The challenge of small sixth forms.

Small-Sixth-Form-dw-front-200x300The Department for Education has recently published new advice for academies intending to make significant changes. Amongst other things, the document requires them to make a full business case if they wish to add sixth form provision.

This is a welcome move as it outlines for the first time what criteria the department will use before approving new school sixth forms. The advice has nothing to say about the many existing sixth forms which don’t meet these criteria but it does show that the department has a view about the threshold for a viable sixth form.

The advice is that proposals should normally only be put forward for existing academies rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and be assessed using the following guidelines:

Size: an expectation of around 200 students or more – in the institution or through partnership.

Breadth: an expectation that a students should be able to choose from around 15 A levels across a range of subjects – in the institution or through partnership.

Demand: including any shortage of places and an assessment of the quality of advanced provision in the area and the impact of any new provision on other providers.

Financial viability and value for money: including financial resilience if numbers fall and the impact of cross-subsidy on 11-16 provision.

Consultation: all key stakeholders, including other post-16 providers, should be consulted in a fair and open way.

Ultimately, decisions will be made by the Regional Schools Commissioner on behalf of the Secretary of State. They will have to interpret this advice and to consider the impact of any change on the wider system in the region they are responsible for.

This new advice is a recognition that decisions about new sixth form capacity should be informed by a range of factors: actual demand, quality, cost-effectiveness and impact on other providers as well as on the institution itself. It also represents an acknowledgement that no sixth form is an island and that an unfettered market approach has not served sixth formers well.

Shutting the stable door?

As Stephen Exley pointed out in his 15th April TES piece on this, the government has approved no less than 169 new sixth forms since 2010. This was done with little reference to any of the criteria now being suggested and has often led to turbulence and instability. It’s not surprising then, that for many of us the publication of this advice will feel rather like shutting the stable door after so many new school sixth form horses have bolted. Still, the advice is ‘better late than never’ and it may help save some of those horses and herd others back to safety.

What about existing small sixth forms?

What about all those existing small sixth forms which are clearly unable to offer a comprehensive 16-18 curriculum to students and which are probably a drain on their school’s pre-16 funding? 46% of all the 2,400 or so publicly funded sixth form providers in England have fewer than 200 students, based on the 2015 performance table data. In fact, around 11% of the country’s sixth formers are educated in those smaller sixth forms and they have an average size of just 118 students, compared to an average of 748 for institutions in the ‘bigger half’. It seems unlikely that many of those smaller sixth forms will be offering 15 A level subjects – these are the places where students are least likely to be able to access the type of broad offer which all sixth formers should be entitled to.

What could be done?

The problem of small sixth forms is the result of a lack of any coherent post-16 planning over many years, but harking back to past neglect or seeking to allocate blame is not going to solve anything. One way forward would be a judicious use of ‘nudge’ policies which incentivise sixth forms, large and small, to work together in their area in order to ensure that every young person can access the full range of options we want to offer.

The ongoing area based reviews of post-16 education are a unique opportunity to move things forward. They should evaluate the quality, breadth and viability of the school sixth forms in their patch just as forensically as they do for the colleges. They might then be able to make recommendations about establishing area-based partnerships which could plan area-based offers which providers could be asked to sign up to. If partnerships can be created which play to everyone’s strengths and are in everyone’s interest, they could bring real educational benefits to young people, even at a time of limited resources.

See also:

Put school sixth forms on the chopping block, too by Stephen Exley, TES (15th April 2016).

16-19 education: from independence to dependence (April 2016)

Leadership for partnership (November 2015)

Reviewing post-16 education in London (November 2015)

About The Small Sixth Form by Evelyn Smith [from Books to Treasure]

After an eventful journey to their new home, Robin joins the Sixth at St. Quentin’s. With too many girls and not enough desks in the regular form room, Robin and six other girls are exiled to the division room, and before long tensions between the Small Sixth and the Big Sixth escalate to outright war.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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