“Elite” sixth forms teach few poorer students and recruit heavily from neighbouring areas, according to new analysis that challenges ministers’ levelling-up promises.
The government said new 16-to-19 free schools focused on getting learners into top universities would “transform education” in left-behind areas with “weak” outcomes.
But colleges leaders warn they will damage the viability of their offering while campaigners say they will lead to “selection for a lucky few and rejection for the majority” after a new study found similarities among their intakes with grammar schools.
Dave Thomson, author of the Education Datalab study, said super-selective sixth forms “may well prove popular, but they are hardly likely to recruit many disadvantaged students unless entry requirements are relaxed”.
The analysis, shared exclusively with FE Week, looked at the characteristics of the five per cent of sixth forms with the highest-attaining year 12 pupils, based on their GCSE results.
It found just 60 per cent of students at such schools lived in the same local authority area as where they went to school, compared to 82 per cent of all year 12 pupils.
The research also found just six per cent of pupils attending the most selective sixth forms outside London were disadvantaged, compared to a national average of 17 per cent.
“The one thing missing from most conversations about elite sixth forms is whether we need them and whether they’ll do the things they claim they’ll do,” David Corke, director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges, told FE Week.
“The answer to both is probably not… There are already hundreds of brilliant colleges and providers across the country, delivering excellent education and training to millions.”
He said this latest analysis shows that the more selective sixth forms “tend to recruit from further outside of their local areas”.
Corke added that it is known that excessive competition too often leads to poor outcomes and a narrower offer for students.
“The answer to levelling up places isn’t to further fragment the post-16 offer, nor to simply favour a small and elite group. It is to focus attention on the needs and progress of every young person by properly funding every sixth form and college, not just a select few new ones,” he added.
Responding to the Datalab findings, Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said that the population is growing and additional sixth form places are needed in the system if extra young people are to be accommodated.
He argued the government’s post-16 capacity fund is helping existing, high-performing sixth form colleges to expand and the SFCA believes that is the most effective way to meet the increase in student numbers.
“The proposed specialist sixth forms are another way of building capacity, although as they tend to be small and narrowly focused on specific subjects, they are unlikely to represent a solution for more than a tiny number of students,” he said.
“And as this analysis from Education Datalab shows, highly selective sixth forms may not make a huge contribution to the levelling up agenda either, given they tend to recruit fewer disadvantaged students than other institutions.”
Watkin explained the government should make sure any new provision considers existing availability in the community and does not duplicate or displace what is already on offer.
“It is sometimes a good thing to introduce a disruption to the system, but only when this leads to a constructive and positive outcome,” he said.
Janet Meenaghan, principal of Stamford College in Lincolnshire, told FE Week that in light of the research by Datalab it was “difficult to see how new specialist sixth-form free schools will contribute to the levelling up agenda”.
She said that in Lincolnshire, which is one of the 55 education investment areas set for new “elite” sixth forms, there are a “plethora of highly selective sixth forms” including grammars, 11-to-18 schools, private schools and sixth form colleges.
“But it’s further education colleges that tend to provide A-level choice for disadvantaged learners. And we do this extremely well,” she said.
“Stamford College has built a reputation for the high standard of our teaching, with an A-level pass rate that is always over 99 per cent, excellent student satisfaction rates and a strong record on progression, including to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. We are an exemplar of levelling up.
“We don’t need more A-level providers. If the government is serious about levelling up, it should invest in FE colleges and redress the funding imbalance resulting from a decade of austerity.”