AoC ‘disappointed’ local sustainability reviews won’t include schools

The Association of Colleges has criticised the Department for Education’s new local area reviews for not including small “non-viable” school sixth forms.

Under the reviews, announced on Monday, FE Commissioner Richard Atkins (pictured) will provide “a flexible intervention that can make recommendations on the best way of achieving long-term sustainable provision” in the local area.

The move is essentially a continuation of the post-16 area reviews carried out between 2015 and 2017.

Since then, the only other area review of further education provision has been carried out in Cornwall, which the FE Commissioner conducted towards the end of last year and reported on last month.

However, the AoC is “disappointed” the reviews will continue to only include colleges.

“The new local provision reviews may help in some cases, but we are disappointed DfE still sees this as a college-only process,” said the association’s deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt.

“In many towns and cities, students, staff and money are spread across a number of small, non-viable sixth forms.

“In these situations, a more effective local solution would involve rationalising and reorganising courses across colleges and schools.”

Small school sixth forms have been the bugbear of a number of FE organisations and experts, as well as MPs, in recent years as they argue such providers are not viable, often being too costly or compromising too much on quality.

Responding to Monday’s announcement, Mick Fletcher, the founder of the Policy Consortium, said: “The approach of the DfE is depressingly familiar – a focus on FE provision while ignoring the inefficiencies of school sixth forms and their impact on overall opportunities for young people.

“Given that they expect schools as well as colleges to deliver T-levels there is no rational explanation for once again reviewing only part of provision.”

Dr Sue Pember, the former lead civil servant for FE funding and now director of adult and community learning group Holex, advised the DfE to consider evaluating the impact of the area reviews from 2016/17, which led to a number of college mergers, to see whether the structural changes the commissioner recommended have led to a “more robust and sustainable college sector and better learner experience” two years on.

She continued: “It is hard to see how another round of expensive reviews accompanied by large structural funding handouts will deliver what 16 to 18 learners need. DfE needs to learn from the past.”

Pember argued the DfE needs to take note of what was said on the subject by the Public Accounts Committee in 2015, when it criticised an earlier run of area reviews for not including school sixth forms.

In 2016, the government brought in new rules which restricted the ability of schools to open sixth forms.

According to the rules, before a school could open a sixth form, it should expect to enrol more than 200 pupils in the new sixth form and had to offer at least 15 A-levels across a range of subjects.

These rules were put to the test when the AoC and Havering Sixth Form College launched a judicial review against the government in September 2016, claiming the DfE had not followed its own rules when it decided to allow a new sixth form at Abbs Cross Academy and Arts College in Essex.

The AoC and the government agreed a settlement on the day the case was scheduled to go before the Royal Courts of Justice.

The chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, Bill Watkin, has also called for the number of “unsustainable” school sixth forms to be reduced.

A DfE spokesperson said: “The post-16 sector has a vital role to play in making sure people have the skills they need to get on in life.

“While the remit of the FE Commissioner does not cover schools, a local provision review will consider post 16 provision and the needs of the local area.  

“The FE Commissioner will involve the Regional Schools Commissioner and other local stakeholders as appropriate.”