Large and cost-effective v. small and inefficient?
In Reviewing post-16 Education and Training Institutions published 3 days ago the government suggests that we need ‘fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers’. The implication is that larger colleges are better placed to provide high quality, plan strategically and survive austerity in the medium term. This is probably true and many in the college sector are already considering new forms of collaboration and federation to secure the range and quality of their local offer.
But if colleges overall are in declining financial health, this is partly due to the government itself which has subjected them to a succession of disproportionately large funding reductions, the latest of which have come after the final allocations and budgets have been set. These unplanned cuts will require emergency responses which will inevitably harm students.
The new programme of Area-based Reviews of post-16 provision proposed in the document could see a welcome return of some form of rational planning. If all the appropriate agencies can work with local communities and post-16 providers to take an objective view of local provision and agree on a different and better configuration using a range of criteria including quality, cost-effectiveness, geography and demand, this must be a good thing.
Because the pattern of provision is different in every area and different providers have different strengths, the proposed solutions will not all look the same. But wherever they take place, successful reviews will require imagination, system leadership and an appeal to the better instincts of all those involved. We will be expected to rise above institutional self-interest in order to start building a better system for young people in our areas.
School sixth forms must be included
The guidance on how these reviews will be carried out is yet to be published and it is essential that all 16-19 provision in an area should be in scope. This means that school sixth forms must automatically be considered as part of the pattern of provision. If they are not, this would be a colossal missed opportunity.
If colleges have cost-effectiveness issues then surely the problem is even greater for small school sixth forms. Even counting only ‘key stage 5’ or advanced learners using the data for 2012, the average English college had six times more advanced 16-18 year old students than the average school sixth form.
1,870 publicly funded school sixth forms in England had 169,400 key stage 5 (advanced) leavers in 2012. 320 publicly funded FE and sixth form colleges has 176,390 of the same type of students. This means that the average school sixth form had 91 second year advanced students compared to the average college which had 551. Were we to add those students studying at intermediate, foundation and entry levels and adult learners, the imbalance would be even more stark.
Incidentally, the university progression data in these same tables also shows that the average college sends over 4 times more students to university and more than double the number to Russell group universities than the typical school sixth form. The average school sixth form sends 51 students to university per year, of whom 14 progress to a Russell group university. The averages for all colleges are 215 and 33 respectively, with sixth form colleges being well above these averages.
Addressing cost-effectiveness and investing in quality and success must be a priority across all post-16 provision. To do this properly, we must include that provision which is already successful and efficient as well as that which is the most dispersed or least cost-effective.
Inclusive and comprehensive local systems
The document also suggests that the government wants to encourage ‘greater specialisation in genuine centres of expertise’ while also maintaining ‘broad universal access to high quality education and training for students of all abilities’. Squaring this circle may be easier with fewer colleges, but it will also require the creation of inclusive and comprehensive local systems – preferably made up of inclusive and comprehensive institutions. Otherwise the needs of the least qualified and most vulnerable young people are likely to be overlooked.
If these area reviews are comprehensive in scope, based on educational criteria and owned by local educators who have thought strategically and systemically about what is best for all 16-18 year olds in their area, they could be the catalysts for positive and sustainable change. There will certainly be much at stake and we cannot afford to fail.