16-19 education: from independence to interdependence.

atl-logoI want to say a little about where we’ve been, where we find ourselves today and where we might be heading. When I say ‘we’ I am referring to 16-19 provision in colleges and most specifically sixth form colleges, although part of my argument is that we now need to think and plan as a 16-19 sector regardless of where provision is located. Although I am a sixth form college principal and closely involved in the work of our representative organisation, I am speaking here in a personal capacity and will express personal opinions.

Some history:

Our history as a distinctive national sector begins with incorporation in 1993 following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Under a previous Conservative government, Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges were taken out of local authority control and given a wide range of autonomy and invited to compete with each other in a brave new education market. Student numbers, staffing levels and structures, pay and conditions, the curriculum offer and entry requirements were all opened up to a free-for-all with no requirement to plan comprehensively to meet all the educational needs of a local area.

A wide range of local funding rates quickly converged to a single national funding system which has become simpler over the years and the complexity of national regulation was also progressively reduced.

In the late 1980’s as a local councillor and chair of Education in a London borough, I was involved in seeing through a borough-wide secondary reorganisation which included creating two Sixth Form Colleges to replace a number of school sixth forms which offered only limited opportunities between them. That was the right decision for our borough and it was taken entirely by the democratically-elected local authority following a great deal of consultation and careful planning at local level. Six years before incorporation we had all the powers we needed to take full responsibility for this project and to see it through. I’m glad to say that 30 years later both those colleges are thriving.

The college where I am principal was created in 1992 as part of a wise and visionary re-organisation by another London borough following extensive consultation and some controversy. The aim was to increase post-16 staying-on rates, achievement and university progression in an area where these were very low. How frustrating for the council that, just at the point where its plans were coming to fruition, control of this exciting new institution was snatched away. Nevertheless, I can report that, like so many others, the new college exceeded all the ambitions of its founders; growing fast and making a phenomenal impact on the educational success of young people in the area; driving up achievement and university progression to remarkable new highs. 24 years later, we now have above average university progression rates and send more disadvantaged students to university than any other sixth form in England.

Incorporation cannot take all the credit for these successes. The demands and aspirations of local communities and the determination and hard work of their elected representatives also had a lot to do with it. These institutions’ achievements are at least as much about the political vision of the local authorities which created them as they are a result of the autonomy which came from incorporation. I will return to the theme of democracy and accountability later but we should not let people get away with claims that locally elected politicians can’t be trusted with decisions about education.

Incorporated colleges were the pioneers of the new autonomy until Labour’s Learning and Skills Act of 2000 created the first academy schools. Sixth form colleges have learnt the lessons of independence over many years, finding new ways to relate to our local competitors, communities and economies. We never went for top-heavy management structures or excessive diversification, chasing funding for its own sake. We have maintained good industrial relations, valuing national negotiations and national pay and conditions for our staff and we have kept faith with educational objectives which put the development of the whole person at the heart of our work even if we have had to reduce contact time over the years. Our longer learning curve means that we have been able to avoid many of the dangers and pitfalls of sudden autonomy which academy chains and trusts have had to face while becoming expert at self-management and comfortable with competition.

Unloved and underfunded:

Successful and pioneering we may be, but for most of our existence we have felt neglected and misunderstood or even ignored and marginalised. Our most common complaint in recent years has been that education policy takes little account of our existence, and when it does we find our work misrepresented.

So, strangely, an institutional model which delivers all the government’s objectives and has been outstandingly successful wherever it has been applied has been allowed to shrink. Successive governments have presided over a gradual decline in the number of sixth form colleges with hardly a murmur of concern. Many have closed or been merged while only a few have been created over the last 20 years. For many areas, some kind of Sixth Form College would be the best way to ensure cost-effective, high-quality post-16 provision for all young people. But whether by intent or neglect, government policies have mostly conspired to prevent this.

More recently, underfunding has been added to our list of grievances; with full time 18 year old learners in colleges and sixth forms the lowest funded of any in England, closely followed by their 16 and 17 year old classmates. We find ourselves at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ looking up at relatively better resourced 5-16 education on one side and higher education on the other. This is despite our crucial role in bridging the gap between these phases of education, helping to transform school leavers into undergraduates in challenging academic settings designed for this age group.

To give credit where it’s due, there has been much levelling of the playing field and many of the inequities between colleges and schools have been removed and we now have a common national funding system for all 16-18 year olds. The problem is that it doesn’t really measure up to funding the kind of education which young people should be entitled to.

Towards a new system?

So now we face area reviews and, for sixth form colleges at least, the linked opportunity to choose to convert to 16-19 academy status. Are these threats or opportunities?

For a principal, it’s an occupational requirement to see opportunities and to seize them. In fact there are many:

  1. Area reviews are a collective and collaborative process. Rather than being ‘done to’ we need to take control and grasp the agenda. We are at the table and each college needs to show how it can contribute to making post-16 education work better for their area.
  2. The fact that school sixth forms are not directly involved gives sixth form colleges the opportunity to engage them and raise important issues about the sufficiency and diversity of the post-16 offer across all sixth form providers in an area. Whether represented on the steering groups or nor, we are all part of the pattern of provision and as major providers sixth form colleges bring expertise and economies of scale – who better to bring school sixth forms into the discussion and lead the conversation?
  3. The possibility of creating new kinds of partnership with schools, such as local Multi Academy Trusts offers the opportunity to start building a more integrated local education system which aims to meet student needs more coherently and comprehensively, bringing together the best of curriculum expertise and student support from pre- and post-16 providers in new ways.
  4. This is an opportunity to help build a system from the bottom up. Area review steering groups could be embryonic post-16 planning forums, building on the relationships and trust established during the reviews for the longer term. There is undoubtedly a democratic deficit, but we could help develop new ways to ensure that local people’s voices are heard. For example, nothing prevents local academy trusts from choosing to organise elections for community members, recreating the space for popular local debate about education policies which has been lost. And nothing prevents the post-16 providers in a devolved city-region from choosing to make themselves accountable to the elected authority for that area.
  5. A school-led self-improving system would be greatly enhanced by the involvement of Sixth Form Colleges. We would bring so much to any partnership we join: 16-19 experience across every type of programme, strong advice and guidance and university and employer links, uniquely broad enrichment programmes, national negotiations on pay and conditions, cost-effective central services – to name but a few. We have a lot to offer in terms of setting system aims, creating robust system structures and contributing to system leadership.

We have nothing to gain by remaining aloof or claiming to be better than all other sixth form providers. It’s time we moved from the margins to the mainstream, from independence to interdependence. This will mean engaging fully with the wider school sector which is after all where the most similar provision is and where all our students come from. It also means making common cause with all those who are educating the post-16 age group; on curriculum, on funding and on student support.

We will be all the more effective and our students all the better served if we grasp these opportunities.

Based on my speech on Monday 4th April 2016 at the FE sector zone of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) 2016 conference.

See also:

New Year wishes for sixth form education in 2016 (January 2016)

Reviewing post-16 education in London (November 2016)

England’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

What’s at stake in the new post-16 Area-Based Reviews? (July 2015)

Speaking up for 16-19 year olds (June 2015)

The case for sixth form colleges (March 2015)

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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