There is a contradiction at the heart of the government’s post-16 area reviews for England and it was clearly exposed the other day by the very civil servants tasked with implementing them.
Sixth form college principals and chairs of governors were told at a briefing last week:
“Ministers have a low tolerance of inefficiency and duplication”
This seems fair enough. Inefficiency and duplication are clearly bad things aren’t they?
Indeed they are. They are also a direct result of the increased post-16 market choice and competition which the government has promoted. A lot more small post-16 providers tends to lead to more inefficient provision and duplication of courses, with a real danger that ‘minority’ subjects become even less cost-effective in an area leading to reduced choice despite a proliferation of new providers.
If ministers are keen to root out inefficiency and duplication, no doubt they will want to focus on where it is most evident; in some of the smallest providers and the most ‘crowded’ markets. The new post-16 area reviews should therefore include all post-16 provision wherever it is located and include value-for-money as one criterion, together with quality and geographical considerations.
However, the same audience was also told:
“Ministers don’t want to close school sixth forms which aren’t inadequate”
So, it seems that these reviews are really only about colleges. School sixth forms will, at best, be part of a general ‘assessment of provision’ in an area.
If efficiency really was the watchword then all 16-18 provision would be in scope. If ministers’ agenda is really to address inefficiency and duplication, they have not given their staff adequate tools to do the job. School sixth forms are not going to be reviewed and will not need to heed any review recommendations.
So that pretty much rules out any action on the first proposition then…
The review that really counts is the comprehensive spending review
Area reviews could have been the opportunity for a rational reappraisal of all educational provision for sixth formers as well as for adults in an area. Instead they will be a very partial process including only the 57% of 16-18 provision in colleges while leaving the 43% of provision in school and academy sixth forms completely out of the equation, despite the fact that they are all competing for the same students in the same market.
The truth is that the review which will really make a difference to college viability will be the one which sets how much more 16-18 education is to be cut; the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. And we won’t know the outcome of that until it actually happens in November.
Sadly, what is pushing colleges to consider new alliances, partnerships or mergers is not particularly the case for rational planning but the severe budget pressures forced on them by government. The comprehensive spending review seems set to increase this pressure.
Colleges have no choice but to participate in these reviews and to take the opportunity to demonstrate the positive contribution they make to the educational, social and economic development of their area. But they also have no choice but to explain why these reviews are flawed and to bring information about the full range of 16-19 provision to the table whilst also arguing for a properly resourced system of 16-19 education.
Imagining a better future is a first step (August 2015)
What’s at stake in the new post-16 area reviews? (July 2015)