A science college, an engineering technical college, a media technical college, a music industry college and several super-selective A-level providers offering a narrow range of subjects to high-achieving students. These are just some of the new sixth forms which have opened recently within travelling distance of our college, encouraged by the trend to institutional specialization and selection post-16. This is happening all over England. It seems that selection or curriculum specialization are seen as a prerequisite of quality; another way of saying that comprehensive schools and colleges which offer a broad range post-16 are rather out of date ‘one size fits all’ institutions.
Fresh new institutions full of promise and with a narrow focus clearly have their attractions. They can be seen to address a specific need and their novelty and specialisation are part of the appeal. However, the rationale for setting them up usually includes ignoring or rubbishing the good work of existing providers. Comprehensive providers in particular are often dismissed as ‘one size fits all’ implying a grey uniformity and lack of curriculum diversity, with all students being shoe-horned into a monolithic curriculum without having their individual aspirations met.
This is, of course, a gross misrepresentation. Comprehensive providers offer highly differentiated programmes and play to students’ strengths allowing them to specialise as well as keep their options and progression routes open. By being more inclusive, they are better placed to celebrate and fully represent the diversity and dynamism of their communities and make productive connections between education, the wider society and the economy.
In our case, everything that is being offered by new local specialist or selective providers is already on offer in our comprehensive setting plus a great deal more. Our diverse offer can be described in many ways, including using the language of the specialist or selective sixth forms themselves.
The specialist parts:
All of the following can be found within Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc):
A high performing A level college:
A high performing college of 300-400 A level students (just under half the total A-level cohort) who would meet the entry requirements of other selective sixth forms. Many are studying facilitating subjects while also selecting from a wider range of subjects than is available elsewhere. These students achieve well above the national average, progress to university and between a third and a half go on to highly selective Russell group universities.
A STEM college:
A science, engineering and IT college of around 550 students over and above the many students studying for A levels in sciences, computing, maths and further maths. Achievement is high with around 130 progressing to university per year.
An early years and social care college:
A high achieving college of 220 students specializing in health, social and child care studies. Over 40 progress to university per year and many will go straight into work in childcare or social care.
A business school:
Around 600 students following specialist business programmes, including an accounting and finance pathway and a leisure, tourism and sport college of around 120 students. High achievement overall with around 150 students progressing to university per year.
An arts and media school:
An excellent specialist art, performing arts and media school of around 210 students with over 40 progressing to universities, art schools, drama schools and conservatoires per year.
A second chance ‘progression’ college:
This includes the 220 students on Entry and Foundation programmes who need to develop their knowledge and skills further before progressing onto a specialist pathway, nearly 50 students on a one year GCSE, pre-advanced programme and also over 500 students on other programmes who need to retake GCSE English and 400 who need to retake GCSE Maths because they didn’t achieve a grade C in the subjects at school. One could add around 350 level 2 vocational students who are already counted within the ‘specialist’ numbers above who need to follow a 3-year programme before progressing to university. One could also broaden this definition out to the 400 to 500 A level students who met our entry criteria but are not regarded as ‘high achievers’ and none of whom would have been considered by the more selective providers but many of whom do well and progress within the college and then on to university.
The comprehensive whole:
There are many ways of slicing the whole up into specialist parts. The point is that these are all elements of a single coherent whole which aims to meet the needs and aspirations of every young person who enrols with us; needs which are constantly changing and aspirations which are constantly rising.
When this all comes together in one college, is the whole greater than the parts? We think so. There is a strong bond which binds us all together. This is our sense of being a single college community; one that we all belong to. There is also the fact that students who are on a longer educational journey can work alongside those who are further along on that journey. And going beyond the curriculum specialisation we are able to offer a uniquely broad student development programme to all our students including sports, health advocacy, language and writing, cultural and social activities, university lectures, leadership, international links and a great deal more. All of this in a setting which welcomes all young people who are committed to their learning and progression regardless of their prior achievement – a setting where everyone is valued as well as challenged.
And it works.
Where do all our A level students go? (January)
Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January)
Investing in East London’s future (December 2014)
Comparing like with like (August 2014)
College success with disadvantaged students (June 2014)
The comprehensive college (February 2014)