What schools and academies could learn from sixth form colleges

17 July 2015

Schools and academies in England face increased financial pressure over the next Parliament. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that real per pupil funding will reduce by 7 per cent over the next five years, while costs will rise by 16 per cent. To meet these challenges, schools and academies could draw important lessons from how sixth form colleges have responded to public funding constraints. Education funding for 11 to 16 year olds is around 22 per cent higher than for 16 to 19 year olds and has been protected in real terms over the past five years. By contrast, funding for 16 to 19 year olds was cut three times during the last Parliament and remains unprotected from cuts during this Parliament.

In many respects, the 93 sixth form colleges in England are the unsung heroes of value for money in education. Analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) has found that sixth form colleges outperform school and academy sixth forms both in terms of student attainment and entry into higher education despite receiving significantly less funding. This gives sixth form colleges a high rate of return to public investment in comparison to alternative forms of 16-19 education.

Size is a potential factor in sixth form colleges’ strong performance. According to the Association of School and College Leaders, the break-even size for a sustainable sixth form is around 200 students. Yet only around half of school sixth forms have more than 200 students, whereas the average sixth form college educates 1,700 students. Despite a larger funding base, the reality is that these small sixth forms can only be sustained via a cross subsidy from funding intended for younger students. Growing pressure on school budgets could make this difficult to sustain in the longer term.

As sixth form college funding has decreased, colleges have changed how they operate. The SFCA’s Funding Impact Survey found that 70 per cent of colleges had increased class size as a result of funding pressures. In contrast, many school and academy sixth forms limp on with uneconomic class sizes and a narrow curriculum, which leaves students poorly served. The Education Endowment Foundation, which conducts randomised control trials and systematic reviews of education effectiveness, considers reduced class size a “low impact for very high cost” intervention.

As well-established, effective and efficient institutions rooted in their local communities, sixth form colleges are ideally placed to provide high quality education during a time of austerity. Yet where demand for new sixth form provision exists, Government policy dictates that only a school, academy or free school sixth form can be created to meet it. The result is 193 new school sixth forms, including academy and free schools, have opened over the last five years, but no new sixth form colleges have been established since 2010.

While the policy intent is to drive up standards through more diverse provision, the Government is preventing effective competition between providers by adopting an unhealthily interventionist approach. If the Government wants to intervene in a constructive way, it could develop an exit process for inefficient, unviable school and academy sixth forms to make best use of scarce resources. It should also ensure that plans being developed to review the quality and quantity of 16-19 provision in local areas should not – as seems likely – ignore the performance of school and academy sixth forms. At present, the sixth form education market resembles the UEFA Europa League before it was reformed – overcomplicated, overplanned and almost impossible to exit regardless of how badly you perform.

Current Government policy is preventing an efficient sixth form sector from emerging. Yet there is still much to learn from how sixth form colleges have approached public sector austerity. Sixth form colleges have risen to the challenge of improved efficiency and performance; it is now time for schools and academies to do the same.

James Kewin, Deputy Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges’ Association




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