A college principal and government social mobility adviser has welcomed the idea of Eton opening an elite sixth form on his doorstep – but the prospect concerns his counterparts in other affected areas of the country.
Three towns – Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham – have been picked by the all-boys public school to open selective sixth forms in partnership with multi-academy trust Star Academies.
Announced last week, the colleges will be designed to give disadvantaged young people who “have done well in their GCSEs the opportunity to achieve the A-levels they need to go to Oxbridge and other elite universities”.
Eton claimed that the colleges’ small size will allow them to target a “very specific academic education” and will ensure that they “do not disrupt the existing pattern of local post-16 education” – a statement challenged by education experts.
But Oldham College boss Alun Francis, who is also the vice chair of the government’s social mobility commission, told FE Week he was supportive of the plans.
He said they would provide “elite routes” for those growing up in Oldham who want “to move out to move on” of the area while education providers like his “focus on routes to high skills for those who stay here”.
“Oldham needs excellent provision of both kinds,” he told FE Week.
However, a group of principals in Middlesbrough, and the surrounding area, warned they are already facing high levels of post-16 competition and called for more investment in existing providers.
The news of Eton’s sixth forms comes after sector leaders expressed concerns that government plans to introduce “elite” sixth forms as part of its levelling-up agenda into areas with “weak” education outcomes could put pressure on existing provision.
Francis said Oldham needs organisations like Eton who see their core business as part of a “bigger jigsaw puzzle and who are willing to engage in the wider challenges of levelling up”.
Eton College and Star Academies intend to bid in the next wave of the Department for Education’s free schools programme, with a view to welcoming their first students as soon as 2025.
The colleges would admit 240 students per year and will offer many of the educational and co-curricular opportunities available at Eton, including “knowledge-rich teaching from subject-specialists; access to talks, academic essay prizes and debate clubs; Oxbridge-style tutorial sessions and the chance to learn Latin”.
A spokesperson from Eton told FE Week that should their bids be successful, the new colleges will not be highly selective.
“They will be sixth form colleges, which are, by their very nature, selective. They will be 16-to-19 colleges with specific criteria for admission – just like pretty much all 16-to19 colleges and sixth forms in the country.
“The admissions policies at these new colleges will not be designed to be exclusionary – they will be designed to ensure that the young people we admit are suited to the kind of academic curriculum and pedagogy we are designing.”
The spokesperson confirmed that students would not be required to take special entry examinations.
Putting pressure on existing providers
While Eton claimed its new sixth forms would not disrupt the existing pattern of local post-16 education, a group of principals of colleges including Stockton Sixth Form, Prior Pursglove Colleges, Middlesbrough College, Hartlepool College, Darlington College, Stockton Riverside College and Redcar and Cleveland College issued a joint statement to FE Week expressing some concern at the plans.
“We are aware that Star Academies and Eton College plan to bid through the ‘free school’ process to develop a new sixth form in Middlesbrough,” the principals said.
“We would hope that the free school assessment process will take into account the quality and high progression rates of existing post-16 providers as well as the conclusions of the local area review carried out in 2016 which highlighted poor key stage 4 outcomes and high levels of post-16 competition already in existence across the Tees Valley.”
The principals cited the fact that 19 school sixth forms and seven colleges were highlighted as offering A-levels to a population of less than 700,000.
“We would collectively welcome any additional investment in the existing A-level provider network across the Tees Valley to support our current ‘raising aspirations’ programmes as part of the levelling-up agenda,” they said.
A spokesperson for Dudley College of Technology said the college is waiting for discussions with elected officers at the council and Star Academies to “fully understand the proposition and to gauge its impact on the communities the college serves”.
The idea that Eton’s new colleges would not disrupt the existing pattern of local post-16 education was challenged by Sam Freedman, an ex-government adviser now at Ark Schools.
He told FE Week that if you open a selective institution at any age group, anywhere, you will “suck out the young people who have got the best grades from other institutions”.
“That just has to happen by definition. And it will have a negative effect on those institutions,” he said.
“It’s great to have Eton contributing more to the state sector. They’ve got a lot of expertise and a lot of money. But I’d much rather see them try and run a sixth form or a school that was inclusive.”