acknowledges that some sixth-form colleges are “academic powerhouses” and says “I was attracted to setting up lots more”. He adds: “it would not have been possible to establish many new sixth forms in the half of comprehensives which lacked them if new sixth form colleges were being set up to serve the same teenagers”. The big challenge, as he saw it, was to improve underperforming schools – the “secondary modern comprehensives”, as he called them – and sixth-form colleges just got in the way.

There was an alternative: to encourage existing sixth forms, whether in schools or colleges, to start working together area-wide. But despite the evidence that this was the better solution, he and his successors have encouraged a post-16 free-for-all.

The result is that some colleges are questioning whether they can survive much longer. But if they have to compete, they can still do so effectively if they have a genuine level playing field. There needs to be a clearer context for planning, possibly at a regional level, which listens to the young people themselves and values success, inclusiveness and value for money.

Sixth form colleges up and down the country are daily demonstrating their deep commitment to their local area and to working with schools, universities and employers. If collaboration was encouraged, they could play a leading role in creating local networks of 16-19 provision which could promote excellence and good practice.

Action for the next government:

  • Invest in the crucial 16-19 phase at a similar level to 5-16 education and address the iniquitous ‘learning tax’ and ‘aspiration tax’.
  • Encourage local area collaboration in 16-19 provision to ensure a comprehensive range of courses is available to all young people
  • Ensure that all under-16s are well informed about all the post-16 options in their area.
  • Encourage the development of new sixth form colleges where this is a logical step forward.

Eddie Playfair has been principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in east London since 2008, and chair of the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) since 2014. He blogs about education at

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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