More area reviews?

More area reviews of post-16 education? We’ve only just got through the last lot and that took up loads of everyone’s time for very little benefit. Surely this can’t be a serious suggestion…

Well, it might not be guaranteed to lift our spirits, and some wariness, or weariness, would be understandable. But yes, we could really do with more area reviews – albeit of a different type. The recent Area Reviews only looked at colleges, and left out the providers which account for the education of around 40% of all 16-18 year olds. Sixth form provision based in schools was not in scope in these reviews and the quality and efficiency of their work as well as their impact and contribution to local patterns of provision was simply not considered at all.

This was a major design flaw and one which was repeatedly pointed throughout the process. In many areas the key problem is the proliferation of new 16-18 capacity with no regard to evidence of actual local supply or demand. Stories abound across England of new sixth forms being allowed to open just down the road from existing good or outstanding providers with capacity. School and college sixth forms seem to plan in separate worlds while on the ground operating very much in the same world where there are only so many learners to go around. The result of this lack of planning is often a diminished and impoverished offer to young people while also being a pretty poor use of resources at a time when resources are scarce.

Since last year the official minimum threshold for a viable new sixth form is not less than 200 students and 15 A level subjects according to Department for Education guidance. However, over 1,000 school sixth form are well below this threshold and the pace of new proposals has hardly reduced with planned new sixth forms slipping through before the new guidance has time to bed down.

So this is where we are and we need to create a new type of area review to address this problem. David Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, told the Commons Education Select Committee in December that such reviews are essential: “It doesn’t have to happen in the same way for the same timetable, because there are 2,000-odd sixth forms, so it’s a big number. But we have to do it. Because young people are not getting the deal they need.” FE Commissioner Richard Atkins also seems to agree that there is a “case to answer” over small school sixth forms of low quality offering a limited range of qualifications.

What might such reviews look like and how might they work? I suggest that they should:

  • Involve the providers themselves (most if not all) and include student, staff and locally elected representatives.
  • Require a minimum of additional work and be based on an analysis of existing data.
  • Be short and focused and lead to agreed partnership solutions which have a real prospect of releasing resources and improving provision across an area.

The 4 key themes they should address can be summarized by the acronym S.Q.E.P:

Sufficiency: Is the full range of options which young people want and need available to them within a reasonable travelling distance? Is there enough capacity overall and can the system cope with any demographic change (whether up or down)? Are young people being offered sufficient breadth and challenge across the area?

Quality: Is the current quality of the offer good enough? Where are the best outcomes and how could the best practice be shared and spread?

Efficiency: Is the current offer cost-effective and sustainable or are there courses which are threatened despite there being sufficient aggregate demand for them across the area? Could resources tied up in inefficient provision be released to benefit young people across the system?

Partnership: What is the potential for collaboration to reduce inefficiencies while respecting student choices and institutional autonomy? How will the partners work together to implement the recommendations? The possibilities include: common information, advice and guidance, common application systems, common academic enhancement, shared provision of minority, specialist or threatened subjects and collective partnerships with employers and universities – none of which need to threaten institutional independence.

The reviews could follow a fairly standard pattern, informed by a standard data-set generating a standard report – the approach could be established by the first areas to volunteer and be adopted and adapted from then on.

Who will initiate such reviews? We cannot wait for the government or commissioners to propose something – welcome as that would be. Such reviews could start now in those areas where there is already a willingness to work together to build a better system. The evidence of being able to realise a ‘partnership premium’ (resources released by working together) should act as an incentive for other areas to follow suit and the process will catch on if it’s successful.

If we can’t bring ourselves to try this approach we will be missing a great opportunity to make sure that all the talent and resource we have between us in our sixth forms can be fully mobilised in the interests of all the young people we are here to serve.

See also:

London’s sixth forms (June 2016)

The challenge of small sixth forms (April 2016)

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

A sixth form profile of the ‘Local London’ area (February 2016)

A level languages in London (February 2016)

A level minority report: Dance, Music, Philosophy (February 2016)

A level Drama in London (March 2016)

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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