What future for Sixth Form Colleges?

I was asked to give a personal view on the future of sixth form colleges at the 2016 FE Staff Governors Conference on 2nd December, organised by a group of education unions: UNISON, ATL/AMIE, UCU and NAS/UWT together with the Association of Colleges and the Education and Training Foundation. This post is based on the presentation I gave.

1. What makes us distinctive?

For a while, sixth form colleges were defined by our official ‘designation’ as such within the wider family of incorporated Further Education colleges. However, this designation has done little to establish any particular role for our ‘sub-sector’ in government thinking. We only exist in certain parts of the country and policy-makers who know little about our work tend to pigeon-hole us either with schools or with general FE. We have too often felt side-lined and neglected in the national educational debate with most of the energy and enthusiasm being aimed at either the ‘skills agenda’ or the academy and free school agenda. We’re not so much Cinderella as Cinderella’s less-noticed younger sister.

We can rightly point to our higher than average achievement rates within the FE sector and our greater inclusiveness than most school sixth forms. But we must beware of overstating our excellence. The fact that we are ‘somewhere between General FE and school sixth forms’ in terms of raw success and performance table scores needs to be set in the wider context of 16-19 provision where such scores are closely correlated to students’ prior achievement.

At a time when government seems convinced, against all the evidence, that greater academic selection is the recipe for success, I think we should also resist the temptation to present ourselves as post-16 ‘grammar schools’ to attract short-term political favour. To attribute our success to selectivity rather than inclusiveness would be to ignore one of our greatest strengths.

Sixth form colleges vary in size and offer, but what we all have in common is a strong focus on the needs of 16-19 year olds and an ethos of aspiration and success for all. We specialise in the full-time education and development of a specific age group and that’s probably why we do so well across the board at all levels.

2. What challenges do we face?

First, we need to recognise that the challenges we face are not unique to us. There is no doubt that the 16-19 phase is seriously under-resourced but we do have a single national funding system and we have not been singled out for victimhood, although this is how it sometimes feels.

In recent years we have lost most of the funding for tutorial and enrichment as well as 17.5% of the funding for our 18 year old students, Educational Maintenance Allowances were slashed and the rate per learner has been cash-frozen for several years. Funding per student for ‘full-time’ programmes is far lower than in schools or universities and we are barely able to sustain a minimal educational entitlement, let alone an aspirational one.

We are also experiencing an unprecedented volume and pace of curriculum change, with the content and assessment regime of pretty much every course we offer being substantially redesigned, and not always in ways which promote participation or progression.

We also face an explosion of competition as a result of new capacity being opened up all around us, particularly in urban areas. A seemingly endless succession of new academy sixth forms, 16-19 free schools and UTCs have been created with little planning or regard for genuine need or cost-effectiveness. While national criteria for such new provision have been established, these are not always respected and there is no proper mechanism for addressing pre-existing excess capacity or insufficiency.

3. How have we fared in the Area Reviews?

Sixth form colleges have been fully engaged in the area review processes although we have often felt marginal to their agenda. We have embraced the idea of partnership and sub-regional strategic planning and most of us are clearly viable, responsive and successful. But without school sixth forms being in the frame, the reviews have not had the opportunity to look at those parts of the system which most affect us and which most need scrutiny.

Sixth form colleges have seriously considered the option of academy conversion, with its beguiling prospect of ‘joining the mainstream’ and ‘delivering the government’s agenda’. Some are embracing it; often in order to build strong new partnerships with local schools.

However, many of us are opting for the ‘stand-alone’ sixth form college option. ‘Stand alone’ should not be seen as ‘stand-aloof’. It is simply the result of a judgement that in our particular context, neither merger nor academy conversion was necessary to get us to work closely with others in order to benefit young people.

As an autonomous incorporated institution, a ‘stand alone’ college can choose to build on existing relationships and consider a range of collaborative arrangements; with other colleges in its area, with the schools its students come from and also with the universities which they progress to. Such partnerships can offer many benefits, among them greater curriculum coherence, course design for progression, the sharing of expertise and good practice and the possibility of new economies of scale.

Each area has its own local dynamics and each college corporation is best placed to judge how their institution should evolve while preserving what it stands for. What is clear across England is that the sixth form college brand will survive and thrive well beyond the area reviews and any change of status.

4. So what is the future of Sixth Form Colleges?

The environment we work in has many features of a highly competitive market between institutions. Each of us is driven by the need to attract students and to make a distinctive contribution which responds to local needs. While these drivers can have some positive impacts, the market encourages protectionist behaviours and super-selection. The market also discourages area planning around student numbers, minority subjects or specialist provision all of which could enhance the local offer.

Sixth form colleges, with their specialist experience, sharp focus and good track record, are well placed to do much of the heavy lifting required to build on the best features of their local system. I think the future lies in strengthening that system in order to overcome the worst features of the market.

As we move on from the area reviews, we need to build on the networks and relationships established in the steering groups to deepen the discussion about all the post-16 provision in our areas and to find ways to engage with schools and regional commissioners to review the whole pattern of provision. Taken as a whole, this currently often falls short of meeting the educational needs and aspirations of all the 16-19 year olds in their area.

We need to make common cause with all other 16-19 providers to make a case for sufficient resources and sufficient provision in every area so that the kind of broad curriculum this age group deserves can be offered to all young people regardless of where they live or study.

So, the ambitious, autonomous and community-focused sixth form college has a lot to offer. If we choose to face outwards and work with others we can contribute to strengthening our local sixth form provision by placing ourselves at its heart. There is still a vital role for us; helping to lead the development of a 16-18 system fit for the 21st century.

See also:

Going beyond: What do we expect from the education of 16-19 year-olds in England? (October 2016)

Is collaboration the solution or the problem? (December 2015)

Leadership for partnership  (November 2015)

The problem with England’s post-16 area reviews (September 2015)

Imagining a better future is a first step (August 2015)

Sixth forms working together against the tide (June 2014)


Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)

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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